Largely, the reason for this is that the largest Ukrainian media outlets are owned, and thus controlled, privately. In 2015, Ukraine passed legislation on mandatory transparency of media ownership. It obliged media to identify their ultimate beneficiary of clearly biased news. Unfortunately, this law revealed that it is all too easy in Ukraine for real media moguls to hide their identity behind nominal “owners.” Still, the key players have been revealed.
These findings have not been surprising, since political alignment with individual media has been obvious. Content reflecting bias has appeared on many occasions. Moreover, there have been no doubts when partisanship was leaked to the public.
After the new legislation came into force, real proof of collusion between key media and those holding the strings has been shown. With the exception of the Public Broadcasting Company, major Ukrainian outlets are owned by oligarchs. Some of them are politicians and/or their puppeteers.
Meanwhile, TV channels are the main source of information for Ukrainians. According to research by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, the Razumkov Centre, and the Socis Centre, presented in September 2018, 75.7% of Ukrainians receive news of the world, Ukraine, and cities nationwide from TV channels.
Oligarchs own major media
One of Ukraine’s main oligarchs is also its president, Petro Poroshenko. In 2003, Poroshenko founded the information channel, 5 Kanal. The channel played a crucial role in both the Orange and Euromaidan revolutions. It presented reports and analysis of real-time activities on the streets which were almost completely banned on other Ukrainian channels.
“TV should be the first asset Poroshenko sells as president,” then OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic stated. As time proved, once elected, President Poroshenko said that he would not sell the channel.
Today, the widespread belief is that 5 Kanal is not the president’s only channel. During the last five years, additional broadcast media have been established. One of them is another information channel, Priamyi. Officially it belongs to Volodymyr Makeienko, who is a former member of the Party of Regions, the party of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.
Journalists have repeatedly associated Priamyi with the current president, mainly because the network frequently broadcasts pro-Poroshenko coverage. The ratings of both channels are not in the top 10–not even in the top 15.
Still, Poroshenko’s influence is not just evident in his own channels, where he can plainly control the news. As president, he holds the priority position for national coverage, regardless of the “newsworthiness” of his activities or public addresses.
For example, on 26 February a news story appeared announcing that from March to April 2019–the exact timeframe of the elections–retirees will receive an additional UAH 2,410 (about US$90).
This sum is higher than the minimal retirement payments in Ukraine. The public was bombarded by media outlets reporting that these additional funds were his direct initiative. Some might see such a convenient policy change by the president as reminiscent of voter-bribing. But as breaking news, it cannot be ignored by the media, and resultantly the president reaps the benefits.
For other candidates having a friendly channel is even more important.
Hosting the comedy show
Ihor Kolomoiskyi, #5 in the list of richest Ukrainians, also has his own outlet, Channel 1+1, which usually rates among the top three most viewed.
In 2015-16, Poroshenko directed his policy of eliminating oligarchs toward Kolomoiskyi. As a result, the oligarch lost his key assets, such as the oil company Ukrnafta and the largest bank in Ukraine Privat Bank, but managed to hold on to 1+1.
Since 2012, 1+1 has been hosting the comedy show of another key candidate, comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The channel is the link which has caused much speculation about the nature of Kolomoiskyi and Zelenskyy’s affiliation.
It was also 1+1 which broadcast the comedian’s New Year’s announcement that he would run for president. Moreover, his address was aired before President Poroshenko’s–a break in a tradition that has been the norm since the Soviet era. Normally, the sitting president is the first to provide New Year’s greetings to the people of his country.
Bonuses by 1+1 in favour of Zelenskyy do not stop there.
Since November 2015, the show Sluga Narodu (Servant of the People) has been airing on Channel 1+1. Zelenskyy is the star of this comedy series which is based on an ordinary school teacher, who through ridiculous circumstances, is elected president. Thus far, the two seasons of Sluga Narodu have proved to be tremendously popular. The third season will start in March 2019, at the peak of the election.
