oDR: Opinion

How Zelenskyy can challenge Ukraine's media magnates

The Ukrainian president has promised to curb the power of the pro-Russian oligarchs who control Ukraine’s leading TV channels, but is it all talk?

Janek Lasocki
30 March 2021, 12.00am
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy
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Image: Office of the President of Ukraine

It was ten hours into his marathon press conference back in October 2019 that the recently elected Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke about de-oligarchisation of the media, something he’d previously said would be a priority during his presidency.

“Owners of TV stations and other media outlets should be businessmen, not politicians,” he told journalists. “They shouldn’t be influencing editorial policy of any mass media.”

Last month, Zelensky signed a decree to take three oligarch-owned TV stations off air. It provoked a national debate about acceptable limits to free expression. For some, it was huge news: the president was acting decisively to stop Russian disinformation. For others, the decision was not subject to enough scrutiny, and other means should have been used “that were less of a threat to media pluralism”.

But this move also demonstrated how little Zelenskyy has actually done to fulfil his campaign promise, to permanently reduce the long-standing dominance of oligarchs over the media in Ukraine.

Most Ukrainians still get their news from television, yet all the country’s biggest channels are owned by just a handful of oligarchs. Costly and unprofitable, TV stations have for years served less as investments and more as tools to sway public opinion and influence policy in their owners’ favour.

Assessing the 2019 election that brought Zelenskyy to power, the Election Observation Mission from the OCSE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) was unequivocal in its view of these privately owned channels. They “provided imbalanced and biased coverage […] and continued to follow their owners’ political agenda”.

Throughout Ukraine’s 2019 presidential elections, TV stations were unsubtle in their support of particular candidates. The Ukraina channel – owned by Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in the country – gave disproportionate coverage to Oleksandr Vilkul of Opposition Bloc and Oleh Lyashko of the Radical Party. The 1+1 channel, owned by Ihor Kolomoiskyi, dedicated most airtime to Zelenskyy. Channel 5, owned by Petro Poroshenko – Ukraine’s president at the time – unsurprisingly “showed strong support” for its own owner. Channels owned by Dmytro Firtash, Serhiy Lyovochkin, Viktor Pinchuk and Viktor Medvedchuk also showed support for their owners’ preferred candidates.

Taking sides in elections is just one example. Oligarchs’ influence over editorial policy is pervasive and often actively undermines Ukraine’s troubled reform efforts.

Tools in their owners’ hands

It was after a clean-up of Ukraine’s banking sector that Ihor Kolomoiskyi was accused of embezzling more than $5bn from Privatbank, which he owned until 2016, when it was nationalised.

Last year, parliament passeda law that would prevent the return of the bank to Kolomoiskyi. Ahead of the vote, anyone tuning in to the prime-time current affairs show on the oligarch’s 1+1 channel would have heard a very one-sided case against the law.

If you’d switched channels to the flagship political programme on Akhmetov’s Ukraina station, you’d have heard an argument about why a corruption investigation into his DTEK energy company should be ended. According to prosecutors, DTEK colluded with officials to overcharge Ukrainian consumers by $1.4bn and pocketed the profits. DTEK has consistently denied the charges, and the case was later closed.

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On 3 February, president Volodymyr Zelenskyy introduced sanctions against three TV channels: 112 Ukraine, ZIK and NewsOne | (c) STR/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved

The three recently banned channels 112, NewsOne and ZIK – all owned by Viktor Medvedchuk – have undermined the war effort in the Donbas, as well as reforms. Medvedchuk is openly close to the Kremlin (Vladimir Putin is godfather to Medvedchuk’s youngest daughter) and his TV stations have promoted Russian narratives denying Russian involvement in the Donbas and spread conspiracy theories.

Oligarchs’ influence over the reporting on their channels has been well documented by media monitoring groups, but media owners rely on the fact that the average viewer isn’t aware or doesn’t pay attention. According to a Razumkov Centre poll in 2020, barely 10% of Ukrainians know who owns the channels they watch regularly, even though this is publicly available information.

Ukraine needs the mass media to hold the government to account and properly inform citizens, rather than just prioritising the agendas of their owners. But without government action, this just won’t happen. It is not easy to intervene in the media environment without compromising freedom of expression. But doing nothing is not an option. There are two responses: overhaul media regulation, and strengthen the alternatives to oligarch-owned media.

‘Legislation governing television, radio and the internet is not outdated […] It does not exist at all’

Zelensky and his Servant of the People party have passed plenty of legislation since winning an overwhelming majority in 2019, some of it difficult and controversial. But a new draft law to regulate the media, long called for by journalists and reform activists – and also a requirement of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement – has not been a priority.

