Ukraine drew rare Western anger yesterday (5 September) after the studio of one of its most popular TV channels was set ablaze by protesters unhappy with its alleged support for Russia.
The incident in the ex-Soviet nation highlights what critics warn is Kyiv’s pro-Western leadership’s increasing intolerance of opposing political views.
“Any physical attack on the media is unacceptable,” the US embassy in Kyiv tweeted on its official account.
“We support thorough investigation into arson at Inter, are following closely”, it said.
Inter TV has been the frequent subject of controversy and came close to having its licence stripped in 2015 for airing a live New Year’s Eve celebration from Moscow.
It claims to have Ukraine’s largest audience, with an editorial policy reportedly drawn by the former head of the administration of ousted Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych.
The latest attack on Sunday saw a part of Inter’s main studio briefly go up in flames after being surrounded by about 20 Ukrainian nationalists armed with fire bombs and dressed in camouflage fatigues.
The channel was forced to broadcast a part of its news from the street while the flames were being put out.
The nationalist protesters erected a metal fence around Inter’s headquarters Monday that was painted with signs reading “Russia out” – while the police looked on.
They also set up a few tents outside the building as organisers vowed to continue protesting until the channel is pulled off the air.
The broadcaster appealed to Ukraine’s prosecutor general and the interior minister for help.
“Inter demands that the law enforcement authorities take decisive actions aimed at unblocking the channel’s (studio) and restoring law and order,” it said in a statement published on its website.
It was still on air Monday showing its regular mix of movies and entertainment shows.
But Ukrainian leaders decided to take a hard line and attacked Russia instead.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Monday accused the Kremlin of financing “some media … in order to destabilise the political situation in Ukraine.”
“But we should respond to this in a completely legal manner,” he told a meeting of senior security officials.
‘Violence never acceptable’
Ukraine has been widely supported by its Western allies while fighting against a 28-month pro-Russian separatist revolt in its eastern industrial heartland that has claimed nearly 10,000 lives.
But it came under criticism from its foreign supporters and international monitors who are trying to bring an end to one of Europe’s bloodiest conflicts since the 1990s Balkans wars.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) media freedoms representative strongly condemned the attack.
“Violence is never an acceptable response to disagreements with editorial policy, even if the reporting is seen as provocative and controversial,” Dunja Mijatovic said in a statement.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Ukraine 107th out of 180 countries and territories on its World Press Freedom Index this year.
Ukraine has barred broadcasters from airing popular Russian serials as well as Moscow-produced films that Kyiv believes cast its history in a negative light.