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Media Serfdom in Ukraine

On 25 February 2015, Aleksandr Velichko, an official in the Dnepropetrovsk municipal government, disappeared. Ten days later, a recording appeared on an anonymous YouTube channel in which Velichko exposed the alleged involvement of the city council and mayor in corruption schemes and claimed that he had fabricated his own disappearance.

The alarm was soon raised by Opposition Bloc, a political party representing the former allies of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych: they maintained that the official had been kidnapped by people working for Ihor Kolomoisky, governor of Dnepropetrovsk at the time.

One week later, Velichko himself repeated the charges made by Opposition Bloc. Using this online testimony, Kolomoisky allegedly engineered the sacking of the mayor of Dnepropetrovsk on grounds of corruption. No one knows what actually happened and no one is too keen to find out. This gangland story wasn’t hidden from the public and, apart from a few opposition TV stations (such as Inter and Ukraine), the press did not report it. For Ukraine’s Fourth Estate, covering this story made little sense: neither their investors nor their political patrons were involved. The events of January and February 2014 may now be known as the Revolution of Dignity, but the latest economic crisis has made Ukrainian media even more dependent on handouts from individuals. And what’s more, they continue to operate in a less than dignified manner.

Ukraine oligarchs 350
Tycoon-turned-politician Petro Poroshenko and four of Ukraine’s most powerful oligarchs (clockwise from top right): Viktor Pinchuk, Dmytro Firtash, Ihor Kolomoisky, and Renat Akhmetov.

HOW DID WE COME TO THIS?

Cast back to 2004: the protest against censorship was a leading force in the Orange Revolution. In the early 2000s, President Leonid Kuchma’s administration acquired more and more control over the editorial lines of state media and private media, issuing regular written instructions as it saw fit – the so-called temniki (a contraction of tema nedeli [theme of the week]).

Prior to the presidential elections, this system was used to ensure the victory of Kuchma’s successor, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Many journalists who supported Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-European candidate, resigned, refusing to lie on government orders, or sabotaged censorship in their workplaces. None of this prevented the newspapers and television news from defending Kuchma up until the point that Yushchenko’s victory became obvious. In the aftermath, Vyacheslav Pikhovshek, chief editor of 1+1 and the man in charge of censoring the most popular TV channel in the country, claimed repeatedly that he acted out of patriotic motives, trying to save the country from Yushchenko.

Five years later, the struggle against censorship rose to the fore once again. On election night in 2010, the newly elected president, Yanukovych, accepted congratulations (and bouquets) from Ukraine’s wealthiest people. Four of them – Viktor Pinchuk, Dmytro Firtash, Ihor Kolomoisky, and Renat Akhmetov – controlled three-quarters of the television market at the time. After the election fever cooled, the Yanukovych team strategy was to build mutually profitable relations with these businessmen, who offered their loyalty and the services of their media empires in exchange for economic benefits. Journalists responded by forming Stop Censorship, which regularly protested at the gates of Mezhyhirya, the presidential residence just outside of Kyiv.

A diligent – if slightly inept – student of Vladimir Putin, Yanukovych did not drive the activists from the gate. Giving up on tackling online publications and blogs, Yanukovych focused his efforts on television. Criticizing the government or the president became taboo on most of Ukraine’s national TV channels. Some of them even had to stop broadcasting news or political talk shows to avoid the almost feudal scenario of being forced to work for the government. The exclusion of the more principled journalists from the profession, which began under Yushchenko, reached a point where the violation of professional standards at the order of a powerful individual (or simply to please them) came to be seen as the norm. After all, everyone was doing it.

But as they justified and praised the authorities, TV channels often contradicted themselves. In July 2013, Inter, owned by Firtash, actively promoted European integration and broadcast disparaging cartoons of Putin. Come October, the same channel claimed that no one in the EU wanted Ukraine and that maintaining friendship with Russia should be the priority.

The authorities bet on the moral decay, passivity, and indifference of society. They didn’t even attempt to hide the billions of dollars leaking out of the state budget, the luxurious mansions and yachts, the criminals who had been released, or the rapidly expanding business empire of the president’s son. The facts and evidence were accessible online but failed to cause any sort of outrage.

The Revolution of Dignity in 2014 was supposed to change all this. A civic society that was active, mobile, ready for both conflict and sacrifices, and demanded transparency and honesty from the media. And to be fair, for a short time, freedom did blossom in the information business. Once again, journalists began to adhere to the standards of the profession and remember their responsibilities to their audience. The honeymoon, however, did not last.

THE CLASH OF THE TITANS

Having shaken off Maidan, the oligarchs continued as if nothing had changed, divvying up property and spheres of influence. Given the threat of Kolomoisky’s dominance to the rest of the pack, they united in a coalition against the “patriotic oligarch.” The clash of the titans began.

Kolomoisky supported the new authorities in Kyiv, composed of the leaders of Maidan’s political wing, and offered them his help. In turn, Kolomoisky received the governorship of the Dnepropetrovsk region. The son-in-law of ex-president Kuchma, Pinchuk, attempted to preserve his neutrality. Firtash, the business partner of Serhiy Lyovochkin, Yanukovych’s chief of staff, announced his willingness to take part in the “rebirth of the country,” while also offering support to pro-Russian forces.

