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Jeansa: vehicle of oligarchs, Ukraine’s largest threat to media freedom

“Jeansa,” or hidden political advertisement, is the main threat to Ukrainian media freedom today. Photo:
Jeansa: vehicle of oligarchs, Ukraine’s largest threat to media freedom
Article by: Olena Makarenko
Edited by: Michael Garrood
Jeansa, the menace of Ukrainian media, is one of the main vehicles for the power of oligarchs in the country – and one of the obstacles to a functioning representative democracy. Thanks to this disguised political advertising, the media – and political – discourses in the country are permanently altered, allowing to propel the “needed” candidates to victory.

Free independent media is a necessary condition for democracy to function in any country. Censorship, on the other hand, is rampant in all its forms in dictatorships. These definitions may be relevant in a black and white world; in reality, there are many more shades of grey. When discussing Ukraine, international organizations quite often “buy” into fake alarm calls regarding pressure on media – like after protests near some TV channels criticized for their pro-Russian position. The real threat, however, comes from another direction.

Despite all difficulties, the last few years has seen Ukraine progress as a democratic country. Thus direct censorship cannot be so very widespread here. But when a stick does not work, there is always the carrot. As making a media self-sufficient in Ukraine is nearly impossible with the overall economic situation, some fall for the temptation of trading their power for the money of oligarchs and politicians.

This material is devoted to a specific widespread phenomenon in Ukrainian media called “jeansa,” which means disguised paid-for material. To understand what it is, let’s take a look at a phenomenon which can be compared to it.

Buying influence from doctors for the interests of pharmaceutical companies is quite a common phenomenon in the world. For example, in 2013 Chinese police said they uncovered over 700 middlemen through which the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline had allegedly been giving money to health officials and doctors in order to prescribe their drugs. Later the company said it would stop paying doctors tens of millions of pounds a year to promote its drugs.

“Influential doctors are paid thousands or tens of thousands of pounds to teach colleagues about which drugs are best,” a doctor commented to the Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre. “I suspect that there are doctors whose lectures aren’t entirely independent.”

Just as doctors have promoted medicine required to treat ordinary patients, some Ukrainian media sell their airtime or space on their pages disguised as news or other useful information. If medicine influences the health of particular people, media materials influence the beliefs of the entire country, which can lead to tragic results. In the case of Ukraine, to war and occupation.

From censorship to jeansa

Pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk used to be the main censor of Ukrainian media before the Orange Revolution. Photo:

It was not always like this. There was also a time where everyday hidden censorship in Ukrainian media ruled.

It was 2001-2004, during the presidency of Leonid Kuchma (now a member of the trilateral group on the implementation of the Minsk agreements), when the so-called “temniki” were popular in Ukrainian media.

The word “temnik” comes from the world “tema” (a topic). “Temniki” were the documents sent to Ukrainian editors with pieces of advice resembling orders on how to cover particular topics or whether to cover them at all. This idea was brought to Ukraine by the Russian political strategist Marat Helman. The idea was employed most of all by the then head of President Kuchma’s administration, Viktor Medvedchuk (now the leader of the pro-Russian political organization ironically named as Ukrayinskyi Vybor (‘Ukrainian Choice’) and also a member of the trilateral group on the implementation of the Minsk Agreements). It appeared during the preparations for the parliamentary election campaign in 2002.

The initial idea foresaw a strategically intelligent promotion of required information. However, those who implemented it in Ukraine overplayed their hands: the existence of temniki leaked out. Ordinary Ukrainian journalists noticed it when the tasks received from their editors started to resemble those of other media editors.

In 2003, Human Rights Watch published its research on this hidden censorship.

“While the formal censorship that existed in Ukraine during the Soviet era ended after the country gained its independence in 1991, informal censorship continues. Media outlets expressing views critical of government officials or other prominent figures have been subject to arbitrary tax inspections, denial and revocation of licenses on technicalities, and crippling libel suits, while individual journalists have faced harassment and physical attacks. This report documents one insidious form of informal censorship: secret instructional memorandums prepared and distributed by the Presidential Administration to top managers and editors of national television stations and some newspapers,” says the report.

It also revealed that temniki required positive coverage for then president Leonid Kuchma, the head of his administration Medvedchuk and the members of the SDPU(o) – Social Democratic Party (united). Negative or ambivalent information about them was minimized or absent. At the same time, the news should present oppositional politicians and parties negatively or ignore them completely.

