While oligarchs and political influence overshadow the media in Ukraine, other stakeholders are seeking to challenge the status quo to improve professional standards, media literacy and public trust.
Ukraine’s modern mass media landscape emerged in the 1990s. Since that time, the country has had barely three decades to develop a culture of media production, consumption and regulation. Key factors that have shaped this evolution include a weak and oligarch-dominated economy, the political elite and Russian influence. By contrast, in the UK, the US and most member states of the EU, the history of the modern media sector, its audience and regulation spans well over a century.
Ukraine’s experience differs from that of its Eastern and Central European neighbours. After 1991, Western owners had a considerable presence in media organizations in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. While this injected much-needed funds into the post-communist markets and introduced a different professional culture, it also brought about a chaotic boom of media outlets in an unprepared regulatory environment. This often resulted in investors’ commercial interests being prioritized over quality content or the long-term development of a local media culture. According to Angelika W. Wyka-Podkowka, a researcher of media in Central and Eastern Europe, during the transition from post-communism to capitalism in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic:
Overseas investment in these countries began to change in the 2000s, especially after the 2008 financial crisis, when investors started to leave and subsequently sold their media assets to local owners. Martin Ehl, chief analyst of Hospodářské noviny, a Czech economics outlet, and Václav Štětka, a lecturer at Loughborough University, summarized the process in their piece for The American Interest in 2018:
Ukraine has not had a comparable level of investment from Western media organizations or individuals. This created an opportunity for oligarchs to dominate the sector, which is a trend that is also now emerging in the media markets of the Czech Republic and Hungary.
As Western investors leave Central and Eastern European media markets, and the sector faces serious profitability and sustainability challenges around the world, it is unlikely that Ukraine will attract new media investment from overseas in the short term.
For the most part, Ukrainian oligarchs operating in the media sector did not establish the outlets and organizations they now own. State media institutions, US investors, Russian companies, and local media professionals and journalists established and co-founded the most popular broadcasters. For example, ICTV, a channel that is now part of Victor Pinchuk’s StarLightMedia, was started in 1991 by the Ukrainian Broadcasting, Radiocommunications and Television Concern (BRT) and Story First Communications (CTC Media after 2004), a Russian private company originally registered in the US. Meanwhile, the initial co-owners of Ihor Kolomoisky’s Studio 1+1 included Oleksandr Rodniansky and Borys Fuksmann as well as US-based Central European Media Enterprises Ltd.
Oligarchs gradually bought up and established control over these media assets in the 1990s and 2000s. As the oligarch-owned media companies developed, they dwarfed the national public broadcaster (the various predecessors of Suspilne) in terms of outreach, quality of content and resources. These powerful organizations are entrenched players in Ukraine’s media scene and continue to impede the evolution of a domestic media culture.
As Western investors leave Central and Eastern European media markets, and the sector faces serious profitability and sustainability challenges around the world, it is unlikely that Ukraine will attract new media investment from overseas in the short term. Moreover, the experiences of Central European media organizations in receipt of Western investment show that such funding models do not guarantee the long-term sustainable development of a country’s media environment. A particular challenge is preventing investment from Russian media organizations, which tend to discourage high-quality independent journalism, prudent media practices or unbiased content.
While the role of oligarchs overshadows discussions about the media in Ukraine, the political elite, civil society, journalists, editors and the media watchdog community are also important actors in the sector.
This paper documents the main media sector developments in Ukraine since 2014 and examines the current landscape and key stakeholders – from oligarchs and politicians to the audience and civil society. It looks at new projects and experiments in the field that could eventually benefit the domestic media environment. This includes efforts to improve the country’s culture of media production and consumption, and proposed changes to legislation governing the sector.
Finally, this paper looks at ongoing media sector discussions aimed at challenging the influence of oligarchs and politicians, improving professional standards, and boosting media literacy and public trust.