Despite the continued dominance of powerful individuals in Ukraine’s media sector, the political elite, audiences and the media community all have roles in tackling corruption, political influence and poor media literacy.
The presence of oligarchs has been a defining characteristic of Ukraine’s media landscape since independence. However, the political elite and consumers have also played major roles in the sector’s evolution. Ukraine’s media sector now faces the same challenges seen across the globe in terms of changing production methods and consumption habits. Consequently, there is a need to develop sustainable economic models that will enable outlets to survive and remain relevant. Media outlets are also striving to create an environment in which audiences seek quality content rather than indiscriminately consuming whatever is readily accessible.
Many politicians in Ukraine own media outlets or work closely with oligarchs that have influence over the top broadcasters. Politicians without the endorsement of a popular TV channel or outlet exist only on the margins of the political sphere, with little or no recognition among the electorate. A 2018 poll by KIIS showed that some of the newer politicians, best known in the post-Euromaidan activist community, who did not have oligarch support were unknown to an average of 50–70 per cent of Ukrainians. However, social media – including YouTube, Facebook and messenger apps – is changing the status quo and allowing individual political or public figures to build their profiles. But these new methods are still more effective at reaching wider audiences when amplified by conventional media.
Media watchdogs, such as Detector Media and IMI, are effective at monitoring and reporting these trends. Although their work reaches few people, it raises awareness about the quality of content in Ukraine and the factors that influence it.
Ukraine’s political elite spends enormous amounts of money on promotion for electoral campaigns, especially on television. The Committee of Voters of Ukraine reported that candidates spent a total of UAH 623 million ($23 million), or 66 per cent of their campaign funds, on media advertising in the 2019 presidential election. Unofficial expenses are likely to be far higher. This money mostly goes to oligarch-owned TV channels and contributes to the distortion of the media economy. Some observers argue for a full ban on paid political advertising on TV and radio, as has been implemented in some European countries.
Social media offers an alternative channel for promotional activities and has proven to be a successful mechanism of political influence. In the presidential and parliamentary campaigns that spanned 2018 and 2019, social media tools were a key method of communication alongside TV, using campaign tactics such as ‘deep targeting’ of specific groups, bot or troll attacks to disparage opponents, and working with high profile commentators on social media to endorse a certain candidate or agenda. Mykhailo Fedorov, vice premier in charge of digital transformation and previously the head of the digital campaign for Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has said that his team’s strategy focused on deep targeting of voters; engaging supportive social media users in regional communities to amplify Zelenskyy campaign messages and counter negative campaigns from opponents; and building up accounts on different social media (Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Telegram) to use as their own channels for positive and viral messaging.
In July 2019, Dmytro Zolotukhin, then deputy minister of information policy, published findings on 1,620 accounts that paid for promotion marked as political advertising from the Facebook advertising library. According to his assessment, the 100 top advertisers spent $1.7 million on promotion. Among them, the biggest advertisers were Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party ($312,112), Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party ($308,221), and Sviatoslav Vakarchuk’s Voice ($307,351). Internews Ukraine looked at how campaigning varied across social networks, including Russia’s VKontakte, which is currently banned in Ukraine but can be accessed via a VPN. This research showed that Servant of the People successfully campaigned on Instagram, which allowed it to create positive communication and transform political messaging into infotainment. Facebook had the most politically active users and was the most polarizing platform – especially during the presidential campaign – but was found to be slightly more neutral in terms of impact over the parliamentary poll. Meanwhile, VKontakte was a haven for Russian and anti-Ukrainian propaganda.
Ukraine regulates media coverage of pre-election agitation and political actors during campaigns. Legislation stipulates different requirements for paid political advertising and coverage during elections. For the latter, media organizations must report the news objectively, treating parties and candidates equally and without bias, and provide balanced, accurate and complete information. Yet, these regulations have not resulted in high-quality and balanced media coverage of elections and they fail to deter political actors and parts of the media community from abusing their positions for political influence.
A 2015 Detector Media expert report investigated the reasons behind the poor regulation of election advertising in the Ukrainian media sector.
A 2015 Detector Media expert report investigated the reasons behind the poor regulation of election advertising in the Ukrainian media sector. It concluded that the current situation is due to a culture of poor ethics among political actors; the willingness of media outlets to be used for political agendas; the reluctance of the media to exercise self-regulation; a high tolerance of violations of journalism standards and hidden advertising among many in the media community; and the lack of effective legal provisions, as well as mechanisms to monitor and punish such advertising. An improvement of the political and media culture and self-regulation is essential to resolve this – legal norms or restrictions alone would be insufficient.
The willingness of the political elite to use law enforcement instruments against journalists is another chronic problem that causes conflict with media actors attempting to adhere to higher professional standards. Those that carry out attacks, and even murders, often do so with impunity. This problem persists even after the Euromaidan and was exemplified by the flawed investigations into the murders of Pavlo Sheremet in 2016 and Vadym Komarov, a journalist and a blogger from Cherkasy, in 2019.
Generally, attacks against anti-corruption activists, including arson, increased in 2020. In November 2020, parliament initiated changes to the Criminal Code to impose harsher punishments for attacks against journalists. But application of these rules remains up to the current law enforcement agencies that lack credibility in investigating crimes against journalists or holding perpetrators accountable.
Despite the challenging environment, the media community has been a crucial driving force behind the evolution of Ukraine’s media landscape.
