Staff strike at Ukraine's opposition TV after takeover

The staff of Ukraine's only staunchly pro-opposition television channel went on strike Wednesday to protest against a sudden change of ownership that they fear will undermine their ability to air criticism of President Viktor Yanukovych.

TVi television, which has broadcasted since 2008, is the only channel in Ukraine to delve deep into the country's most sensitive issues, including investigations into high-level corruption and officials' hidden fortunes and tax evasion.

But it was airing home-shopping programmes on Wednesday after presenters and other staff declared a high-profile strike.

Journalists in a statement called for "non-interference in the channel's activities and an end to the incidences of censorship that have already happened on TVi".

The strike began Tuesday after the channel's press service announced that Ukrainian-born American businessman Alexander Altman had gained ownership of the channel.

Previously the channel was owned by two men known as vehement critics of the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin: Konstantin Kagalovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky.

Kagalovsky is a former associate of jailed oil magnate and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Gusinsky is a former Russian media baron and founder of the once-opposition-minded Russian channel NTV. Facing fraud charges in Russia, he now lives in Israel.

Kagalovsky at a press conference accused Altman, who has acted as his business partner in other projects, of conducting an illegal corporate raid on TVi, although the circumstances of the takeover remain unclear.

The takeover was "a raiders' seizure", Kagalovsky said, claiming that Altman had not signed any documents.

"Swindlers like Altman... want to gain control over the television channel today and then sell it on to someone who will close the channel or turn it into a music channel," Kagalovsky said.

Altman has insisted that the channel will continue to provide objective news coverage.

He told the channel's journalists: "My main task is to preserve the television channel as one of the objective sources of information in Ukraine."

President Yanukovych, who comes from Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, has taken a more conciliatory stance to Russia than his predecessor, the pro-European Union leader of the Orange Revolution Viktor Yushchenko.

The government is currently suffering a crisis in relations with the EU over the jailing of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko on charges she says are politically motivated.