Media in Ukraine

Media Ownership | Maidan and Media Freedoms | Quality of Journalism and Global Trends | Opportunities for Development | Recommendations

Nataliia Gryvniak

Meet the Author

Nataliia Gryvniak is a journalist and the founder of the story production “InFeatures”, podcast “The Dreamers Project”, and blog “Expert-Voices”. Nataliia lectures on storytelling, media literacy and new media tools, in particular within information wars.


Ukrainian society experienced unprecedented changes and transitions after the collapse of the USSR, among them the emergence of an entirely new media landscape. This paper provides a comprehensive overview of the current media landscape in Ukraine. First, it traces the historical development of media ownership and its effect on freedom of speech before and after Maidan. It then examines the current quality of Ukrainian journalism in the context of global trends. Finally, it provides an overview of development opportunities and how the United States can help foster a professional and free media in Ukraine.

 

MEDIA OWNERSHIP

History and Current Situation

 

Ukraine regained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but the Soviet model of centralized state-owned media companies largely remained in place while information censorship and a lack of business management experience continued. Several Ukrainian media assets survived the Soviet collapse, among them UT-1— a TV broadcaster with 27 regional subchannels — a handful of national radio stations, the UkrInform news agency1, and various local and regional print outlets.2

 

The first steps toward a critical and free press began thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost during the late 1980s.3 Ukraine’s independence stimulated the growth of independent media outlets, which then accelerated even more after the government introduced legislation in 1994 allowing private ownership of media outlets, providing legal protection for the freedom of expression, and creating the National TV and Radio Council to oversee these new forms of media. Although these developments spurred media market competition, they unfortunately also strengthened ties between the media and business and political elites.4 Major media stakeholders’ connections to political power, particularly during Leonid Kuchma’s presidency, intensified political control of the media and had an adverse effect on the sector.5 The government controlled and censored the media through temnyky, secret instructions from the presidential administration to media organizations that laid out acceptable conduct in choosing and covering news subjects.6 Written statements from the presidential administration heavily influenced editorial policies and created the framework for censorship under Kuchma. He tightened the government’s grip over influential media outlets, in particular state-owned ones, and suppressed opposition through a coalition of oligarchs in parliament and the presidential administration that had financial stakes in media businesses. Slowly, these oligarchs came to own or control the leading mass media outlets in Ukraine, resulting in today’s situation. President Yanukovych copied Kuchma’s approach to the media, using it as a tool to maintain control and spread propaganda. Even so, demand for quality journalism grew despite pressure from the oligarchs and the government. Demand did not decrease even when opposition news outlets such as the Dzerkalo Tyzhnia (Weekly Mirror) and Ukrainska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth) were persecuted and targeted by the authorities.7 This push for for independent media led to the creation of the Journalist Media Trade Union co-founded by prominent journalist Andriy Shevchenko, the establishment of the “Stop censorship movement” uniting 517 journalists, and the rise of journalistic activism backing civil resistance.

 

The Orange Revolution of 2004 laid the foundation for a deeper restructuring of the media that terminated state censorship and increased media freedoms. However, business interests continued to have a say in which stories were covered. After the “Orange Revolution,” new political elites came to power. The oligarchs who had supported Kuchma withdraw from administrative positions into the private sector. By the early 2000’s, their companies were making a small profit; thus, from this period on there has been a focus on business development and marketing strategies. Media companies started to compete for revenue and operated as conventional businesses. Paid advertising began to play a significant role, and starting from 2006-7, dzhynsa8became a very common sight in Ukrainian newspapers and on TV channels. Incessant and fierce rivalry for political power between oligarchic clans helped to proliferate dzhynsa at an increasing rate, especially before elections. In 2008, pre-paid materials accounted for up to 80% of all media content.9 Paid material continues to be common, especially in pre-election periods. For instance, according to Pylyp Orlyk from the Institute of Democracy, an organization that monitors regional media, 30-40 % of stories preceding local elections in June 2015 were paid and not noted as such.10