Taras Shevchenko, Co-Chair of the Board of the Reanimation Package of Reforms, and Director of the Centre for Democracy and the Rule of Law, has questioned this happenstance. Shevchenko was one of the experts who helped define the term “agitation” in the new legislation.
Shevchenko has publicly stated that he “wonders” whether broadcasting Servant of the People is a serious conflict of interest and whether it can, in point of fact, be considered agitation. Referring to the legislation, he notes that agitation has been defined as “…carrying out the activities aimed to induce voters for or or against a candidate for president of Ukraine.”
Shevchenko has raised several salient points as to why Sluga Narodu can indeed be considered an agitation. Among them is that the TV-series was deliberately scheduled to run during the campaign. He also suspects that Zelenskyy knew far in advance that he would run for the presidency and that the show was built around that premise.
Shevchenko also points to the fact that the campaign carries the same name as the television show. In fact, from the outset, the plot of the show has been that Zelenskyy would win the presidency.
The network has argued against this summation. According to Shevchenko,1+1 has claimed that the main goal of the series is to earn profits, and that the pre-election time is prime for good ratings. They have also argued that the series was created before the election campaign and is exempt from suspicion.
Shevchenko is not deterred by any of these excuses, asserting that he sees more arguments for than against the broadcast qualifying as agitation. The decision on the matter of agitation can be made by the Central Election Commission or in court, on the request of any one of the candidates.
The main owners of the air
One of the media assets of the richest oligarch of Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov, is the highest-rated and most popular channel in the country, TRK Ukrayina. During the Yanukovych presidency, TRK Ukrayina was one of the main platforms utilized by him and his Party of Regions. After Yanukovych fled the country, the channel continued to be a key platform for the party’s successor, Opposition Bloc.
Another popular platform was Inter, owned by the oligarch Dmytro Firtash, who also had to escape Ukraine. Firtash was the former head of the Yanukovych Presidential Administration and the Opposition Bloc, led by MP Serhiy Liovochkyn.
When the Opposition Bloc split last year, the interests of the owners of the two channels also divided. The split took place prior to the election campaign, and came about because of major disputes within the four party groups; headed respectively by Akhmetov, Firtash, Liovochkyn, and the grey cardinal of Ukraine’s politics and promoter of Vladimir Putin’s interests in Ukraine, Viktor Medvedchuk.
On 18 February, the following groups, with the support of the Council of Europe, presented the results of the first media monitoring group: the Commission on Journalism Ethics, the Platform on Human Rights, the Ukrainian Media Development Institute, and StopFake. Their conclusions were that the most popular candidates at Akhmetov’s Ukrayina, in order of ascendancy, were Oleh Liashko, Petro Poroshenko, Yuliya Tymoshenko and Oleksandr Vilkul. The most popular candidate at Inter was pro-Russian Yuryi Boiko, followed by Petroshenko.
“Almost all the media (first of TV channels) which have been monitored, with a few exclusions, showed their sympathies or antipathies to certain candidates for president. In the majority of cases it can be explained not by the position of journalists, but the position of media owners who have certain political interests. This is a trend of not only this, but all the election campaigns in Ukraine,” said Diana Dutsyk, executive director of the Ukrainian Institute of Media and Communications.
Costs and party funds
Before the start of the campaign, Ukrainian channels released their prices for political ads. Ukrayina had the most expensive—a single minute cost UAH 300,000 (about US$11,110).
Candidates are obliged to pay for advertising from their election funds. However, the individual agreements between channel executives and candidates are unknown, as are the actual amounts paid.
Another way of gaining popularity for politicians is to become a TV presenter themselves. Among the candidates who have taken on the role of presenter is Dmytro Dobrodomov, who has his own show We Can on Channel 4. Dmytro Hnap, the journalist nominated for president by the party Syla Lyudey, also continued to host his program on Channel 24. However, on 1 March he withdrew his candidacy in favor of Anatloiy Hrytsenko.