This phenomenon was first covered in the Ukrainian media by Ukrainska Pravda. The article had a headline “The prince of darkness and temniki” – meaning Medvedchuk.

After the Orange Revolution, the phenomenon ceased to exist in its initial form. However, politicians still needed media influence, so they replaced sticks (the orders) by carrots (the money), which became established in Ukrainian media under the name of jeansa.

However, the person who used temniki for promoting his interests has not disappeared from the political landscape. For example, in 2011 the media watchdog Mediasapience published an article titled “The king of Jeansa, Viktor Medvedchuk.”

Medvedchuk repeatedly appears in the articles exposing jeansa to the present day. However, now the price of its influence has become higher – in terms of the de-facto war in Donbas, it is more than ever a matter of Ukraine’s independence from Russia.

In times when temniki were widespread, Medvedchuk was the main actor using it. With regard to jeansa, there are however many other players.

Jeansa everywhere

Segodnya is one of the leading newspapers in Ukraine. It belongs to the richest oligarch in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov. The newspaper quite often publishes articles praising Akhmetov’s charity foundation. However, the newspaper also has examples of jeansa unrelated to the owner.

The issue of 15 January 2018 carried an article on page 5 with the following introduction: “Due to more frequent cases of rape of young children, the leader of the Radical Party (Oleh Lyashko) demands that a bill brought by him a half year ago on toughening sentences against pedophiles be passed.”

The photo of the article about Liashko (right) in the newspaper Segodnya. Photo: Euromaidan Press
The small text explaining that many of the rubrics in the newspapers are advertisements

The material is published in the rubric Aktualno (relevant). The article has no signs of being a political advertisement. However, it is fair to say that in the last page of the newspaper very small letters say that the following rubrics – “’Advertisement’, ‘Point of View’, ‘Hot Line’, ‘Press Center’, ‘Announcement’, ‘PR’, ‘Partner of the Rubric’, ‘Sponsor of the Rubric’, ‘Financial Market’, ‘Open Letter’, ‘News of the Companies’, ‘News of the Regions’, ‘Relevant’, ‘Officially’ etc are placed under the conditions of advertisements.”

It is hard to say how many ordinary readers noticed this sign. Nevertheless, the list of paid rubrics does not contain the rubric Pryamym Tekstom (Spell Out), unless it belongs to the “etc.” If Lisahko dominates over the rubric Aktualno, Pryamim Tekstom is occupied by another politician, Vadym Rabynovych.

Rabinovych is a member of the Opposition Bloc (the successor to the Party of Regions once headed by the former president, Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia). He created his own party, Za Zhyttia, and repeatedly stated that he is leaving the Opposition Bloc, yet the parliament’s site still confirms his belonging to this bloc.

While Batkivshchyna leader Yuliya Tymoshenko is considered the main rival of Petro Poroshenko, the latest opinion polls show that Rabinovych’s ratings are improving too. His supporters are people who are disappointed with the Opposition Bloc. Za Zhyttia promotes “peace at any price,” promising to end the four-year conflict between Russian-led separatists in eastern Ukraine and the Ukrainian army, even if it means Ukrainian capitulation, and is quite loyal to Russia. Rabinovych also uses several TV channels for the promotion of his ideas.

Article by Vadym Rabinovych titled “A neutral and independent Ukraine is the only solution for our country” in Segodnya takes up the whole page. Photo: Euromaidan Press

The newspaper Segodnya publishes his populist strategies under the headlines “Ukraine can become richer than Singapore” or “A neutral and independent Ukraine is the only solution for our country.”

An ordinary reader can assume the news on Liashko’s good deeds, or Rabinovych’s so-called strategic plans are real. Such stories are typical examples of jeansa, even if in the case of Lyashko it is somehow marked.

The same can be observed in the newscasts of Ukrainian TV channels. This kind of hidden political advertisement becomes especially popular during pre-election periods.

So it can be expected that in the middle of 2018, when the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2019 will approach, there will be a boom of jeansa in differing forms.

Difficulties of recognizing jeansa

Election campaigns on Ukrainian TV are not a competition between political programs, nor for that matter between charismatic leaders, but a war between oligarchs. Photo:
Election campaigns on Ukrainian TV are not a competition between political programs, nor for that matter between charismatic leaders, but a war between oligarchs. Photo:

It is not clear for sure where the name jeansa comes from. The main version is that it comes from the name of a mobile operator (Dhyns, does not exist under this name anymore) which was promoting itself in media in a disguised manner.