 

Media ownership in Ukraine today

Today, the majority of Ukraine’s mainstream media – national periodicals, information agencies, and TV channels – remains under the control of the oligarchs. Sometimes ownership is clear, but at times the offshore holding of media assets obscures transparency. Even though the recent introduction of mandatory electronic asset declaration by public officials has made media ownership more transparent, serious issues in how political and business elites influence the media remain. Four principal owners hold three-quarters of the television audience share, while four ownership groups together reach 92% of the radio audience in Ukraine. The print and online media markets are less concentrated, though the online sphere is unregulated and provides space for dzhynsa.11

 

After the Мaidan Revolution in 2014, NGOs and newly formed grassroots organizations pushed for a number of legislation reforms. A law on media transparency introduced detailed definitions of ownership and interest in television and other broadcast companies, provided new rules for television station ownership, and established new financial disclosure requirements for owners.12 Since only a few media outlets have disclosed their assets after the passage of the new transparency law, the research and investigations of journalists, researchers, and the NGO sector (Freedom House, DetektorMedia, IMI, etc.) provide the best overview of the situation. A similar law which came into force on 1 January 2016 sets a framework for the privatization of 518 print outlets that account for about a third of the local press market. At the time of writing, several major TV channels have already revealed their ownership structure according to the requirements of the law that came into force on April 1, 2016. However, experts stressed that the implementation of the law is ultimately contingent on the efficiency of the national broadcasting regulator – the National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting – as well as civil society’s oversight.

 

According to data collected from IMI and Freedom House reports,13 five Ukrainian oligarchs – President Petro Poroshenko, Igor Kolomoisky, Dmytro Firtash, Viktor Pinchuk and Rinat Akhmetov – own media business groups. While only Poroshenko is actually in government, Kolomoisky, Firtash, Pinchuk, and Akhmetov are all involved in supporting and promoting political parties or policies.14 The country’s ten most popular television channels are all owned by businessmen whose primary business is not media.15 In a 2015 poll conducted nationally, 94% of respondents said they get their news from television, and while 42% also get information from the Internet, the remaining 52% rely solely on TV.16 Media ownership remains an important factor in media development. President Petro Poroshenko has control over Channel 5, a fact that has aroused criticism especially regarding his promises to reduce the influence of oligarchs in Ukraine. Dmytro Firtash and Serhiy Lyovochkin, the former head of Yanukovych’s presidential administration, control Inter group. Oligarch Igor Kolomoisky controls 1+1 media group (small TV channels, UNIAN news agency, and a few online media). Viktor Pinchuk, the son-in-law of Ex-President Leonid Kuchma, owns StarLightMedia company (three TV national channels: STB, ICTV, Noviy TV channel and a few online media outlets). Finally, Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest oligarch and a close ally of ex-president Yanukovych, owns a cluster of national and regional media, including the popular TRK Ukrayina TV Channel, a few smaller TV stations, the national daily Segodnya (Today), and several local media outlets. Some of them, as previously noted, have long been dominant in the media market. In general, advertising revenue for print media has declined, leaving newspapers even more financially dependent on politicized owners. Paid content disguised as news still remains widespread, particularly in the regional media, damaging the credibility of journalists. The current issues the Ukrainian media faces are a result of media ownership patterns, an insufficient legal framework, and pressure from international institutions. There is high demand in society for unbiased information and public representation, yet trust in the media is low. It is important to note that alternative media sources became popular as a news platform after Maidan. Opinion leaders, including politicians, have begun using social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, to disseminate messages. Today, Facebook is a central platform for public debates in Ukraine; public figures provide content that other outlets circulate afterwards. Twitter is less popular as a news platform in Ukraine than in the US, and is generally used more by the media community than by the general public.17 An interesting example of the importance of social media in Ukraine was a Facebook campaign in April-June 2015 in which the Facebook abuse team banned some top Ukrainian Facebook users, leading to an advocacy campaign by Ukrainian users to establish a “Ukrainian Facebook office.” President Petro Poroshenko even supported this campaign.18

