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Ukraine’s richest man to reopen his television channels in Europe to avoid restrictions under “oligarch law”

Starting from July 22, the media assets of Ukrainian businessman Rinat Akhmetov will be out of broadcasting licenses. Newspaper headlines make it look like an act of censorship by the Ukrainian president's administration. However, as The Insider learned from representatives of the Ukrainian media market and the management of Akhmetov's group of companies SCM, closing the channels is his own initiative. Akhmetov plans to reopen them in Europe.

On July 11, Rinat Akhmetov announced that Media Group Ukraine had been forced to transfer all of its assets to public ownership. The list of assets includes two of Ukraine’s largest television channels, TRC Ukraina and Ukraina 24. According to Akhmetov, this decision was inspired by the new law “On preventing threats to national security related to excessive influence of persons of considerable economic and political weight in public life (oligarchs)”.

On Thursday, July 21, it became known that the licenses for the holding's television channel, in particular Ukraina and Ukraina 24, had been suspended and the broadcasting would stop on the following day. As Yevgeny Kiselyov, a presenter at Freedom, told The Insider, July 21 was the channel's last day of broadcasting and he was far too busy to provide any comment.

According to an SCM employee, managing television channels is one of the two activities that can earn Akhmetov the status of an “oligarch” in the Ukrainian jurisdiction. The other activity is “influencing the policy-making”. Akhmetov influenced it by having a stake in Metinvest, alongside Vadym Novynskiy, who was a 9th Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) deputy representing the Opposition Block as a party member for the 57th electoral district (Mariupol, Donetsk Region). Novynskiy gave up his mandate on July 6, so Rinat Akhmetov automatically stopped being an oligarch once he abandoned Media Group Ukraine, as our source points out.

“It was a very painful decision. Akhmetov dedicated twenty years to television. He transformed a regional outlet into the nation’s main channel, the most popular and the best, with top-ranking presenters. The key reason why Akhmetov has withdrawn from the media industry is that being listed as an oligarch makes you toxic, non-grata, and deprives your businesses of access to the foreign capital market. That is, we wouldn’t be able to service our debts, loans, Eurobonds, and so on.”

Co-owned by Akhmetov and Novynskiy, Metinvest has profited from its access to the capital market for fifteen years, our source explains. It has received loans from a consortium of international banks and released Eurobonds. “We borrowed huge sums of money abroad – billions of dollars. Now it's down to the company’s survival. You can't take out more loans, can't service or restructure your existing loans, and risk becoming a North Korea of a company in the corporate market.”

According to a former official from former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko’s administration, Akhmetov’s decision to close down his television channels and smaller media was guided primarily by concerns over capital.

“Most likely, he’s made the decision that will keep him afloat. He's lost his business in Mariupol and is low on profits. He is a practical man. He's just had everything taken away from him, so the media group is no longer a priority. It’s not that Zelensky wants to close his channel. It was more profitable for Akhmetov to close it. The channel was faring well, and Ukraina 24 has kept its position in the single television marathon. <The Insider's note: the UARazom television marathon was launched in February 2022 after Russia invaded Ukraine. Akhmetov's channel resumed broadcasting after the businessman announced the nationalization of his assets.> That is, Akhmetov made an arrangement and everything was fine. However, the channel was costing him $1.5 million a month.”

Our interviewee also seconded The Insider's source at SCM about the businessman transferring his media assets to Europe, away from the Ukrainian jurisdiction. The channels have already secured broadcasting licenses in the Baltics and Poland. In fact, Akhmetov has made a dramatic exit, casting a shadow of government censorship over Zelensky.

According to Zurab Alasania, former CEO of the National Public Broadcasting Company, Ukraine has five media groups, give or take, but the war has introduced changes to their operation, bringing them together into a single television marathon and merging their broadcasting plans. Considering that the owners of major media groups are forced to find a middle ground with the authorities, the nation’s largest media are hardly independent. Alasania remarks that free speech in Ukraine is ensured by numerous smaller media outlets. As a result, the closure of major television channels, be it temporary or permanent, will have little impact on the domestic media space.

Alasania also recalled a sudden hoax that spread shortly before Akhmetov's channels were stripped of their licenses. President Zelensky was rumored to have signed a secret directive to deprive businessmen Ihor Kolomoyskyi and Hennadiy Korban of Ukrainian citizenship. At the moment, these two are the most influential figures in the domestic media market. However, Alasania failed to explain what may have been the motivation for this information attack.

“A total hoax, but it did cause a stir in the market,” says Alasania. “It’s a matter of domestic politics, even though so-called ‘Moscow’s hand’ is of course often present. The Russians, the Russian propaganda often make use of available news hooks, which quickly gain traction in Ukraine because Ukrainians are a free people and don't tend to mince words. It's hard to give a more specific answer.”

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