Mohammad Zahoor, only the second owner in the Kyiv Post’s nearly 23-year history, has decided to sell the newspaper to Adnan Kivan, an Odesa multi-millionaire businessman and native of Syria.
Zahoor told the Kyiv Post about 6:30 pm. on March 21 that Kivan, 56, will pay “much higher than” $3.5 million for the newspaper, but would not disclose the exact sales price. Zahoor said he expects the sale to be finalized by April 1. He said that Kivan has already transferred “a substantial’ advance payment and the publisher is “100 percent” that the sale will go through.
“To me, it’s a done deal,” he said.
Zahoor, a native of Pakistan and United Kingdom citizen who made his fortune in the steel industry, bought the Kyiv Post in 2009 from its original owner, American Jed Sunden, for $1.1 million.
Kivan could not be immediately reached.
Zahoor said that Kivan approached him about buying the Kyiv Post after hearing that it was for sale. Zahoor also had meetings with other potential buyers but has publicly and privately stated that he would not sell to anybody who would destroy the newspaper or its history of editorial independence.
He said that Kivan assured him that he values the Kyiv Post’s journalistic independence, but reserves the right to hire his own team of journalists and other staff. He said that Kivan will meet with the Kyiv Post employees after the close of the sale to talk about the newspaper’s future.
After meeting him once about two weeks ago, Zahoor said he is convinced that Kivan is not “fronting” for any politician in Ukraine and intends to invest more into the Kyiv Post and run it as part of his growing media empire. Zahoor said that Kivan has had legal run-ins with governmental authorities and understands the value of a newspaper where journalists decide what is news.
“He thinks about the Kyiv Post as a No. 1 brand. Also, this is a window of the world to Ukraine and has a big readership among the local expats,” Zahoor said.
No change in strategy
In the discussion with Kivan, Zahoor said he told him that “we want this thing to be run as an independent newspaper. As far as I know, it will still keep working as an independent newspaper. He told that he doesn’t want to change anything in the strategy of the Kyiv Post.”
As for editorial coverage, Zahoor said he wants the newspaper’s journalists “to highlight the Syrian problem in Ukraine, which is not very much highlighted.” Otherwise, he said, Kivan is “non-partisan and has no relationship with” any politicians, although in his conversation with Kivan Zahoor detected “a soft corner for Yulia Tymoshenko. It doesn’t mean he’s somewhere close to her, however.”
“As far as we know, he is one of the biggest businessmen in Odesa, if not the biggest businessman,” He owns a construction company there. He’s a very reputable businessman there; he owns a TV station there as well. He wants to grow his media business, unlike I did. I owned the Kyiv Post purely as a community service; not as a core business. To him, the Kyiv Post will be part of his expansion into media. He’s building a TV studio here as well in Kyiv.”
Zahoor estimates he’s spent “at least $5 million” on the Kyiv Post, which was in dire financial condition when he made the purchase from Sunden in 2009, during a global financial crisis. He got the impression Kivan is willing to invest even more and take a hands-on approach to managing the newspaper.
Zahoor also had discussions recently with Tomas Fiala, CEO of Dragon Capital and owner of Novoye Vremya magazine and radio station about buying the Kyiv Post. Fiala told the Kyiv Post that he found Zahoor’s asking price too high.
Zahoor has, however, fended off multiple offers from buyers fronting for politicians who wanted to buy the Kyiv Post to destroy it or end its editorial independence. The Kyiv Post has frequently written critical opinions and conducted tough investigations of oligarchs and politicians.
Zahoor has publicly stated repeatedly he would never sell to an owner who meant harm for the Kyiv Post. Besides making considerable financial investments in the newspaper, the publisher has had to defend the newspaper’s independence many times.
In 2011, President Viktor Yanukovych’s agriculture minister, Mykola Prysazhnyuk, tried to force Zahoor to stop publication of an interview that implicated the now-fugitive Prysazhnyuk in corruption schemes involving the grain trade. That same year, billionaire oligarch Dmytro Firtash — now in exile fighting U.S. corruption charges — sued the Kyiv Post in the U.K for libel after a 2010 story about corruption in Ukraine’s natural gas sector. A London court dismissed the claim.
Additionally, Zahoor said, Firtash and Yanukovych front-man Sergei Kurchenko also attempted to buy the Kyiv Post, but he refused. More recently, Zahoor said that people he suspected as fronts for President Petro Poroshenko approached him about buying the newspaper, but he told them he wasn’t interested in selling to them.