 

MAIDAN AND MEDIA FREEDOMS

According to recent Freedom House research, Ukraine’s status has improved from “not free” to “partly free” due to profound changes in the media environment.19 In some ways media legislation has been strengthened, public TV implementation has been restarted, and there has been a decline in violence against media workers compared to 2014. This was one of the worst years for journalists: seven dead, thirty-three kidnapped and forty-seven arrested during Euromaidan and in the military conflict zone.20 However, the recent murders of opposition journalist Oleh Buzina and investigative journalist Pavel Sheremet serve as a grim reminder of the work that still lies ahead. Positive changes include improved access to public information and open data initiatives through laws that guarantee free access to information. Organizations like the National Union of Journalists, Independent Media Council, and the Independent Media Trade Union of Ukraine are active in protecting the rights of journalists. At the same time, there were recorded cases of restricted access to public information in 2015, mostly at the behest of local authorities. Significant issues still affect media freedom in the country, mostly in connection with the propaganda war with Russia. In 2014, the government decided to censor fifteen Russian channels which were supporting the Kremlin’s occupation of Crimea and banned journalists from the Russian-language newspaper Vesti (News). For the moment, Ukraine has become an appealing place for those Russian journalists who are interested in reporting objectively. Many have fled the tightly controlled Russian state to work on informing the Russophone community abroad, eager to write outside the official Kremlin agenda. For instance, Vera Kichanova, the renowned former Russian journalist, has worked in Ukraine on regional coverage for Reed, a new media outlet. In her article on journalistic revolution, she analyzed the possibility of the same type of powerful journalistic activism in Ukraine taking hold in Russia.21 In her analysis, Ukrainian journalism is more diversified than in Russia, where unbiased media are unable to function properly.

 

One of the key components of this difference is the presence and growth of investigative and data journalism. The previous government persecuted of investigative journalists who uncovered corruption or misdeeds by the Ukrainian government or business ties to politicians. Even though there is less media control under Poroshenko cabinet and investigative journalism has developed substantially in Ukraine, there are still cases of threats and persecutions. The main problem with such threats is impunity for those who repress journalists.22

 

The increasing accessibility of official data due to open data reforms has facilitated the development of investigative journalism, such as the so-called Yanukovychleaks project: systematic research into more than 200 folders of documents found in the real estate holdings of escaped former president Viktor Yanukovych. Many more investigative reporting initiatives have been founded after the Maidan, including the popular video programs Slidstvo: info (Investigation: Info) and Skhemy (Schemes). These initiatives spotlight cases of corruption, one of the roadblocks to Ukraine’s further development.

 

QUALITY OF JOURNALISM AND GLOBAL TRENDS

The Maidan Revolution set in motion a series of changes that had been building up for years not only in society but in the field of journalism. Beginning with a social media post by renowned journalist Mustafa Nayyem urging people to come to the central square of Ukraine’s capital, Maidan affected all layers of society and reinforced expectations that the government fulfill its obligations to the people. Ukrainians felt more courageous and involved in the political process, affecting the government rather than being oppressed or controlled by it. Maidan fostered a journalistic revival and subsequently a blurring of journalism and activism.23 Reporters not only reported on but also took part in the events as participants and sometimes passionate supporters, especially in response to violence from the state police. Maidan became a catalyst for many changes within the media sector: new media initiatives emerged such as Spilno TV and Hromadske. Journalists founded these projects to have more public-oriented content, securing financial independence through new funding mechanisms such as crowdfunding, donations, and grants. The need for investigative and in-depth content has spurred demand for the development of open data and visual analytics. The information war with Russia during Maidan was an impetus for the emergence of new media initiatives like StopFake, VOX Ukraine or Divannaya Sotnya (Sofa One Hundred). All of these outlets research and investigate information found on social media, the internet, and on TV. Some media experts named journalists during and after Euromaidan as catalysts of the events.24

