Ukraine’s media sector has a number of structural distortions, one of which is the appearance of pluralism. The country’s media landscape is crowded with outlets and owners that provide a wide range of information sources. This prevents centralized control over the media narrative. However, this was not always the case. For example, in the early 2000s, Ukrainian media reported on attempts by the presidential administration to ‘curate’ media narratives according to government-approved temnycky or ‘topics of the week’.
Although on the surface there is pluralism, many outlets align their media work with the interests of their owners and connected political parties, which causes the over representation of certain groups in the political conversation. This is especially true for some of the most popular and affluent broadcasters. As a result, such media outlets focus on agenda-setting rather than informing the audience and make no significant contribution to resilience in the media community, professional integrity or media literacy among the audience. This polarizes the industry – and audiences – along the lines of media owners’ political interests. A similar trend has emerged in many Western democracies, especially those experiencing socio-political crises. But it has a stronger negative impact in countries like Ukraine that have fewer reputable institutions resilient enough to act as checks and balances.
This environment has also created an unfair playing field that is heavily in favour of established media companies and oligarchs. Support from owners and a lack of financial transparency helps oligarch-owned broadcasters to stay afloat and modernize. Their size and resources, compared to independent media organizations, allow them to offer unrivalled advertising opportunities to big businesses and aggressively expand into the digital domain. They dominate Ukraine’s advertising market and receive the bulk of available marketing revenues: in 2020, for example, the top four media groups in Ukraine accounted for over 95 per cent of the TV advertising market. This restricts available sources of income for smaller media companies looking to produce high-quality, professional and informative content. For this reason, they struggle to invest in their own development and economic resilience.
With a significant audience share, oligarch-owned broadcasters remain highly popular and have the resources to develop the technological capabilities to follow their viewers as they shift from conventional media to online platforms. In this respect, broadcasters can maintain their relevance as a tool of influence for their owners.
At the same time, oligarch-owned broadcasters drive the development of popular content production, the advertising market and digital transformation in the sector. The prominence of Ukrainian broadcasters prevents there being a vacuum that could otherwise be filled by Russian media organizations. Ukraine started blocking Russian TV channels in 2014 and reducing the quantity of Russian media products on Ukrainian TV in 2016. The following year, access was restricted to Russian social media and some websites. Consequently, consumption of Russian media shrank in Ukraine. However, there is a rising trend of Ukrainian audiences accessing both Russian television and online sources via satellite, internet and pirate channels. In 2020, 5.6 per cent of Ukrainians obtained their information from Russian TV channels, up from 4.7 per cent in 2018 and 4.3 per cent in 2019.
There is a rising trend of Ukrainian audiences accessing both Russian television and online sources via satellite, internet and pirate channels.
This contrasts with some of Ukraine’s neighbours, such as Moldova and Belarus, where Russian media products remain prominent. A 2018 study by the Belarusian Association of Journalists summarized the narratives promoted via Russian media content broadcast in Belarus, such as the two countries’ common history as part of the USSR; the fraternity of the two nations; their shared struggle against other countries; Russia as a key geopolitical pole in the new multipolar world; the decay of the EU and the threat the US poses to world peace; and messages attacking Ukraine’s domestic and foreign policies. Communicated through both information and entertainment content, this messaging achieves a greater cumulative effect and is more impactful than straight propaganda.
Another study of 14 countries, Disinformation Resilience in Central and Eastern Europe, also looked at Russia’s efforts to influence information in neighbouring states. It ranked Moldova as the most vulnerable to propaganda out of the countries in Central and Eastern Europe, due to the domination of Russian content broadcast on its most popular TV channels and in other media. When presenting the study in 2018, Hennadiy Maksak, chairman of Ukrainian Prism, a contributor to the research, noted that Russia’s propaganda has specific narratives for different countries and regions, but these share common threads, including messages about the EU as a failed project, Ukraine as a failed state, and negative messages about NATO.
