Establishing the Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine (UA:PBC) has been a ray of hope for the country’s media landscape. With independence from oligarchic money, it should have been able to provide the audience with impartial coverage of current affairs. However, a year and a half since the company started working full-scale, it has found itself dependent on the government.
This already has consequences: on September 25, the analogue broadcasting of the main channel of UA:PBC, UA:Pershiy, was shut down because of debts. Before that, the management of the channel had to undertake a number of anti-crisis measures.
Media and human rights organizations have already released a statement calling on the government to undertake urgent measures to renew broadcasting throughout the whole Ukraine. Currently there is a signal for the Kharkiv, Kherson, Luhansk, and Donetsk oblasts. However, the Head of UA:PBC, Zurab Alasania, expects that soon the channel signal will be turned off everywhere.
A reaction has also come from the European Broadcasting Union:
“The EBU calls on the Ukrainian Government to ensure appropriate, fair and independent funding for UA:PBC in line with the Ukrainian Law and European standards. A sudden drop in its funding levels would undermine the important process of reform UA:PBC has undertaken in order to operate as a sustainable and independent public service media organization,” said EBU Director General Noel Curran.
Since 31 August 2018, analogue broadcasting for all Ukrainian channels has been discontinued due to Ukraine’s international obligations in terms of the Geneva-2006 agreement. It foresees moving to the digital TV broadcasting standard. However, until recently the Ukrainian government continued to delay the decision.
There are some exceptions to the changeover. For information security reasons, the analogue signal should be left on:
- close to the frontline in eastern Ukraine;
- areas bordering occupied Crimea and Russia;
- for local broadcasters without digital licenses;
- for the Ukrainian public broadcaster.
These exceptions will remain in force until 1 May 2019. According to Svitlana Ostapa, deputy editor in chief of the Ukrainian media watchdog Detektor Media, the National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting of Ukraine explained that the public broadcaster’s analogue signal should the last to shut down. It has a very wide analogue coverage, and maintaining it will mean the population will not be adversely affected.
The role of the channel in Ukraine cannot be underestimated.
UA:Pershiy in the context of the Ukrainian media landscape
It is no secret that all the Ukrainian mainstream media is owned by oligarchs. The word “mainstream” refers to TV channels which are the most popular media in Ukraine. According to research by Detektor Media and Kyiv International Institute of Sociology from February 2018, 86% of Ukrainians receive information on domestic and world events from Ukrainian TV channels.
The media reform which started in Ukraine after the Euromaidan Revolution introduced legislation obliging owners of media assets to reveal information about themselves. As a result, unofficial information about TV channel owners has become official.
There are four main media groups in Ukraine:
- Inter belongs to people close to the former president Viktor Yanukovych’s inner circle;
- StarLightMedia belongs to the Ukrainian billionaire Viktor Pinchuk, who is an influential figure in Ukrainian policy and is married to a daughter of the second Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma;
- Ukrayina is owned by the richest oligarch in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov;
- 1+1 belongs to the oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi.
Other channels which appear on the market are also far from being independent. Russian influence can be found in some of them.
This situation forces independent journalists to work in a climate of dependence, where honest news can be manipulated in the interests of the channel’s owner.
And then the Public Broadcaster appeared. It is the successor to the bureaucratic monster “National TV and Radio Companies of Ukraine” and inherited its system and a network of 26 offices across the country.
The new management faced a difficult task – reforming the company and supporting the production of competitive and – at the same time – balanced content.
“The news department is a separate kingdom altogether. They are subordinated to the Head of the Managing Board. But I haven’t interfered with their workflow over these four years. Sometimes I can shout that something is not as good as it could be. But they answer, ‘Do you want blood? Then we will show it. But you asked not to.’ People like to watch blood, but our strategy prohibits this. So it is hard to find a balance for people to watch. Our country is very emotional. I hope that with the public broadcaster we will be able to prove to people that news have to be calm. It’s not about emotions, but about facts. So far, people have not liked us. They want to be told what is good and what is bad. They do not want to decide by themselves,” Alasania told Euromaidan Press last autumn.
However, both reforming the Public Broadcaster and producing competitive content is something which requires money. And this is the issue where the company becomes dependent on the state:
“In Ukraine, politicians don’t understand how we can be different, since here all media belongs to someone. But when in the fourth year it became clear we don’t belong to anybody, they labeled us as ‘incapable of negotiating.’ So no one wants to deal with us now. They know that we will ask them inconvenient questions and that we won’t be their PR agency, nor place the news they want. I tell them that it’s up to the journalists to decide whether to show it. So we had these few years of total freedom, but now the government is trying to pressure us financially. This bill, according to which we should receive only a half of the amount we need, is a gentle assassination of the public broadcaster,” said Alasania.