 

Such examples, including the presence of international media, led to an improvement in news coverage within both state-run and privately-owned media, and increased the media literacy of ordinary citizens. The Maidan has helped to revive the project of independent public TV, a long-awaited reform of the Ukraine’s state-owned National TV and Radio Broadcaster (NTU). A new independent board has been appointed at NTU that includes parliament, civil society, and media professionals, and a new law on Public Television and Radio Broadcasting was passed. Experts claim that oligarchs and political elites perceive the reorganization and reform of the state-owned Soviet-style NTU as a threat to their interests.25 As a result, the budget for the NTU was cut and Zurab Alasania, the head of the media organization, resigned. Even though foreign investors provided support for the reform, which includes reorganization and education, a recent poll conducted by the Council of Europe shows that Ukrainians are still unaware of what a public broadcaster is. Since 84% of Ukrainians use TV as their primary source of information, in particular with the extensive distribution network of NTU, media development in Ukraine may regress if further reforms are prevented.26

 

The Ukrainian-Russian information war and new forms of conflict journalism have been restricted by media owners, leading to a decline in data verification, and a lack of balanced coverage of war-related issues and the annexation of Crimea.27 These effects are due to a lack of experience and established editorial practices of information verification in conflict situations, insufficient balance in the newsroom, and self-censorship and confusion about accurate reporting in times of war.28 Journalists in Ukraine also earn extremely low salaries, and their legitimacy is undercut by public distrust due to dzhynsa. There also has been a decline in specialized journalism even though data and investigative target projects have been quite successful.29 There were attempts to improve journalism training through specialised programs at Ukrainian educational institutions, like DFJ at Kyiv Mohyla School of Journalism and media programs at Ukrainian Catholic University, or through specialised new media trainings by professional NGOs like Internews Ukraine. Ukraine’s journalism schools still require experienced trainers, guidelines on new practices, openness to international journalism standards, and the continued support for both new and already existing programs (DFJ program was closed due to lack of financing). Such trainings and cross-border exchange programs are good as long as they are sustainable. This will help Ukrainian journalists combat pressure and influence and increase objectivity within new forms of informational war.

 

OPPORTUNITIES FOR DEVELOPMENT

If the Ukrainian media landscape is to continue growing, it requires sizeable investments. Global trends echo within the Ukrainian media environment. Digitalisation, the increasing role played by social networks, a renewed focus on local content, and various forms of monetization are all at work within the Ukrainian media.

 

Monetization and business management

According to the Media Map Project, grant organizations such USAID, Council of Europe, Internews Network, IMS, and IREX have identified the monetization strategies of media entities, business management, low remuneration, and the lack of qualified training and education as substantial challenges to the evolution of media in Ukraine.30

 

There is still a lack of business media management education and digital media education because media projects have low returns of investment due to the recent decline of the advertising market from 1.4 billion USD to 685 million USD, with especially low ad revenue in more remote areas of the country.31 New media initiatives find it exceptionally difficult to launch their projects on the market, yet there are some successful cases. Mostly success comes from media diversification, such as in the case of one of the leading English-speaking media outlets – the Kyiv Post. In order to reach its audience the newspaper organizes media and specialized events, produces reports, and offers specialized products. Grants from international foundations and agencies remain an important instrument of funding for independent journalism projects. According to many grant holders, media should rely solely on donations. According to Oleksandr Akymenko, one of the founders of new media initiatives Platforma and a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University, the future of monetization for Ukrainian media projects lies in convergence on global trends. Like in the cases of Vice News, Bloomberg, etc. the goal is to center efforts around one major product and then develop numerous other projects. The Ukrainian market has great potential, thanks to widespread media coverage and a need for information. People are becoming active rather than passive users of content.