Shaping an alternative
A number of developments are challenging the monopoly of conventional broadcasters. At the forefront of this is the rise of online media and competition from over-the-top (OTT) platforms, especially for entertainment. According to the KIIS 2019 survey, 27.5 per cent of Ukrainians used online media as a source of information in February 2019, up from 27.1 per cent in 2018. In both 2018 and 2019, 23.5 per cent used social media. The more recent Media Consumption Surveys by InMind found that online media and social media became more popular than TV as sources of news for the first time in 2019 and this trend continued in 2020.
Ownership is more diversified in online media due to lower entry barriers for new players, and some have already established themselves as reputable brands at the national and local levels. While this lower barrier to entry increases the diversity of media ownership, it also blurs the line between genuine and quasi-news organizations, which is a bigger concern when audiences are not media literate. This is a global issue. One of the conclusions of the 2018 digital news report by Nic Newman from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism was that ‘fact-checking, news literacy, and transparency initiatives fail to stem the tide of misinformation and low trust’. However, this stream of low-quality content does push reputable media and watchdogs to focus on monitoring professional standards and raises awareness about quality, bias, manipulation and fake news.
The digital upheaval has not stopped chronic issues in Ukraine’s conventional media from spreading to online platforms, where oligarchs and political actors are still prevalent. Some digital media outlets, not owned by oligarchs, remain profitable through tabloid-style content and questionable practices, such as the hidden endorsement and promotion of political actors or businesses (referred to as dzhynsa in Ukrainian).
Online media websites and companies have failed to cultivate a willingness to pay for quality content among audiences. To change this, an increasing number of media outlets have introduced paywalls and donation systems, but it is not yet clear how profitable this will be.
Legislation regulating the media began to change following the 2014 Euromaidan protests, in a sign that the government was attempting to challenge the status quo. The 2015 law on transparency of media ownership mandated that each year, on their websites, broadcasters must disclose their ultimate beneficiaries and affiliated persons, sources of significant funding and changes in ownership structure. This allows audiences to easily find out who owns any TV channel and who may be influencing it.
Monitoring of TV news by NGOs during the latest presidential campaign found that UA:Pershyi, the public broadcaster’s flagship channel, was the only media source with no signs of hidden political advertising.
A new draft media law (see following section) has been proposed to address some outstanding issues, such as regulation of digital media actors, as well as further harmonize Ukrainian media laws with the EU Audiovisual Media Services Directive and strengthen the protection of intellectual property in Ukraine. It would introduce similar ownership transparency requirements for all media agents, a term that includes outlets, providers and OTT platforms.
Another important development since 2014 is the reform of Suspilne, the public broadcaster. Monitoring of TV news by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) during the latest presidential campaign found that UA:Pershyi, the public broadcaster’s flagship channel, was the only media source with no signs of hidden political advertising. UA:Pershyi saw a considerable increase in its audience share during the election period, although its viewer numbers were still below that of the top infotainment channels. This represents a significant shift in the quality of public broadcasting. Suspilne’s challenges include its capacity to improve its ratings and expand its audiences, as well as its financial stability.
In spite of the weaknesses described above, Ukraine’s media environment has always had outlets and journalists that have served the public interest, held those in power to account, and set professional standards domestically. These have mostly been in print, online and through multimedia outlets.
While they seek to deliver quality journalism and develop business models allowing them to remain independent, outlets and journalists focusing on the public interest are also the hardest hit by crises. When Ukraine locked down to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, some independent outlets, as well as the public broadcaster, saw their audiences grow by up to 100 per cent, but advertising revenues plummeted. Advertisers tend to avoid any association with content that can trigger concern or anxiety, such as coverage of COVID-19. Furthermore, in this context, outlets like Suspilne lost content that previously attracted big audiences, such as sporting events or Eurovision. This has pushed many media organizations to move towards diversified models that rely on both advertising and direct revenues from the audience. Approaches include paywalls and asking for donations or offering membership options to build a community of engaged readers. Regardless of how long the pandemic lasts and how hard it hits these outlets, it may contribute to the public’s awareness of the cost and the role of independent journalism.
