Thursday

13th Dec 2018

Feature

Controversial ventures pose questions for Euronews

  • Euronews new HQ in Lyon. The channel could soon be in private hands (Photo: Roland Halbe)

New ventures with a controversial Ukrainian oligarch and an Egyptian politician pose questions about Euronews’ independence and European identity.

The multi-language broadcaster, based in Lyon, France, which received €25 million of EU money last year, announced the deal with Ukrainian tycoon Dmytro Firtash earlier this month.

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  • Firtash is the new Euronews operator in Ukraine (Photo: Dmytro Firtash)

It said Firtash’s Inter Media Group (IMG) will take over from Ukrainian state TV company NTU to air its Ukrainian programmes, in a decision which upset some Euronews reporters.

The 49-year old banking, gas, and chemicals billionaire has close ties to the Kremlin and, according to leaked US diplomatic cables, to the Russian mafia.

He’s currently under house arrest in Austria pending US extradition proceedings on bribery charges. But he’s also an opportunist - another one of his new projects is a Ukraine investment fund with links to EU personalities, such as former German finance minister Peer Steinbrueck.

Firtash's deal with Euronews comes at a time when EU leaders are increasingly concerned about Russian “disinformation” on the Ukraine conflict.

In a sign of how toxic his name is, Euronews staff hung print-outs of his US charge sheet in the Lyon newsroom during the IMG talks.

“Firtash is not formally part of the Russian oligarchy, but he’s very close to Moscow and he was very close to [former Ukraine president Viktor] Yanukovych”, one Euronews journalist told EUobserver.

"He was a kind of business mediator between Ukraine and Russia and he’s been saying a lot of the same bullshit that Russia is saying about Ukraine”, the journalist added, referring to Russian propaganda.

Details of the IMG agreement, which is still being finalised, have also attracted attention.

Euronews, which broadcasts in 13 languages, normally uses the same content in its programmes. But sources with knowledge of the IMG negotiations say Firtash’s firm is to produce 20 percent to 25 percent of Euronews’ Ukrainian material.

The idea is to make it more appealing to a local audience.

But staff are concerned it will give IMG more opportunity to influence editors.

A second Euronews journalist said IMG’s flagship, Inter Channel, tries to arm-twist its partners by limiting access to its studio and broadcast equipment.

"Inter is notorious for using media for political aims. They could just say: 'Use our images and commentary, it will be simpler for you', and by doing so influence our content”.

Why Firtash?

For its part, Ukraine’s audiovisual authority last week revoked Euronews’ license.

It cited technical and financial reasons related to the Euronews-NTU contract, which, it said, is no longer viable due to an €11 million debt owed by the Ukrainian firm.

It remains to be seen whether Euronews-Firtash will get a new licence or whether Euronews will have to suspend output.

A Euronews spokesperson said: “This is normal procedure … NTU is not the Euronews operator anymore. Its license is revoked. IMG will soon file for a licence”.

But the situation poses the question: Why did Euronews pick such a controversial partner?

One of the Euronews journalists said: “There wasn’t much choice if Euronews wanted to stay in Ukraine … [Euronews directors] had the chance to get money, they used that chance”.

A Euronews trade union contact voiced criticism over lack of transparency, however. “Consultation before the agreement was announced was a bit quick”, the source told this website.

Euronews, NTU, and Firtash’s IMG, in any case, have personal links.

Back in 2010, when Euronews signed the agreement with NTU, the Ukrainian firm was led by Egor Benkendorf and his deputy was Walid Arfush.

Both in their time served Viktor Yanukovych. Benkendorf produced a slushy film on the then president’s 60th birthday, while Arfush was a press officer on Yanukovych’s election campaign prior to joining NTU.

Benkendorf is now head of IMG’s Inter Channel and Arfush is Euronews’ development manager for the former-Soviet region.

Egyptian venture

The Firtash venture comes at a time when Euronews is preparing to sell overall control to an Egyptian billionaire.

On 26 February, it said it is in exclusive talks with Naguib Sawiris for a €35 million capital injection in return for a 53 percent stake.

The 60-year old Copt is Egypt’s third richest man, with a personal fortune of some $3 billion. He is chairman of the Orascom telecom group, Egypt’s largest private employer, and owns two Egyptian TV channels, ONTV and ONTV Live.

He’s also a politician. He’s a vocal critic of the Muslim Brotherhood. He founded the Free Egyptians party and he’s considered a future rival of Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

The deal, which should be finalised by the end of April, is to give Euronews more resources for digital broadcasting.

It comes as a relief to staff, who had been warned of a potential 30 percent to 40 percent cut in the budget if no investor came forward.

The firm recently spent money on new multimedia content and mobile applications, including on Google Glasses, built a new HQ, and is about to launch AfricaNews, a pan-African channel.

But its management told employees it got into “a not-so brilliant economic situation because of the [European economic] crisis, a fall in advertisement revenue, and the multiplication of competitors”.

More questions

For all the relief, the Sawiris takeover poses more questions for Euronews’ independence and its European identity.

It also means a private individual will get control for just €10 million more than the European Commission gives it in EU taxpayers’ money in one year.

Euronews was created in 1993 by the European Broadcasting Union, a Geneva-based body, in order to have a European alternative to US broadcaster CNN.

It’s currently owned by 21 national, mainly public, European countries’ channels and three local communities in the Lyon area.

It has a €74 million a year budget, of which the commission pays €25 million.

The Euronews trade unionist said: “We had frank discussions with the directors about whether Euronews will remain European, independent, and autonomous. We'll be very watchful".

A Euronews spokesperson noted that "Euronews will remain what it has always been: an international news channel with a European point of view and a channel addressing European citizens”.

She added: “In many parts of the world we are considered as an alternative to Anglo-Saxon or Arab channels”.

The firm has promised new governance structures to give its European shareholders a veto on some decisions. It’s also considering a newsroom vote on the nomination of the new managing editor.

Juncker’s remarks

When asked about its future at an EU summit last Friday (20 March), commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker joked that he’s "an expert on Euronews" and that he watches it all night long in his hotel room.

EU leaders, one day earlier, had said there is a “need to challenge Russia's ongoing disinformation campaign” and tasked the EU foreign service with drawing up an action plan by June.

One idea is to help independent broadcasters, such as Euronews, to reach Russian and Ukrainian speakers.

But Juncker ruled out commission control. “I’m very much against the idea that we establish the line to be taken by Euronews and that’s certainly not in the spirit of broadcasting freedom”, he said.

Sources say EU officials were notified about the Firtash and Sawiris ventures in advance.

But officials also note that the commission, despite its €25 million a year contribution, is not a Euronews shareholder and has no say in company affairs. A commission spokeswoman told EUobserver by email it “does not have a role in investment decisions".

It hasn’t yet decided how much money it will allocate for 2015.

Its agreement with Euronews is reviewed every year and it could, in theory, decide not to renew funding.

The spokeswoman made no explicit link between editorial independence and future money. But she noted that “the European Commission is bound by all legal agreements with Euronews including a binding charter on editorial independence".

Referring to the EU leaders’ decision on countering Russian propaganda, she added that “ideas on how to further strengthen the editorial independence of Euronews could be part of [the] debate”.

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