Power of TV still rules Ukrainian politics, presidential election shows

An announcement of the series Sluha Narodu by the 1+1 TV channel. Photo: 1plus1.ua 

Politics

Most Ukrainians get their information from TV, which, as this presidential election has shown, rarely plays by the rules. This means that to a great extent, Ukrainian politics is in the hands of TV channels, no matter whether it is election time or not, while the political landscape remains devoid of any true meaning.

Independent media is one of the most important components of democracy, especially during the election period, when the journalists are called to help voters make the right choice. However, that is not how things work in Ukraine. For many years, TV remains the main source of information for Ukrainians and the main influencer during elections. During the elections, nationwide channels started behaving like football fans on a game, shouting out support for their candidate and booing their opponent. This campaign was special because entertaining shows entered the scene, which previously included only news and political talk-shows. The trend was obvious, but not regulated. And it is now under scrutiny because of the winner of the elections, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Officially, candidates should pay for campaign materials during the election period from their party funds. There is also a prohibition on campaigning in the news. As well the law stresses that the coverage should be balanced, impartial, and objective. However, candidates’ unofficial affiliation with channel owners allowed them to not limit themselves by these provisions.

Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelenskyy set a precedent for election campaigns in the country and raised the question of what can and what can’t be called a campaign. Numerous entertainment shows of his 95 Kvartal Studio were broadcast by one of the most popular TV channels during the pre-election period, 1+1. Some would call it a pure campaign; however, this has not been proven legally.

On 20 May, the inauguration, Zelenskyy took the oath placing his hand on the Constitution and the Peresopnytsia Gospel.

Screenshot from the broadcast of the inauguration ceremony

But he already did this three months ago, when the last season of the Servant of the People (Sluha Narodu) TV series was filmed. There, he played history teacher Vasyl Holoborodko who became president. In the third season, for the second time. The episode with the oath was broadcast just a few days before the first round. The shows of Zelenskyy’s Kvartal 95 studio were also broadcast during the whole evenings of the “days of silence” before the voting day in the first and the second rounds, when campaigning must cease.

Zelenskyy, playing teacher Vasyl Holoborodko, being “sworn in” as president in the last series of “Servant of the People.” Screenshot from the series

Zelenskyy’s campaign in social media was creative and innovative in terms of Ukraine’s elections – each stage in the campaign was maximized for engagement. However, experts say it wasn’t social media that led him to victory. The Center for Content-Analysis explored the campaigns of both, Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelenskyy in social media before the second round in their report.

“Supporters of both candidates published an almost equal amount of posts – the proportion (50:49) differs dramatically from the voting results (24:73). This refutes two stereotypes about the role of social media in the current campaign. First, social media discussions had by far not the key influence on the result. And Zelenskyy’s 73% can be explained first of all by TV, not online influence,” says Artem Zakharchenko, the Head of the Center for Content Analysis.

As mentioned, TV remains the main source of news for Ukrainians. According to the research of Kyiv International Institute of Sociology on behalf of the media watchdog Detector Media, in February 2019 the number of people who get their news primarily from TV fell by 12% compared to the previous year. Nevertheless, this amount is still at a dramatic 74%.

According to monitoring carried out by the Commission on Journalism Ethics, the Platform on Human Rights, the Ukrainian Media Development Institute, and StopFake with the support of the Council of Europe, prior to the second round Zelenskyy didn’t get the most news coverage of the channels. Petro Poroshenko did.

The monitoring revealed that Zelenskyy’s team made a conscious choice for their candidate to avoid TV broadcasts. Zelenskyy himself did not answer journalists’ requests for communication, which appeared because his position on key aspects remained unclear. It was mostly members of his teams who communicated with journalists, sometimes voicing contradicting messages.

“In these circumstances, the media rather played the role of re-broadcasting [the messages],” said Olha Yurkova, StopFake co-founder.