International funding from democratic governments has been a significant source of support for projects offering an alternative to oligarch-funded or tabloid media. This support ranges from grants for the operation of media outlets and the production of content to financial support for analytical and advocacy work, as well as funding for events that amplify professional discussions in the media sector. Branches of foreign broadcasters in Ukraine – such as the BBC, Deutsche Welle (DW) or Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) – and local media projects supported by international funding, such as Hromadske, offer alternatives to private broadcasters in terms of professional standards and the opportunity for journalists to work in an independent environment. Some of the public broadcaster’s new content and formats are created with the funding, technical support and expertise of donors and public broadcasters from other democratic countries.
This international effort is an important counterweight to the media segment controlled by oligarchs and political actors. However, the resources from different donors are dispersed among many projects rather than being pooled together to invest in the institutional development of a few outlets that could grow into strong competitors to the current dominant media forces. This international support is also important in terms of helping the Ukrainian media community to integrate into the global movement for quality media and to resist the information and media influence from non-democratic actors.
Ukraine currently regulates its media sector in two ways that largely operate in parallel. One approach is through government regulators that are responsible for a wide range of issues, including licensing, the allocation of frequencies for radio and TV stations, supervision and policy development. The other form of oversight is self-regulation by media organizations, which has no enforcement mechanism.
The first approach is administered by agencies like the National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting and the State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting, each with functions including supervising the information space and media actors, developing and implementing policies in the industry and allocating frequencies. These agencies are susceptible to political influence: members of the National Council are appointed by the president and parliament, while the head of the State Committee is nominated by the prime minister and approved by parliament. The new draft media law proposes merging a number of these government regulatory bodies to consolidate their functions, eliminate overlaps and widen their scope, including online media and video-on-demand (VOD) or OTT platforms. The resulting new body would have more power but the mechanisms for appointing its members would not change.
Self-regulatory functions of the media are divided among many associations and NGOs. The National Union of Journalists in Ukraine is a long-established membership association and a legacy of the Soviet period. Its functions include consultation on draft legislation and initiatives for industry reforms, monitoring violations against journalists, awareness-raising events and discussions on media-related topics.
In 2016, representatives of media watchdogs and NGOs established the Independent Media Council to carry out various tasks including monitoring media standards, analysing complaints and overseeing the legislative compliance of media actors. The Commission for Journalist Ethics is another entity that looks at conflicts around coverage in the media based on the standards of the Ethics Code of Ukrainian Journalists. These associations can be effective with the outlets that seek to comply with professional standards voluntarily, but they otherwise lack authority or instruments of influence beyond public analysis or condemnation of violations. However, they contribute to the debate about professional standards in Ukraine and work proactively to propose reforms that could improve the media sector.
The new draft media law proposes a mechanism of co-regulation as an additional approach to media oversight, one which brings together the state and industry players. The intention is to bridge the gap between government-led regulation and the industry’s self-regulation in certain areas, such as on standards and distribution. Under the draft media law, one or several licensed or registered media agents can set up co-regulators for different segments of the media. Participation in co-regulation is voluntary, but it offers members more engagement with the government regulator and, potentially, influence in its decisions or policymaking for the sector. Membership of co-regulators would be open to any licensed or registered media agent or an industry association in the media sector.
Under the proposed legislation, co-regulators will be funded by their members and have input from highly qualified experts in their operation, such as in drafting codes or rules. This approach offers a mechanism of independent expert assessment for the National Council, the main regulator, when it examines violations where co-regulation applies. Members of co-regulators commit to complying with agreed rules, but the proposed legislation does not stipulate any sanctions for non-compliance, and enforcement authority ultimately lies with the state regulator. Also, it remains to be seen what will happen in cases where media actors create competing co-regulators or if a co-regulator is dominated by representatives of oligarch-owned outlets that have thus far shown little interest in professional prudence. Analysis by the Institute of Mass Information (IMI) points to a number of other flaws in the proposed draft law, stating that it does not provide a detailed enough description of the co-regulation mechanism, nor does it clarify how co-regulators interact with the government regulator or specify how they might resolve disagreements.