Meanwhile, Renat Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine and the main sponsor of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, made a risky bet on destabilizing Donbas, which soon broke out in war. The manager of United Media Holding (a parent company to numerous leading print, radio, and online press outlets), 28-year-old Serhiy Kurchenko, a member of the Yanukovych “family,” fled to Russia but managed to preserve his business interests.

The newspaper war was only the tip of the iceberg. The aim of the anti-Kolomoisky oligarchs was to destroy his reputation (considered by many to be the savior of the country), damage his business, strip his team of government office, and block the appointment of “his” people to the Verkhovna Rada. In terms of possible side effects, this could have led to panic in the financial markets.

Kolomoisky resisted, although not particularly actively. According to Media Sapiens, which monitors standards in television news, the ratio of pieces “for” Kolomoisky to pieces “against” him was 5-to-1. In the run-up to the parliamentary elections in October, the fight was particularly vicious. Kolomoisky’s 1+1 TV channel even tried to take down Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party, backed by Lyovochkin.

Inter TV meanwhile criticized Andriy Sadovy, mayor of Lviv, leader of Samopomich (a recently founded political party) and an ally of Kolomoisky, on a daily basis. The defining characteristic of TV reports and articles in this oligarchic struggle was a lack of balance. Neither Inter nor Ukraine TV broadcast a single word from Kolomoisky; and Firtash, Akhmetov, and Pinchuk never made an appearance on 1+1.

It’s likely that the kompromat (compromising material) shown on 1+1 contributed strongly to the fall in Lyashko’s party’s rating from 16 percent in August 2014 to 7.5 percent on election day in October. Samopomich, on the other hand, received an unexpectedly high result (13 percent on Election Day) despite Inter’s negative coverage. With a largely elderly audience, Inter was never going to channel votes to Samopomich anyway. After the elections, Sadovy and Kolomoisky parted ways – although some experts predict that the oligarch will put the mayor of Lviv forward as a candidate. Sadovy lacks the necessary media resources for a successful campaign (though he does have TV 24 and the Lux media group); the owner of a powerful media company would be a useful ally.

Despite the pluralism supposedly reigning in the news (a no-go subject for one channel is a scoop for another), the war between the oligarchs narrows the field of information. Journalists choose stories and information according to the interests of their publications’ owners. As Natalia Ligachyova, chief editor of Telekritika, says, “Television still lacks the resources able to provide otherwise unreported facts and independent expert opinion to the biased information on both sides, which could help audiences gain a proper perspective on what’s going on.”

During the crisis in March that led to the sacking of Kolomoisky as governor of Dnepropetrovsk, not a single central television station broadcast the whole truth about the situation with Ukraine’s state oil company. Those stations whose owners weren’t involved in the clash preferred to steer clear of the oligarch's squabble.

The situation is becoming more difficult as the economic crisis destroys the advertising market and media becomes more and more dependent on grants. Financial and industrial groups are attempting to increase their political influence, using media as an instrument and space for self-promotion.

For example, the fact that Akhmetov has his praises sung daily on Ukraine TV – a channel popular in the Russian-speaking east – has only encouraged people to believe the inhabitants of Donbas survive solely thanks to his help. Ukraine TV is one of the few channels not blocked in rebel-held areas and, after the local elections this autumn, Akhmetov will likely take control of the region once again.

LETTING GO

President Petro Poroshenko, the owner of Channel 5 (and one of the symbols of the Orange Revolution), stands apart from his predecessors for his more “enlightened” attitude to the relationship between government and media.

Although the president’s relations with the press haven’t been particularly smooth (in the first six months of his presidency, Poroshenko made it to only one press conference), the fact that he nominated former media magnate Boris Lozhkin (of UMH group) as head of his presidential administration is revealing. Poroshenko is perhaps the first Ukrainian president not only to use social media but to monitor the news cycle and media market directly.

Despite promises and pressure, Poroshenko has not sold his TV station, which also relies on financial contributions. This provoked both the ire of media activists and the concern of foreign observers. However, Poroshenko did stop interfering in the channel’s editorial policy and demanding the loyalty of “his” journalists. In the past, Poroshenko used his media resources for political or business gains, interfering in editorial policy and, on one occasion, personally firing a journalist. But now Channel 5 is one of a few TV stations you can watch without disgust.

Channel 1, owned by the state, also falls into this category, and it now positions itself as “civic” rather than “state” owned. Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk have been the first leaders of Ukraine to support this transformation of ownership, from state to society, in word and deed. The underfunded and backward state television and radio services, which for years followed politicians’ every whim and ignored the interests of their audience, have been given a chance to become an alternative to oligarchic media.

If, of course, they manage to win real editorial independence. For the time being, civic media remain in the hands of the state and are dependent on the budget. Zurab Alasania, lobbied by media activists to become general director (and reformer) of the National Television Company of Ukraine, hopes that someday civic media will manage to outgrow this dependence.