‘Like a father’
Zahoor said he has always looked on the Kyiv Post “like a father” looks upon his child, but the time came for him to sell after nine years.
“I feel like you raise your daughter and she gets married and she moves to somebody else’s house. To me it looks like that thing. I always cared about the Kyiv Post like a father. I didn’t want it to go somewhere (bad). My daughter should go to a respectable and reputable family. As far as I think and as far as my investigation goes, this is how it is.”
Zahoor, however, admitted that he doesn’t know what the new owner will do with the Kyiv Post.
“Under his leadership, the Kyiv Post may go places,” the publisher said.
But he also made an analogy with a steel mill he owned in Donetsk, invested in substantially to modernize and sold in 2008 for $1 billion at the peak of the market, as it turned out. Then, he noted, a year later, steel prices tumbled and the new owner declared bankruptcy.
“I brought it from a dying steel mill and sold it to a Russian parliamentarian. Within a year, the mill went bankrupt,” Zahoor said. “I cannot guarantee how he is going to run it. I hope he should run it much better and more hands-on unlike myself. It could even be better.”
But there are, as he said, no guarantees for the newspaper or its staff.
“It all depends on whether they are capable of running it, how far they will go to support their editorial team. I went miles for that. I told him that the team I have got is a very good team. As an owner, as a future owner, he told that he should have the right to pick the team. He would listen to the team, talk to the team, he has the right to pick the team.
Kivan, 56, is a Ukrainian businessman of Syrian origin. His businesses are focused in Ukraine’s southern port city of Odesa. He is best known for his many development projects in Odesa.
Kivan’s net worth was calculated as $95 million by Ukrainian Forbes magazine in 2012. In 2016, his construction company Kadorr Group was reportedly worth around $1 billion, according to Odesa media. The company built around 30 residential and commercial buildings at the prime locations in Odesa, including on the shoreline.
Kivan had troubles with the law in 2017.
The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) accused Kivan of financing of the Russian-backed separatists that have been fighting Ukraine’s government forces in the Donbas. Kivan called the accusations “nonsense.”
The SBU searched Kivan’s company’s offices in November, seizing millions of hryvnia in cash.
SBU spokeswoman Olena Gitlyanska couldn’t immediately tell where the investigation is now.
At the same time, several members of parliament filed complaints claiming that the city authorities allocated land for Kivan’s development projects in an unfair way.
In October, Odesa media reported that Kivan fled Ukraine.
In Odesa, Kivan owns a local TV station, Channel 7. It’s one of the biggest TV stations in the city. In 2017, chief editor Anna Kravtsova said the TV Channel is supporting quotas for the Ukrainian language.
He has also an associated Ukrainian Information Service website (usionline.com), according to the Institute Mass Information think tank.
Kivan also financed the construction of Arab Cultural Center in Odesa that opened in June 2001 as “a gift to Odesa citizens.”
According to several sources who spoke on condition of confidentiality because they were not authorized to speak to the press, Kivan used to finance ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili when he was the governor of Odesa Oblast in 2015 to 2016.
Kivan’s Channel 7 is highly critical of the city authorities and has no specific editorial policy on national authorities, Vitaly Ustymenko, head of the AutoMaidan civil-society group’s Odesa branch, told the Kyiv Post. Ustymenko accused Kivan of launching numerous illegal construction projects jointly with Odesa Mayor Gennady Trukhanov before 2015, when Trukhanov and Kivan fell out. Currently, Kivan and Trukhanov are political enemies, he added. Currently, Kivan is not directly connected to any major political groups in Odesa or nationwide, Ustymenko said.
Kyiv Post’s reputation
Kyiv Post chief editor Brian Bonner, who has held the post since 2008, said that he hopes the new owner will maintain the Kyiv Post’s traditional editorial independence.
“In fact, knowing the community the way I know it — the readers, the subscribers, the advertisers — I don’t think they will support or read a newspaper whose journalists are censored or who are told by the owner what to write and what not to write. The reason that the Kyiv Post has been successful for so long is that we have earned extraordinary trust for our honest, fair, independent, hard-hitting reporting and our fearless opinions. We make our mistakes and have our biases, but they are honest mistakes and honest biases which we try very hard to correct.”
While Bonner said it was common knowledge that Zahoor had been looking to sell the Kyiv Post for some time, neither he nor the staff had any advanced warning about the Kivan deal. Bonner learned of the sale in a telephone conversation with Zahoor about 6:30 p.m. on March 21, after Zahoor returned to Kyiv from a Florida trip with his family.