According to the law, Ukraine’s public broadcaster is financed out of the state budget, and should receive 0.2% of the total budget.
“The scheme of direct budget financing is the same everywhere, but goes under different names. A great law was written. Ukraine’s European partners supported it. Even though it is less than what they suggested, 0.2 % [of the GDP – Ed], which means UAH 1.5bn ($53mn), was still good. But now the Ukrainian Ministry of Finance suggests cutting next year’s budget to UAH 776mn ($27.4mn), which is half what it should be,” Alasania told in November 2017.
Almost a year later, the situation has not improved.
A day before the news on turning off the signal, the public broadcaster channel’s management announced anti-crisis measures. According to a statement from the UA:PBC, these measures are needed due to “total under-financing of the UA:PBC and existent deficit of funds which threatens the work of the TV and radio companies and the possibility of broadcasting.”
The anti-crisis plan foresees unpaid an vacation from 8 to 15 days, restrictions in employment, suspension of bonuses to management starting from October, negotiations with counterparties on the installment and delay of payment for services and materials, and taking measures to attract relevant advertisers.
According to the company, until the end of 2018 the UA:PBC has UAH 258.8mn ($9mn) at its disposal. However, it is critical to pay UAH 210m ($7.5mn) of salaries by the end of the year – UAH 186mn ($6.6mn) for broadcasting, 9mn ($319,000) for the production of launched programs, and 28mn ($994,000) for utilities etc.
Overall, the deficit in funds to cover essential costs amounts to UAH 220mn ($7.8mn).
Taras Shevchenko, board member of the Reanimation Package of Reform, the coalition of NGOs involved in reforms, admits that 0.2% of the budget foreseen for the broadcaster was the minimal amount:
“We calculated how much the state was paying at the time for all the state channels. Unfortunately, from the start of the year, the politicians cut funds for the public broadcaster, and this looks like revenge for numerous journalists’ investigations. The budget for 2018 was in fact cut in half.”
What analogue means for Ukrainian channels
TV tower in Kyiv. Photo provided by the Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine
According to Alasania, the debt accrued by analogue broadcasting lies at UAH 69mn (about $2mn) which will increase to UAH 140mn ($4.9mn) by the end of the year. However, the head of the broadcaster does not blame the concern RRT which actually turned off the signal:
“They were broadcasting us for a long time for free. We understand them. The key point is that the state has not met its responsibilities. I do not see how the situation can be resolved. Because there is no person who is responsible. The state is guilty. But what is the last name of the state?”
When the whole country was shut off from analogue TV, UA:Pershiy remained on the list of exceptions for information security reasons.
“There is some kind of symbolism in the fact that the public broadcaster with a lot of attention has to stop the broadcasting required by law because of inadequate funding,”
Taras Shevchenko told in a conversation with Euromaidan Press.
“It is not like the public broadcaster decided for itself that it has to be present in the analogue frequencies. There is a plan for the gradual transition to digital broadcasting which has been approved at state level. In fact it is being deprived from the opportunity to stick to this plan,” concluded the expert.
“With the analogue signal turned off, many people, especially in villages, lost access to TV altogether. Additionally, they now have an urgent need to spend additional money [for the equipment to receive a digital signal]. When people are very poor it is an additional burden for them,” said Shevchenko.
Village residents are affected by the loss of analogue signal the most. Some political forces have already stated that the general move towards digital broadcasting cuts a large part of the population off from information. In particular, a statement from Yuliya Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party says that “with the start of the presidential campaign, the decision which significantly restricts access to information for many voters may be considered an attempt by the government to hide the truth on the real state of affairs in the country.”
However, media experts say such statements are manipulative and aim at presenting everything in a bad light.
Some estimates suggest that about 2.4mn citizens will be left with no information. Latest research states that there are 13.3mn TV households in Ukraine (excluding occupied territories). Of these, 5mn were using analogue TV, with a further 2.5mn connected to digital.
However, experts in the field say that the consequences of pulling the plug on analogue TV signals will only be known by the end of the year, when media groups release their research results.
Shevchenko suggests that the state should have introduced social support programs for the least protected segments of the population to purchase equipment to receive digital signals. However, thus far there have only been small-scale regional state programs that have not covered the population’s real needs.