Between the first and the second round of elections, Zelenskyy gave only one proper interview (big and touching  a large range of questions) to a journalist from RBK Ukrayina who won the right during a ping pong game with the candidate.

Zelenskyy’s main TV appearances were in entertainment shows. Before the second round, the National Council on TV and Radio Broadcasting, a media regulator, voiced the data – between 31 January and 31 March 2019, the Council registered his presence in entertainment shows of Kvartal 95, which include the famous TV series “Servant of the people.” Their total duration was 203 hours and 35 minutes, which equals 14% of the total airtime on oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi’s 1+1 channel.

Even before the pre-election premiere of the third season of the Servant of the People, this raised heated discussions on whether Kvartal 95 programs could be considered a campaign. The main argument against went that Zelenskyy was involved in his professional activity in them – he was an entertaining actor, not a candidate.

“The Law on the Presidential Election says clearly that broadcasting of films is a form of campaign. Moreover, if talking about the series ‘Servant of the People,’ the name is similar to the name of the political party, which is a subject of the election process and which nominated Zelenskyy for president. So there can’t be ambivalent interpretations, suggestions. According to our expert conclusion, we consider it a campaign and insist that the video pictures with the participation of the candidate should have been paid from the election fund,” said Oleksiy Koshel, the head of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine.

Other political experts noted that not only Zelenskyy should have been evaluated in this regard, but also Poroshenko, who used his status of the president for campaigning.

Since the first round, the main channels friendly to Poroshenko were his 5th Kanal and Priamyi, which was unofficially considered to be affiliated with him. For example, the monitoring of the National Council on TV and Radio Broadcasting of the last pre-election period, from 15 April to 21 April, said a number of programs of the 5th Kanal covered only activities of Poroshenko, and they were all positive.

The time dedicated to each candidate in news programs was unbalanced as well. The week before the elections, Poroshenko and his team were present in the news for 1 hour and 37 minutes, while Zelenskyy and his team – for 38 minutes. From 15 April to 21 April, Priamyi channel broadcast 4 hours and 43 minutes of coverage of Zelenskyy, while critical information about Poroshenko was absent. However, Poroshenko received disproportionately negative coverage from the 1+1 channel.

Such coverage violates the Ukrainian legislature for presidential elections, which requires channels to be unbiased towards candidates and stick to the principles of objectivity, impartiality, balance, reliability, completeness, and accuracy of information.

Not only 1+1, 5 Kanal, and Priamyi have been accused in violating the provisions. In the first round, all the main TV channels had their preferences, which were revealed by monitorings conducted by different organizations.

Another way Ukrainian channels neglected the principles of fair play was by airing “jeansa,” or hidden political advertising disguised as balanced coverage.

“Unfortunately, media don’t work as journalists now. What they are doing now is called informational services for politicians. This is very far from the real meaning of journalism,” said Olha Herasymiuk, deputy head of the National Council to summarize the election coverage.

But there was one exception to the total disregard for media standards. UA:Pershyi, the main channel of the Public Broadcaster was the only nationwide channel where experts showed no signs of hidden campaigning. However, the Broadcasters audience reach is meager compared to the main nationwide channels owned by oligarchs.

Officially, before the first round, all the candidates spent 1bn ($41,7 mn) for advertising on national TV channels. But in reality, these numbers are thought to be larger, if hidden campaigns are included. As well, agreements between the TV channels owners and candidates remain unclear.

This goes to show that in Ukraine, a candidate or a political force can’t expect to gain votes without the power of TV. For a number of candidates, this presidential race was just about gaining votes via TV campaigning for the future parliamentary elections which now will take place even earlier – on 21 July. It is expected that the coverage of parliamentary elections, as well as presidential, will be imbalanced, emotional, unobjective, and not the one which would help a voter to make a conscious choice. To a great extent, Ukrainian politics is in the hands of TV channels, no matter whether it is election time or not, while the political landscape remains devoid of any true meaning.

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