The need for reform is recognised officially. Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, said recently: “Legislation governing television, radio and the internet is not outdated. We can assume that it does not exist at all […] We must upgrade the entire regulatory system in the country.” 

One key change would be the introduction of co-regulation (a combination of state regulation and self-regulation). Previous presidents have exploited Ukraine’s media regulator to penalise political opponents, so there’s a need for a system that sets high common standards, but also builds mutual trust. With co-regulation, both the media and the regulator agree on a code of conduct. The regulator also needs to be stronger and more independent.

The long-awaited law is an important step and should not be delayed further, but to actually tackle oligarch control, legislators need to be more radical. Natalya Ligacheva, head of the NGO Detector Media, explains: “The new draft law is clear that owners shouldn’t influence editorial policy, but then doesn’t say how that could actually be secured.”

Experts agree that transparency around media financing is needed. Once that becomes a legal requirement, Ligacheva suggests TV channels could be given a time frame to make a profit or break even; if they do neither, they should be taken off air. Oligarchs shouldn’t be able to subsidise the media in order to promote their own agenda.

Taras Shevchenko of the Centre for Democracy and Rule of Law, an NGO, suggests anoher innovation: individuals should be banned from media ownership, forcing oligarchs to cede control to co-owners.

Trust in the public broacaster

Currently, the best alternative to the oligarch-owned TV channels is Ukraine’s public broadcaster, Suspilne. The transformation of an old-fashioned state broadcaster, which for years was expected to serve those in power, into an independent, modernising organisation is no small achievement. Especially in comparison with neighbouring Poland, where the government has turned its public broadcaster, TVP, into a subservient mouthpiece of the ruling party.

Having inherited 30 separate companies and significant debt, Suspilne underwent a colossal restructuring in 2017. Wasteful spending was cut, transparent competition was introduced for managerial positions and a new supervisory board, combining representatives from parliament and NGOs (the majority), now ensures independent oversight. After investing in professional quality programming (especially investigative journalism) and a new culture of editorial independence, Suspilne is now the most trusted television news source in Ukraine.

However, the ratings for Suspilne’s flagship TV channel – averaging about 1% of TV viewers – have not been impressive. The ambition was to be the BBC of Ukraine, but in terms of viewing figures, it’s currently more comparable to PBS in the US (although Suspilne’s radio stations are more popular and its online presence is growing fast).

”The current funding model dooms Suspilne to failure, because it doesn’t allow us to build a realistic strategy, even for two years. That is why it’s vitally important to ensure the predictability of funding”

One reason for this underperformance is lack of money. Despite approving Suspilne’s taxpayer-funded and supposedly guaranteed budget each year, MPs have consistently underfunded the organisation by up to 50%. This year, it should get the full amount for the first time, but who knows what will happen next year?

Vadym Miskyi, a member of Suspilne’s supervisory board, explains: The current funding model dooms Suspilne to failure, because it doesn’t allow us to build a realistic strategy, even for two years. That is why it’s vitally important to ensure the predictability of funding. ”Having a full budget for the first time, we could hire better specialists or start costly series productions with external companies, but next year our funding could be cut again to 50% and we would have to lay off these people and stop filming. The current funding model dooms Suspilne to failure, because it doesn’t allow us to build a realistic strategy, even for two years. That is why it’s vitally important to ensure the predictability of funding.”

Sustainable financing models protected from political intervention have been actively discussed for years, but not acted upon. They could be. A Council of Europe expert report recommended using the rent that the state receives from broadcasters and telecom operators for radio frequencies (a proposal supported by Suspilne’s supervisory board and NGOs). Other ideas include following Italy’s model, which adds an opt-out fee to consumers’ electricity bills.

Zelenskyy’s support for the public broadcaster has been lukewarm. The president and his party’s MPs rarely appear on Suspilne, let alone give it exclusive interviews. Earlier this year, ahead of the vote for membership of the supervisory board, a strong lobbying campaign by the government (unsuccessfully) threatened its independence. Suspilne director Zurab Alasania is due to step down later this year. The best the president can do is not interfere in choosing his successor.

At the start of March, Zelenskyy’s spokesperson Iuliia Mendel claimed that the president would now be taking the issue of oligarchs seriously: “President Zelenskyy is prepared to challenge the power of Ukraine’s oligarchs everywhere, from the energy and banking sectors to politics and the media […] Zelenskyy aims to let his actions speak for themselves.”

But it’s hard to find a Ukrainian citizen who is optimistic that these are more than mere words. Many people think that too many MPs are in the pockets of the oligarchs, or that the president doesn’t understand the point of public service broadcasting. However, concrete laws can be passed, money can be better spent and support can be provided that would significantly improve Ukrainians’ access to quality journalism. But first the political will must be found.

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