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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Altimo Accused of Buying Bad Press

For MTTelecoms firms Telenor and Altimo have been struggling for control of cell phone operators Kyivstar and VimpelCom.
Telenor, the Norwegian cell phone company, said Tuesday that Alfa Group's Altimo paid journalists in Ukraine to publish negative articles about Telenor in the midst of a business dispute.

Altimo denied the accusation in a statement Tuesday, saying documents Telenor distributed to journalists to support the assertion were forgeries.

The documents, including a spreadsheet of payments to Ukrainian newspapers, were also filed as supporting evidence in an arbitration process in New York as part of a wider legal dispute between the Norwegian and Russian companies.

Telenor, the Nordic region's biggest telecom company, and Altimo, a major player in the former Soviet Union, are struggling for control of two large assets -- Kyivstar, Ukraine's largest cell phone operator, and VimpelCom, Russia's largest telecommunications company after Mobile TeleSystems. Altimo is a subsidiary of the Alfa Group Consortium, controlled by Mikhail Fridman.

The companies divided ownership of Kyivstar and VimpelCom in a 2004 partnership that has unraveled into lawsuits in Ukraine, Russia and the United States.

Telenor distributed Tuesday what it said were internal Altimo planning documents that show the budgeting and execution of a publicity campaign that involved surreptitious payments to journalists.

The effort was intended to discredit Telenor in Ukraine, said Kjell-Morten Johnsen, Telenor's vice president for Central and Eastern Europe.

Johnsen said Telenor obtained the documents from a person familiar with Altimo's business who wished to remain anonymous. Johnsen said the documents were genuine.

One document distributed by Telenor, titled, "Logical Rationale for the Information Campaign Under the Kyivstar Contract," said any attack on Telenor must be preceded by an effort to undermine the image of Norwegian business generally.

"In order to break the existing stereotype whereby Western business and, in particular, Norwegian business, always 'plays fair,' an information wave" of negative publicity should be started, the document said.

It suggested planting articles saying Telenor used double standards -- obeying Western courts but disrespecting Ukrainian law. The document said such claims of disrespect would resonate with rising nationalism in Ukraine after the 2004 Orange Revolution.

Elsa Vidal, a specialist on former Soviet countries at Reporters Without Borders, a journalists' group in Paris, said planted articles were commonplace in the region.

"Almost all companies pay money to newspapers to write about how good their products are," rather than place advertising, she said. "You can find the same articles in two newspapers sometimes."

Planted articles are commonly found in relation to business disputes and during political campaigns, she said.