The murder of the journalist Georgi Gongadze in 2000 triggered massive ‘Ukraine without Kuchma’ protests, which provoked an outpouring of accumulated frustration with the administration at that time. In 2010, more than 200 journalists and activists joined forces to launch the Stop Censorship movement against government pressure on the media community. In 2013, 14 journalists left Forbes Ukraine after new owners changed the editorial policy, specifically the decision of the new editor-in-chief to scrap a report on advisers to Serhiy Arbuzov, first vice premier under former prime minister Mykola Azarov. The change followed the controversial purchase of UMH, a major radio and print media holding that owned Forbes, by Serhiy Kurchenko, a young oligarch in the Yanukovych years (2010–14), from media tycoon Borys Lozhkin. It was widely interpreted as a move by ‘the Family’ – a common name for the Yanukovych circle – to take control of the media landscape ahead of the upcoming elections in 2015.
Over the past two decades, Ukraine’s media community, comprising both journalists and watchdog NGOs, has created a vibrant environment for discussing problems and solutions on different platforms, from roundtables to bigger annual events, such as the Lviv Media Forum or National Media Talk. Specific developments include the establishment of the Media for an Informed Choice movement and the ranking of media outlets according to accuracy of content and professional standards.
At the same time, the media community has struggled to fix the intrinsic weaknesses that affect its quality, trustworthiness and pace of evolution. One obvious flaw is the broad tolerance of corruption and the influence of owners or political players on the media community. However, there has always been a sizeable pool of journalists and media professionals maintaining high standards. This group must keep expanding in order to bring about a decisive shift in the resilience of journalism in Ukraine.
A lack of professionalism and accountability continue to be major problems within Ukraine’s broader media community. This stems from internal factors such as the absence of a long uninterrupted tradition of journalism and high-quality education, the weak market, and the poor financial state of many media outlets. As a result, outlets cannot afford to competitively pay journalists, offer them extra training, send reporters abroad to cover international developments or invest in technological development. Furthermore, this lack of professionalism reflects global trends whereby commercialization is pursued even if it damages the quality of reporting, staff are overworked and overstretched, and reporting must compete with social media and algorithms for speed and scope.
Finally, international donors fund most of the Ukraine-based NGOs that monitor, analyse and offer solutions to different domestic issues, including media and politics. This enables NGOs to function independently and is extremely useful for the development of the local media culture and environment. However, relying on international donor funding alone is unsustainable. Ukraine should eventually establish its own sources of funding for independent analysis, making sure that grant schemes or other funding mechanisms are effectively shielded from political influence and bias. The Ukrainian Cultural Foundation is one example: created in 2017, it offers grant funding to projects in cultural and creative industries, including research and policy-design activities.
Poor media literacy among audiences is a significant challenge for Ukraine. Distortions in the media environment and an underdeveloped media culture have contributed to apathy and confusion among audiences. Tackling this problem is linked to dealing with wider changes in how information is delivered and the rise of populism.
The 2019 KIIS survey offered some interesting insights into media literacy in Ukraine. Overall, of the 74 per cent of Ukrainians that got their news from central TV channels and the 27 per cent that got their news online, around half of each said they trusted those sources.
Ukrainians tend to choose sources of information based on the quality of the content (30 per cent) and whether the views expressed reflect their own (28 per cent). The reputation of a media outlet was most important for 16 per cent of respondents to the survey, and the owner of the outlet was most important for 8 per cent. The responses, particularly from those in eastern and southern Ukraine, emphasized the problem of ‘filter bubbles’: the narrowing down of the information people consume on conventional media to that which reflects their existing views and opinions, or as a result of algorithm-based information consumption online. The shift to the internet and social media for information is likely to aggravate this problem further.
According to the survey, just over half – 52 per cent – of Ukrainians believe that they can identify fake news, and 60 per cent use at least one means of doing so. This includes cross-checking stories and verifying information on government websites. Just 10 per cent recalled seeing any educational content on countering disinformation that month (February 2019) and only 15 per cent thought they could find it useful.
It is hard to measure the extent to which awareness about fake news, disinformation and identification tools has evolved in Ukraine. But initiatives launched to address these issues and better inform audiences about what constitutes high-quality journalism have drawn attention to the problem. These efforts should continue and expand into education programmes covering the consumption of information online.
Another serious challenge to the sector is the reluctance of audiences to pay for media products. Ukrainians are largely used to getting content for free. To some extent, this is a legacy of the Soviet Union, where the state had a monopoly over the media and subsidized its consumption for propaganda purposes. This also stems from the domination of oligarchs in Ukraine’s modern media. The oligarch-owned TV channels tend to produce high-quality popular content, especially in entertainment. As a result, the audience is used to good quality entertainment content for little or no cost. The internet’s abundance of free content demonstrates that this is a global trend. However, although limited in scope, Ukrainians are beginning to show a willingness to pay for certain content.
Both the top broadcasters and independent outlets are now challenging this state of affairs. In January 2020, all major broadcasters restricted access to their signals for free-to-air users. As a result, around 4.4 million households across Ukraine, or roughly one-third of all households with some form of TV service, now must switch to a payment model to access channels they previously watched for free. In 2020, a number of independent outlets – from Ukrayinska Pravda to liga.net and Novoye Vremia – launched membership, donation or subscription systems. To some extent, this was their response to the COVID-19 crisis. But more generally, this reflects their longer-term objective to transform their business model, reliance on advertisers and their interaction with their audiences.