So jeansa is not necessarily political material.

First of all, there is commercial and political jeansa. The commercial variety can imitate a real article or a newscast spot about a product, service or business, and does not say that it is advertising. Usually, on TV such news immediately follows the newscasts. Also, it can be a fully commercial text prepared by copywriters and PR agents without corresponding advertising markings. Another option is to mention some products, services or businesses in materials, similar to product placement in the cinema. For example, a beauty magazine might publish an article on how to care for skin and mention a particular cream.

Political jeansa nowadays has become more complex. The above-mentioned example with the newspaper Segodnya is the simplest type. Such articles or news spots can be written either by a politician’s or party’s press secretary or by real journalists implementing the tasks of an editor. Similarly, it can be a pseudo-analysis by some unknown political expert espousing opinions in favor of a particular political force.

With Facebook becoming more influential in the country, some kinds of jeansa are appearing there too: for example, there may be a so-called opinion leader promoting a certain point of view.

As mentioned above, elections are a peak time for jeansa.

“Election campaigns on TV are not a competition between programs, nor for that matter between charismatic leaders, but a war between oligarchs. During the final weeks before the elections, the blatant urge to make money is added to corporate jeansa: it is used by almost all the channels, who probably view this period as the last stage of harvest,” said the Editor-in-Chief of media watchdog “Telekritika” (no longer under this name) Natalia Ligachova on the eve of the parliamentary elections in 2014.

A discussion on the term’s blurring was opened in 2015 before local elections. Experts expressed the opinion that it was not always unbalanced materials violating journalistic standards that betrayed the presence of jeansa. Sometimes it is just unprofessionalism. Also, such materials lead to another more general problem: that of media ownership. When a TV channel belongs to an oligarch of a particular political grouping, the politicians of that party probably do not have to pay additional money to get themselves on that channel’s political program.

“The complexity and confusion is a matter of the relationship between the media and its owner who can, and in Ukrainian reality almost always does influence, the editorial policy. To some extent the Law on Transparency of Media Ownership suggests solutions to fight it,” said an expert at the Institute of Mass Information, Olena Holub.

Jeansa league table

Monitoring of Ukrainian media by the Institute of Mass Information has revealed the main jeansa customers in 2017:

  • Opposition Bloc – 20%,
  • Radical Party of Oleh Lyashko – 17%,
  • Ternopil Oblast State Administration – 11%,
  • Zhytomyr Oblast Administration – 8%,
  • Viktor Medvedchuk – 7%.

Jeansa and national interests

Jeansa is not only a question of Ukraine’s inner politics but also represents a threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty. To illustrate this, let us again return to Viktor Medvedchuk.

In the middle of January 2018 he became a participant in a media scandal.

A presenter and head of the informational department of ZIK TV channel, Roksana Runo, announced her resignation. Later she explained why:

“The management and I have different views on the development of the department and the channel in general.”

The day after her decision, she revealed other details on her Facebook page. She wrote that the management of the channel insisted she invite him to the studio or at least arrange a call-in with Medvedchuk. This would aim to highlight the positive input of the politician in the exchange of Donbas hostages (which took place at the end of 2017). She explained that she was not going to work on the topic under the slogan “The hostages were saved with the help of Medvedchuk” with Medvedchuk being a speaker.

In an interview she gave to Detektor Media, Runo said that this was not her first case with Medvedchuk:

“There was a story about a news ticker. His name was mentioned there due to possible US sanctions against him, as far as I remember. I was asked to remove it.”

She clarified that it was one of the managers of the channel who asked about it.

The incident with Runo provoked a scandal in the Ukrainian media world. The ex-producer of the channel, Gaygisis Geldiyev, launched a hashtag asking to find out Medvedchuk’s role at ZIK. Officially the journal is owned by Lviv football functionary Pavlo Dymynskiy. Geldiyev did not have proof of Medvedchuk being involved, however, he named a few other suspicions details about him.

Predictably, the ZIK channel stated that Medvedchuk was not related to the channel’s financing.

The reaction also appeared on the site of Medvedchuk’s political organization:

“The refusal of the ex-head of the ZIK information department, Roksana Runo, after persistent requests by ZIK to include Viktor Medvedchuk on air is not the position of a journalist, but the behavior of an egoistic politico who does not pursue objectivity. Her resignation is totally fair.”

