Why the West should pay more attention to Ukraine’s media field than ever

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Ukraine

  1. Editor’s Note

    The issues of media ownership and Russian propaganda messaging remain an ongoing concern in Ukraine, with no resolution expected in the near future. If anything, during the first days of the new parliament, it appears the pendulum of free speech has swung in the opposite direction.

What is the political system in Ukraine? Until now, the most telling response has been “oligarchs.” There is no single field where oligarchs do not leave their stamp. Including media. For oligarchs, TV channels serve as a major vehicle of influence, especially in state politics. They cement their hold on power.

The variety of media put out by oligarchs provides viewers with a variety of viewpoints, on a range of topics. If analyzing the entire gamut, the viewer receives more or less relevant information.

In general, most channels stick to a pro-Ukrainian and pro-European stance. Even those with a pro-Russian inclination mostly promote these messages, if indirectly — at least that has been the case up to now. There have always been exceptions, but with the new parliament coming into power, the danger seems to be that full-on anti-Ukrainian media will receive more support than it has to date, and thus more influence. Other trends in Ukrainian media are also disturbing.

“As our election campaign proved, we communicate with society without journalists,” said Andriy Bohdan, Head of the President’s Office.

This is how Bohdan commented on the new government’s view of news briefings. Meanwhile, he has willfully manipulated the press at least once in the past. When his resignation letter was (deliberately) leaked to journalists, the content turned out to be only half true. Probably, this dismissal letter was sent to journalists to discredit them. They received it from some source they thought was official and reported on it. Later, Bohdan said that all the employees wrote such letters in case they resign some day. It appears that the point of the leaked letter was to make journalists a laughing stock.

Later, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy offered the same lame excuse that his entire team had drafted similar letters, in the event they were one day needed. Was he masking the attempt by Bohdan to misinform the press? They tried to laugh the whole thing off, until Bohdan’s comment showed his real intentions and demonstrated the new regime’s attitude to the free press.

While boasting about winning elections without journalists, the Head of the President’s Office failed to mention the power that broadcast TV actually did have during the campaign period.

Throughout the race, it was, arguably, Zelenskyy — not yet declared a candidate — who appeared most on TV in the programs which are not informational. He had enormous coverage in the way of entertainment content through his TV show “Servant of the People,” for which he named his party. Exposure through the show certainly didn’t hurt in getting him through the first round of elections and proceeding to the second. Which he readily did.

The National Council on TV and Radio Broadcasting — an independent media regulator — measured candidates’ media exposure prior to the presidential elections. They collected news, entertainment, and other data from 31 January to 31 March 2019. Zelenskyy’s presence in the entertainment shows of Kvartal 95, producer of “Servant of the People,” was notable. The total time was 203 hours and 35 minutes — 14% of the total airtime on Channel 1+1, which coincidentally is owned by oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi. Without his TV show, would Zelensky as a candidate have even survived?

The role of TV channels in shaping the country’s agenda, including foreign policy, is undeniable. TV remains the main source of news for Ukrainians. According to the research of the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, conducted on behalf of the media watchdog Detector Media last February, the number of people who received their news primarily from TV was an astounding 74%.

Who forms the pro-Russian agenda for Ukraine?

Graphic: Hanna Naronina. Click to expand

The way a channel covers events depends on the oligarch who owns it and the affiliated political force. According to Ukrainian legislation, all media have to reveal their beneficiary; i.e., their owner. The affiliated political force is easily recognizable from the content.

Two top nationwide channels are affiliated with pro-Russian political parties. Both broadcast general content, and both often spread pro-Russian messages. The first is TV channel Inter. Among its owners are runaway oligarchs Dmytro Firtash and Serhiy Liovochkin. The latter headed the office of discredited President Viktor Yanukovych. He is also a former MP from the Opposition Bloc, and now an MP under the Opposition Platform for Life, where he was predictably promoted during the elections.

The party attained second-place standing in the new parliament, with 43 out of 422 seats. In Ukraine, it is considered openly pro-Russian.

