International assistance and regulatory oversight are essential for improving transparency and resilience in Ukraine’s media sector, but equally important are an infrastructure of support for quality journalism and media literacy efforts.
While major oligarch-controlled media players focus on political influence and commercial gain in Ukraine, a group of smaller outlets are trying to maintain quality and journalism standards in the public interest. Support for these outlets is vital and they should be the targets of international assistance and expertise.
Oligarch-controlled organizations are likely to dominate Ukraine’s media landscape in the mid-term, unless their owners’ economic or political positions change dramatically. Their available resources will enable them to invest in expansion online and create content to retain modern audiences. As a result, they are likely to continue to have a strong position in the advertising market.
As technological and social changes have lowered the entry barrier for new players in the media industry, the sector has become more innovative and diverse. Post-Euromaidan reforms have brought about a number of changes including more transparent ownership of private media companies; a major transformation of the public broadcaster; and the privatization of formally state-run media organizations, which now experiment with different business models and editorial independence from local authorities.
Ukraine’s media industry reforms are the result of cooperation between the media community and progressive politicians to draft and ratify new legislation. The support of Ukraine’s international partners and donors has been crucial, particularly in the post-Euromaidan period. In late 2019 and early 2020, the government intensified efforts to update Ukraine’s media legislation, proposing a comprehensive new draft media law to replace at least five laws regulating different media categories. While still debated in the media community – often critically – it offers some long-needed modernization of the legislative framework. However, it is unlikely to loosen the grip of oligarchs or political actors on the sector.
Continued support for independent outlets that maintain quality in the public interest is a key step towards countering the influence of oligarchs. The reform of Suspilne is a good example of what can be achieved. Ukraine’s media community and international partners have been instrumental in pressing for recent reforms and they should continue to do so.
Much of the media, particularly smaller projects and regional outlets, could benefit from access to advanced design and promotional tools, as well as in-depth research of the domestic market, the audience and global developments in the media sphere. Engagement in international debates on the role of modern technology in the media is important, especially regarding the interaction between social media and conventional media. Equally important is engagement in the international debate on regulation of the online domain.
There are still a number of changes that can create an open and stable media environment in Ukraine. Crucially this includes the development of support infrastructure such as funding for independent media watchdogs, specialized outlets that cover the media industry, and self-regulatory initiatives. Financial oversight of the media will also boost the sector’s resilience in Ukraine. Transparency requirements are especially important for the major broadcasters but should eventually apply to online outlets as they become increasingly influential.
It is necessary to limit the opportunities for collusion between politicians and the media community. Prohibiting politicians from owning mass media organizations and outlets would be a step in the right direction. However, this would not deliver a quick and dramatic shift: an MP can always find a third party to officially own an outlet on their behalf. Nevertheless, this could contribute to a gradual change of attitudes towards this type of intertwined influence among audiences, the media community and the political establishment.
A crucial responsibility of the political establishment is to protect journalists. In addition to physical security measures to prevent attacks on journalists, this should also include effective investigation and punishment of those that perpetrate attacks, and the rejection of using administrative and law enforcement tools against journalists. Political actors should refrain from attacking and discrediting journalists and media outlets online, via personal messages or organized trolling campaigns. Many outlets and journalists in Ukraine use their professional status to manipulate information and opinions rather than to inform or serve the public good, but this does not justify politicians attacking and discrediting journalism as a whole.
Finally, it is important to accompany all these efforts with a wide-reaching media literacy campaign. It should target all ages, different social groups and educate the audiences about both conventional and digital media consumption. While there are many NGO initiatives already doing this in Ukraine, their reach is limited.