But, in any event, civic media won’t be a panacea to these ills. The Ukrainian media environment is saturated, and commercial players pay huge sums for content, meaning competing with them is senseless. In peacetime, privatization would have been only the first step in liberalizing the market and complete deregulation of the media.

At the moment, such a move is highly unlikely. Russian media presence no longer poses a serious threat – the transmission of pro-Kremlin TV stations was banned a year ago. But, at the same time, Russian media holdings like Vesti continue to publish half a million free newspapers a day. For all intents and purposes, Russia is still here.

Yatsenyuk and Poroshenko need to remain true democrats in the eyes of the West, preventing them from shutting down more pro-Russian media outlets. And while experts on Russian media distortion like Oleg Panfilov, Andrei Arkhangelsky, and Arkady Babchenko are convinced that Ukraine isn’t losing to Russia in the information war, Kyiv has little chance of an open battle according to the rules laid out by Kremlin propaganda.

CONSTRUCTING A NEW WORLD

The problem isn’t just the oligarchs, however. To the outside observer accustomed to Western standards, the standards of Ukrainian journalism are worrying. Professionals here are few and far between, and popularity is bought with money. In some cases, literally: Akhmetov once invested millions in buying an audience for his online publications, which still remained unpopular.

The news feeds of online publications consist of reports from two or three press agencies – finding and writing one’s own stories is too expensive. World events are covered overwhelmingly via Russian sources; to read Western originals, even in English, is too much of a stretch for our journalists. Many Ukraine-wide television channels lack the means to send film crews beyond the boundaries of Kyiv. Most news ends up being about the capital.

To have unreliable information refuted is considered humiliating and a blemish on one’s reputation. And so editors fight for their mistakes to the last drop of blood. The nihilistic spirit of Russia Today, described so well by Peter Pomerantsev, has long since put down roots in Ukraine’s media space in its fertile soil of miserliness, passivity, and thoughtlessness. The Russian mantra of “why check the facts when truth doesn’t exist” has turned into “why check the facts when my wages are $200 a month.” Which, incidentally, is a fairly decent wage for a journalist. In the provinces it might be less than $100.

The battered advertising market has led many outlets, and even independent media, to publish “jeans,” a term for paid puff pieces or secret advertorials. This practice, although illegal, has the added benefit of allowing both the publication and the “client” to avoid tax. And so in the run-up to elections, websites, newspapers, and television turn into an exhibition of PR pieces and pre-election promises.

If the Ukrainian media market does become competitive one day, it’s unlikely two-thirds of today’s media will survive. Even the most useless media organizations are being sold, rather than closing down – sometimes even for good money if they have the right broadcast licenses. Outdated pricing, political unpredictability, as well as corrupt governments and societies are the primary reasons the Ukrainian market has long since lost foreign investors. And they aren’t planning on coming back.

All the same, hope remains. Maidan resulted in a burst of civic initiatives aimed at cleaning up and renewing the country. Bold media projects created without oligarchic money and outside the old systems of corruption (such as Hromadske, Ukrains’ka pravda, Insider, Radio Aristokraty, and Novoe Vremya) have grown and spread to the regions.

The audience for new media remains modest, but they enjoy some advantages – flexibility, understanding of modern media trends, willingness to orient themselves to the creative minority rather than the masses. To grow, they’ll need money, but we’re talking about much smaller sums than the $300 million that oligarch-owned TV spends yearly on Russian programming.

Clearly, the change in generations won’t happen all at once. Old media, if it serves its owners, might stick around for decades, catering to people who prefer to get their news from TV. However, among my students studying journalism at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, practically nobody wants to work for Kolomoisky, Firtash, or Pinchuk. Instead, they dream of their own startup, which could become part of Ukraine’s new media business.

UKRAINE TOMORROW

Finally, the last problem that the government is in no hurry to fix is the lack of an international broadcaster that could show Ukraine to the world. To be sure, the recently created Ministry of Information Policy has set up Ukraine Tomorrow to balance Russia Today, and Kolomoisky has set up his own international propaganda channel – Ukraine Today.

But neither the state nor the oligarch has declared how much effort and money is worth spending to build an audience for this kind of channel and what its message should be.

Yet where can a mutual understanding with the outside – Western – world come from? For decades, the Ukrainian media industry has imported ideas, content, and personnel from Moscow. No one knew or wanted to chart the borders that separated what was Russian and what was Ukrainian, calling everything “ours.” The war has shown how fatal this dependence could be and forced the press, society, and the state to stop and think.

Today, it is internal problems, including Ukrainian media’s lack of competitive edge and financial self-sufficiency, that pose a far more serious threat to post-Maidan Ukraine than external information aggression.
Otar Dovzhenko lectures at the School of Journalism at Ukrainian Catholic University, Lviv, and is the former editor of Telekritika, Ukraine's leading platform for media commentary. He has been involved in monitoring Ukrainian media since 2005. This commentary originally appeared on openDemocracy.net.