The second nationwide channel that promotes a pro-Russian political stance is Ukrayina, owned by the country’s wealthiest oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. During the elections, he supported Opposition Bloc, which was not voted into parliament this term. However, Akhmetov’s sympathies are not that simply defined.

In terms of politics, he is not a politician, rather an opportunist. He will benefit where he can, and doesn’t favor any one political force over another. If useful to him, he will partner indiscriminately. Even the pro-Ukrainian former President Petro Poroshenko came under fire for cooperating with Akhmetov. Nonetheless, Opposition Bloc did not rate as the media leader of Ukrayina’s news coverage.

Another key player in the Ukrainian media field is pro-Russian Viktor Medvedchuk, President Vladimir Putin’s close associate in Ukraine, and a leader in Opposition Platform for Life. One of the party’s MPs, Taras Kozak, is considered to be one of Medvedchuk’s inner circle. Kozak recently acquired the information channel ZIK. Together with 112 and NewsOne, he now owns three channels, all of them focused on information broadcasting. With the purchase, ZIK became part of the leading Novyny [News] media holding.

The media movement Media For a Conscious Choice swiftly reacted to the acquisition.

“We consider that concentration of a news resource in the hands of a particular pro-Russian political force will become in fact an instrument of influence, whose aim is to provide support for political forces affiliated with it during the elections. The more threatening fact is that these channels [ZIK, 112 and NewsOne] distribute Russian propaganda, which is the logical continuation of Viktor Mevedchuk’s personal stance who, despite Ukraine’s and the international community’s official position, does not consider Russia as an aggressor.

A few days later, Kozak’s NewsOne caused further controversy when Rossiya-1 — a propagandistic, Russia state-owned TV channel — announced an upcoming teleconference between the people of Ukraine and Russia. Their show, “We Need to Talk,” was to be aired jointly with NewsOne.

The development caused outrage and protests were being planned to take place near the NewsOne building. The following day, NewsOne canceled the broadcast, claiming that threats of violence were made to the channel’s journalists and their families. It should have been obvious to both TV stations, from the outset, that a joint broadcast was not in line with Ukrainian legislation, and was not even a lawful proposition.

In effect, the whole incident appears to have been a Russian provocation to create the pretense of restricted freedom of speech in Ukraine, and to construct a narrative of “victimization” for the political force behind NewsOne.

On 5 September, the National TV and Radio Broadcasting Council of Ukraine sued the channel, asking the court to terminate its license. The council accused NewsOne of inciting national, racial or religious hatred and hate speech, as well as other violations of Ukraine’s legislation, during June to July 2019.

The council itself does not have jurisdiction to cancel NewsOne’s licence. However, to stop any further manipulation, the council stated it would not hesitate to apply their maximum sanction and refer the matter to the courts.

The issues of media ownership and Russian propaganda messaging remain an ongoing concern in Ukraine, with no resolution expected in the near future. If anything, during the first days of the new parliament, it appears the pendulum of free speech has swung in the opposite direction.

Is the Committee on Freedom of Speech, in fact, against it?

The appointment to Head of the Committee on Freedom of Speech has been the most controversial since the new government took hold. Rumours of a candidate began well before the official appointment — word was that Nestor Shufrych, Opposition Platform for Life MP, had been tapped. Ukraine’s media community was stunned and issued the following statement.

“The leaders of this political force [Opposition Platform for Life] were found to use media that was openly controlled by them for the manipulation of public opinion and propaganda, in particular pro-Russian. One of the leaders of Opposition Platform For Life, Viktor Medvedchuk, is known to consistently promote the interests of the Russian aggressor in Ukraine — this is particularly done through manipulation and censorship in media which, in fact, are controlled by him, as numerous media monitorings confirm.”

