KIEV, UKRAINE — KIEV, Ukraine -- The television station named 5th Channel found a new source of programming last month that attracted a new, larger audience, including the president of Ukraine, Leonid D. Kuchma.
Until the country's disputed presidential run-off election, the 5th Channel was ranked 13th in the country's television ratings. But the morning after the vote, as thousands of protesters flooded the streets of central Kiev, the station began live broadcasts of the demonstrations.
Its broadcasts continued for the next 200 hours and became the voice of the opposition. Its images were fed directly to huge television screens set up in Independence Square. Events began slipping out of Kuchma's control.
The president, three days after the protests and broadcasts began, accused the station of "laying the groundwork for a coup d'etat." The chairman of the National Council of Television and Radio threatened to yank the station off the air.
But by then it was too late to shut down the 5th Channel.
A sizable portion of the country was watching it, including the protesters demonstrating in Independence Square in favor of the opposition candidate for president, Viktor Yushchenko. The station's ranking in the ratings had risen to three from 13. The government couldn't act. "They didn't dare to do it," said Andrei Shevchenko, the station's 28-year-old news director.
The protesters' success, however, is not assured. Ukraine's Supreme Court invalidated the Nov. 21 presidential election Friday and ordered that a new one be held by Dec. 26. But the country's parliament adjourned yesterday for 10 days without passing the bills necessary for the vote to happen.
No matter how the standoff is resolved, many here say, the news media will play a major role, and no outlet has been more influential in Ukraine's political transformation than the 5th Channel.
Pavel Klimenko, 42, manager of a plastics factory, lives in Kuchma's hometown north of Kiev -- a center of government support sentiment -- but described the 5th Channel's election coverage as more balanced than any other station's. That more than anything, he said, proved critical to undermining Kuchma's preferred candidate, Prime Minister Yanukovych.
'They told the truth'
"They told the truth on the 5th Channel," Klimenko said. "Those who could watch it had more information. And, I think it was more interesting for them to judge about the situation, as they could see representatives of both sides. The people who work there are real heroes, because they express the interests of the people."
After the Soviet Union's demise in 1991, many former Soviet politicians kept their hold on power in newly independent states, including Ukraine. To survive, those rulers have tried to prevent the growth of strong political opposition, limited the development of an independent judiciary and restricted the work of outside nonprofit groups pushing for reforms.
They have also kept tight government control of television news.
Shevchenko, the 5th Channel's news director, worked two years ago as a news anchor at Novy, one of three major television channels controlled by Viktor Pinchuk, the son-in-law of the president. The government had exerted pressure on broadcasters for years. But on Aug. 24, 2002, Ukrainian Independence Day, something new appeared.
Novy received an unsigned fax about coverage of the annual Independence Day parade through downtown Kiev. "Please say this was done in a European style," the fax instructed. (In former Soviet states, the term suggests high quality rather than any specific style.) "Everyone was laughing at that," Shevchenko recalled.
But that night, he turned on his television to watch the competition. And he was stunned. All three reports on the parade began with roughly these words: "This year's celebration of Independence Day was held in a European style."
It seemed trivial. But within a month, the government directives became more detailed and more overtly political.
The directives came to be known as "temniki," or themes. "This topic is very important," one of the messages might stipulate. "Please pay as much attention as you can to it." Reporters who included sound bites from government critics in these stories were sometimes fired.
No one knows who wrote the temniki. But they first appeared after Kuchma appointed Viktor Medvedchuk as his chief of staff. Reporters here suspect that Medvedchuk drafted them daily with the help of Russian media consultants.
In the beginning, the directives only affected television coverage of events in Ukraine. Eventually, though, the temniki also limited what television journalists could say about international affairs.
By the time he left Novy, Shevchenko said, the station was receiving up to 10 temniki a day, consisting of almost 40 pages of instructions. They touched on the wording of the news and the images that could be broadcast. "When you're filming a parliamentary session," said 5th Channel cameraman Sergei Klimenko, "you can show the deputy in a nice way, or in a way that is not so nice."
The system was sinister and effective. A month before this year's presidential elections, the coalition in parliament supporting the president broke apart when two parties withdrew. It was a major political development. Not one of Ukraine's national television channels mentioned the event.
For Ukrainian journalists, it was humiliating to work under such tight restrictions. About a year after the broadcast restrictions began, Shevchenko left Novy.
He joined other disaffected journalists who decided to try to launch their own network. They approached Petro Poroshenko, who became wealthy from candy manufacturing and shipbuilding. He was also a supporter of Yushchenko.
The journalists proposed a deal. If Poroshenko would arrange the financing, the journalists would launch a new television channel that they promised would broadcast honest, balanced news. They did not promise to promote Yuschenko's campaign for president and said they would not flinch from reporting on wrongdoing by his friends. But the promise of honest reporting meant that Yushchenko would at least be mentioned in the broadcasts. Other stations usually ignored him.
Poroshenko agreed. The journalists bought two small regional television stations and merged them to create TV5. They also applied for additional broadcast licenses; when the government refused to issue them, they turned to cable operators instead. The station now reaches about a third of Ukraine.
The station occupies the 11th floor of an office building. It has two blue-carpeted studios, each about the size of a suburban living room and overlooking the broad Dnepr River. About 200 people work there, including 10 reporters and six news anchors.
The average age of the staff, executives say, is about 26. Many staff members divide their time between work and college.
They've have faced enormous challenges. In October, a government supporter in parliament filed a lawsuit against the station, saying he had been libeled because it had broadcast critical comments by another parliament member.
Ordered off the air
In October, the government froze the station's bank accounts 10 days before the first round of the presidential vote, citing the libel case.
Its cable operator in Donetsk, Yanukovich's base in eastern Ukraine, was ordered off the air.
Staff members of the 5th Channel began a hunger strike. To prevent the station from being seized, they also began living in their offices. Every half-hour, haggard journalists would broadcast reports on the efforts to shut the station down.
Perhaps because the government was embarrassed by the bad publicity, the courts unfroze the bank accounts. The Donetsk cable license was restored, pending a resolution of the libel case in court.
The largest drama came after the disputed presidential run-off. Other channels ignored the protests filling the streets of the capital, or in their broadcasts minimized the size of the crowds. The 5th Channel broadcast 21 newscasts a day; its ratings doubled overnight.
"It was the only channel where people could really learn what was going on," said Ksenia Gotsyk, the 19-year-old public relations manager of the station.
Stations that had broadcast only the usual entertainment programs, or pictures of the burly Yanukovych at rallies, now began showing huge crowds chanting Yuschenko's name.
For the 70 percent of Ukrainians who couldn't watch the 5th Channel, the revolution was finally televised.