However, Medvedchuk had other platforms to flaunt off the hostage exchange topic. According to monitoring by Detektor Media, the politician was the main speaker commenting on the topic on the Ukrayina channel, one of the leading TV channels in Ukraine. The channel also belongs to Akhmetov.

The godfather of Medvedchuk’s child is Vladimir Putin. In mid-November, Putin stated that he supported Medvedchuk’s suggestion on prisoner exchanges between Ukraine and the representatives of the so-called “LNR” and “DNR.” Putin’s statement was released following the release of photos of Putin and Medvedchuk praying in the New-Jerusalem monastery near Moscow.

Medvedchuk appealed to Putin, asking him “to use his authority to demonstrate humanity,” and to call on the heads of the so-called republics to agree to the exchange. Before this, Putin did not publicly acknowledge he had any direct personal contact with the leaders of the so-called republics. But after this request by Medvedchuk, he acted quickly and that same day had a phone conversation with the head of the “DNR,” Aleksandr Zakharchenko, and then-leader of the “LNR,” Igor Plotnitsky.

The journalist Serhiy Tsyhipa in his op-ed suggests that Medvedchuk may become the Kremlin’s candidate for the 2018 presidential elections in Ukraine. He explains that all the candidates can be divided into two groups. The first is the so-called pro-European group (those who stood together during the Euromaidan Revolution, meaning Poroshenko, Tymoshenko, Hrytsenko etc); the second is the so-called revanchist group (those who served in the Yanukovych regime). The journalist estimates their chances as equal:

“Be sure that as soon as the Kremlin points to the person to vote for, ex-supporters of communists, representatives of the Party of Regions and current supporters of the Opposition Bloc will go to the ballot boxes and vote. Medvedchuk may be a unifying figure for all kinds of revanchists.”

He also suggests that there might be a connection between the fact that the end of the project Vremya Stroit (Time to Build) coincided with the Donbas hostages being released:

“The main actors in these events were a couple very well-known in Ukraine: Oksana Marchenko [Medvedchuk’s wife] who became a media personality in Vremya Stroit and Viktor Medvedchuk, who with the help of the Kremlin, Putin and some Ukrainian media looked like the only parent of the long-awaited hostage exchange from the Ukrainian side. It might be just a coincidence. But taking into consideration that 2018 is the last year before the elections (presidential, parliamentary and local), unintentional thoughts of conspiracy arise.”

Medvedchuk’s media manipulations usually go in line with the Kremlin’s policy.

However, Moscow is also a separate player on the jeansa market in Ukraine.

In the autumn 0f 2016, the contents of the hacked mailbox of Vladislav Surkov, advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin, made headlines all over the world. Known as #SurkovLeaks 1 and 2, the dumps of Surkov’s two mailboxes, apparently managed by his assistants, was analyzed by the investigative community Informnapalm and confirmed to be authentic by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. It was followed up by a hack of the mailbox of Surkov’s assistant Inal Ardzinba in November 2017, known as #SurkovLeaks 3. The full analysis is coming out in a report in the UK’s Royal United Services Institute in May 2018. However, Euromaidan Press managing editor Alya Shandra shared some insights from the report now.

“The contents of Inal Ardzinba’s mailbox reveal that the Kremlin heavily relied on jeansa in order to spread its messaging in Ukrainian media. Kremlin-affiliated actors bought their way into the news sections of Ukrainian media outlets to have coverage of the events they organized to implement Russia’s plans for Ukraine. This created an illusion of these events, and narratives, having wider support than they did,” Alya told.

Another example of Russia’s use of jeansa is the campaign to restore economic ties with Russia. It involved pro-Russian politicians messages that Ukriane won’t survive without economic cooperation with Russia on select Ukrainian media platforms, and fake petitions purportedly signed by factory workers demanding “Poroshenko make peace with Russia.” Although the employees of the factories said they didn’t sign any petitions, news about them were published on marginal blogs, then picked up by larger outlets, and were extensively covered in Russian media. Then, revealed that Ukrainian journalists were offered from $500 to $1,000 to carry out a “story” about one enterprise, from fabricating a petition to publishing “news” about it on their websites. Here, jeansa allowed creating a reality which doesn’t exist overall with the help of fake news.

Edited by: Michael Garrood
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