Nestor Shufrych

Shufrych is a familiar figure, having been in Ukrainian politics since the 1990s. During the Orange Revolution, he was a close crony of the runaway President Viktor Yanukovych, who at that time was opposing pro-western leader Viktor Yushchenko. Shufrych was active in the Yanukovych government and later served as an MP from the pro-Russian Party of Regions.

During the Euromaidan Revolution, in January 2014 Shufrych supported the “dictatorship edicts” of Yanukovych. They were roundly proclaimed to be in violation of legislative law and significantly restricted the civil rights of citizens. After the revolution, Shufrych did not leave the political scene, but was elected as an MP of Opposition Bloc, the successor of the Party of Regions.

Shurfych entered the current parliament as an MP for the Opposition Platform for Life. Not surprisingly, he appears as a frequent guest on channels controlled by pro-Russian Medvedchuk. Despite the many arguments opposing his appointment, Shufrych was eventually named Head of the Committee on Freedom of Speech.

Experts concede that as the second largest party, the quota had to be granted to Opposition Platform for Life. The committee controls state policy on freedom of speech and is required to treat all media fairly. With Shufrych as the head, the greatest apprehension of the media community is that the committee will favor Medvedchuk’s channels.

The first warning sign after the appointment

The concerns have proved to be not in vain. Soon after Shufrych was appointed, alarms bells sounded from the National Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine (UA:PBC). Law enforcement agents from the State Bureau of Investigation were serving search warrants at the homes of the Public Broadcaster’s employees. Shufrych himself appeared at their main office, saying he had come to ensure they were not being harassed by the agents.

The Public Broadcaster released a statement clarifying that they were issued a court order on 1 August 2019, effective for 30 days. The search was inexplicably delayed until the final effective date and then executed in great haste and with reckless disregard for the work of the broadcaster. Agents hurriedly rummaged for documents, USB keys and other materials. They claimed they were searching for evidence of criminal activity relevant to investigations of the officials of PJSC and NSTU.

In their turn, the broadcaster’s statement refutes the claims, labeling them nonsense. The law agents, in particular, were criticized for attempting to intimidate employees by invading their homes.

“We can consider the above-mentioned facts as an attempt to intimidate the heads of the only independent media company of our country that does not belong to any political or business group, and does not serve the interests of the politicians or oligarchs,” says the statement.

The matter was resolved and the searches stopped, and all necessary materials were provided voluntarily with no need for enforcement. Some might call it a tempest in a teapot.

This is not the first aggravation foisted upon the Public Broadcaster since it succeeded the previous provider, the National TV and Radio Company of Ukraine two years ago. The main shortcoming has always been underfunding. Government legislation requires the Public Broadcaster to receive 0.2% of the total national budget, but it never has, leaving it constantly struggling to stay afloat.

Meanwhile, media experts lauded the work of the Public Broadcaster, especially for remaining neutral throughout the election period. They specifically praised them for airing the most politically balanced talk shows, of all 10 channels broadcasting nationwide. Their flagpost channel UA:Pershyi has been recognized as the sole channel nationwide broadcasting that has not aired so-called “jeansa.” Jeansa refers to paid editorial copy and is considered the menace of media. It is one of the main vehicles for manipulating media and undermining democratic principles.

Shufrych is not the only individual influencing the Committee on Freedom of Speech. All members belong to Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People, potentially skewing the committee in favor of party policies.

Other questions relating to media will be considered by Committee on the Information Policy. Oleksandr Tkachenko, former head of the 1+1 TV channel, which continued to carry Zelenskyy’s entertainment shows during the pre-election period, was appointed to head it. In the past, the 1+1 TV was often criticized for attacking President Poroshenko during his administration — its objectivity has always been questionable. In it’s turn 1+1 was blaming the ex-president in attacking the channel aiming to control it.

At the end of the day, the state of Ukrainian media remains much the same. Oligarchs still pull the puppet-strings — although their alignments seem to be changing. If nothing else, the media can always be relied upon to read the tea leaves of state policy directions and, unfortunately, glean what pro-Russian messages could influence that policy.

Edited by: Vidan Clube

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