 

Online Media or New Media

Online media started to develop in Ukraine in the mid 90’s, yet its significance grew in the late 2000s and during the Maidan protests when the public turned to more diversified and versatile sources of information on the internet.32 The political climate proved fertile for the creation of established new media outlets, such as Hromadske TV, Hromadske Radio, Espresso TV and others using online streams and social media. Most of the traditional major outlets are following suit to enter online space and become active on social media. During 2013-2014, Ukrainian online media rapidly expanded its presence and audience. This was partly due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. For example, since the beginning of the war in Donbas, the reach of the biggest online media outlet Ukrainska Pravda grew from 1 to 3 million views per day and the audience from 300,0000 to 1 million unique visitors per day according to SimilarWeb.com.33 In response to the growth of the online media market, dozens of online news sites launched at the end of 2013 and through 2014. These outlets had tremendous reach, with more than 6.5 million users a day for Espresso TV, and five million a day for print/online outlet nv.ua.34

 

Ukraine is following the global trend of digitization. As of May 2015, the estimated number of active internet users in Ukraine was 21.8 million people. The growth of the audience was 12% in 2015 and almost 90% of users went online on a daily basis. Access to broadband internet remains inexpensive with the average monthly fee at just $10. In 2015, general internet penetration rate was 49.3%.35

 

RECOMMENDATIONS

Even though Ukrainian civil society is very active in the media sector reform process, tighter oversight and training of governmental institutions would be beneficial. In Ukraine, international monitoring and oversight are a driving force for change.

 

  1. In order to help Ukraine build media literacy, the United States should boost support for cross-partner programs, specialized programs within the U.S. Department of State, and trainings for media owners, managers, and journalists will improve media literacy and open Ukraine to a variety of business development opportunities. Digital media schools, professional organizations, and media groups that provide training in new media tools, both new programs and those that already exist, also require support. In addition, US media organizations could increase media trainings through their international and cross border trainings.
  2. US media should foster the development of foreign correspondents, affiliates, and a media presence in the region.
  3. The rule of law in Ukraine is still not fully established. Without a proper legal framework, little can change. Proper monitoring for the implementation of media reforms can be achieved through financial support for professional organizations’ and civil society’s monitoring initiatives, support for the media trade union and other professional media organizations.
  4. Media in the regions of Ukraine is less developed and more dependent on business and governmental bodies. US should continue to support active media organizations that increase media literacy in the regions, like Internews.
  5. International media and US opinion makers can play a significant role in drawing attention to reforms. Thus, support for cultural and economic diplomacy, freedom of information, involvement in international media projects, tweets and posts in social media about Ukrainian media projects would be of substantial help.
  6. The US should continue to support independent media through grant organizations.
  7. The US should support proper investigations of cases involving violations of media freedoms, and support journalists’ rights via media professional groups.
  8. US investigative organizations’ involvement in cross-border investigative, open data, and digital projects can provide excellent support for the development of local initiatives.
  9. Investment support of the development of the Ukrainian technological sector, since tech and media merging might provide benefits in the future that enrich both fields. For example, steps could include pitching sessions in the USA, investment fairs, and participation or sponsorship of media tech hackathons.
The views above are those of the author.


RETURN TO REPORT OVERVIEW


Footnotes

  1. Dariya Orlova, “Ukrainian Media after the EuroMaidan: in Search of Independence and Professional Identity,” Medienpolitik International, 2016.
  2. Horobets and Bukhtatyy, “Communal Press Ready for Reforms,” Osvita, 2016,http://osvita.mediasapiens.ua/print/1411980811/komunalna_presa_ukraini_otsinka_gotovnosti_do_reformi/

  3. Milestones in Glasnost and Perestroika: Politics and People,” Brookings Institution Press. 1991.
  4. Marta Dyczok, “Do the Media Matter? Focus on Ukraine,” Mass Media in Post-Communist Ukraine, 2009.
  5. Marta Dyczok, “Was Kuchma’s Censorship Effective? Mass Media in Ukraine before,” Europe-Asia Studies, Vol.3, March 2006.
  6. Orest Deychakiwsky, The Turning Point – Ukrainian Elections: Ukraine, Russia, the U.S. and West, and Diaspora,” Brama, 2004.
  7. Tom Mangold and Ewa Ewart, “Killing the Story,” The Age, March 30, 2002.
  8. Anastasiya Grynko, “Ukrainian journalists perceptions of unethical practices. Codes and everyday ethics,” Central European Journal of Communications 2, p. 7, 2012.
  9. A. Poludenko, and M. Semenchenko, “Jeans and Elections,” PiK Ukraïny, 2008.
  10. The Development of Sustainable Independent Media in Ukraine,” Media Sustainability Index 2016, IREX, 2016.
  11. Media Owners, Media Ownership Monitor Ukraine, Reporters Without Borders and the Institute of Mass Information in Kyiv, 2016.
  12. Peter Roudik, “Ukraine New Law on TV Ownership,” Global Legal Monitor, October 7, 2015.
  13. “Media Owners”, Media Ownership Monitor Ukraine, Reformers Without Borders and the Institute of Mass Information in Kyiv, 2016.
  14. Oliver Carroll, “Star Wars in Ukraine: Poroshenko vs. Kolomoisky,” Politico, December 21, 2015.
  15. Iryna Fedets, “Oligarchs on the Airwaves,” Foreign Policy, November 11, 2015.
  16. “2016 World Press Freedom Index,” Reporters Without Borders, 2016, https://rsf.org/ranking#!/index-details/UKR
  17. Roman Shutow (media analyst from Detector Media) in discussion with the author on 07/20/2016.
  18. Vitaliy Moroz (New Media programs director at Internews Ukraine) in discussion with the author on 20th August 2016.
  19. Freedom House Ukraine Country Report,” Freedom House, 2016.
  20. Dariya Orlova, “Ukrainian Media after the EuroMaidan: in Search of Independence and Professional Identity,” Publizistik, 2016.
  21. Vera Kichanova, “Journalist Maidan,” Slon, 2013.
  22. Denis Bigus (investigative journalist) in discussion with the author on July 21, 2016.
  23. Dariya Orlova, “Ukrainian Media after the EuroMaidan: in Search of Independence and Professional Identity,” Publizistik, 2016.
  24. Roman Shutow (media analyst from Detector Media) in discussion with the author on July 20, 2016.
  25. Orysya Lutsevych, “Ukraine is on the Brink of Media Freedom, but Oligarchs are set to put a stop to it Ukraine press state broadcaster,” The Independent, December 2, 2016.
  26. “Trust of Society to Mass Media,” Omega Social Research, 2015.
  27. Roman Shutow (media analyst from Detector Media) in discussion with the author on 07/20/2016.
  28. Natalia Ligachova and Galina Petrenko, “Is there a deterioration of press freedom in Ukraine?,” Detector Media, August 16, 2016.
  29. The Development of Sustainable Independent Media in Ukraine,” Media Sustainability Index 2016, IREX, 2016.
  30. Caroline Lees, “2016: Year of Change to European Media,” European Journalism Observatory, 2016
  31. Roman Shutow (media analyst from Detector Media) in discussion with the author on 07/20/2016.
  32. Natalya Krasnoboka and Holli Semetrko “Murder, Journalism and the Web: How the Gongadze Case Launched the Internet News Era in Ukraine,”The Internet and Politics: Citizens, Voters and Activists, Routledge, 2006.
  33. Market Intelligence Custom Report, 2016, https://www.similarweb.com/website/pravda.com.ua#search
  34. Research provided by Vitaliy Moroz, Internews Ukraine, July 15, 2016.
  35. Statistics on how many Ukrainians use the internet were retrieved from Watcher.com.ua.