Over the past year, Ukraine has been falling out of the headlines. Since Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down in July 2014, stories from Ukraine have rarely punched above regional news.
Global media is western-oriented, and Ukraine has been eclipsed by stories seen to have a direct impact on the west — from migration to the US presidential election. For me, as a foreign journalist based in Kiev, this has meant a seemingly endless succession of goodbye parties in recent months, as the news market pushes friends and colleagues who have been through revolution and war on to other bigger stories.
No foreign private news operation has opened a new bureau since the protests began in November 2013. All of them were waiting for the Ukraine story to end
Big stories require extra funds to cover them, from travel expenses to overtime. But unlike other industries, a news boom doesn’t translate into increased revenue. As a result, newsroom budgets are like covers always being pulled away by the larger story — someone is always left out in the cold. Suddenly need constant coverage out of Paris (as was the case after the tragic attacks last December)? Other areas are going to have to go quiet for a while.
That is the reason, despite the glut of news covering Ukraine starting with the Maidan protests, no foreign private news operation has opened a new bureau since the protests began in November 2013. All of them were waiting for the Ukraine story to end — even as the story developed from protest to war and beyond. Now it seems that moment is finally coming.
This slipping coverage matters for Ukraine because media scrutiny is necessary for accountability. Media as a check on government abuse of power is a cornerstone of any democracy. But foreign media is especially important in Ukraine both because it is what Ukraine’s western bankrollers read and watch, and because Ukrainian media doesn’t play that role.
Ukrainian media falls into three main categories, and each has its own shortcomings: oligarch-controlled media, government-controlled media and post-Maidan citizen media.
Ukraine’s oligarch-controlled media is clearest when looking at the television landscape, where all of the major players have their channels. President Petro Poroshenko continues to own Channel 5, despite international pressure during his election campaign to sell it. Former Dnipropetrovsk governor Igor Kolomoisky controls 1+1 and its English-language subsidiary Ukraine Today, and eastern Ukrainian coal and industry oligarch Rinat Akhmetov has the Ukraina television channel.
March 2016: Mark Feygin, centre back to a camera, the lawyer of Nadezhda Savchenko, talks to the media outside a Russian court. (c) Ivan Sekretarev / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.All of these channels show news, and at times inform, but they also muffle key issues affecting their owners — whether it is the accusations against Poroshenko emerging after the Panama Papers broke or Kolomoisky’s raid on a majority government-owned gas company.
As a result, Ukraine’s television broadcasters fail to act as a true checks on the government. These channels are, first and foremost, loyal to their owners, and serve as assurance for the oligarchs that, if it comes to a media battle over their business interests, they won’t be caught unarmed.
Since the start of hostilities with Russia, there has also been pressure to create a Ukrainian response to Russian propaganda outlets like Sputnik and RT (once standing for Russia Today and now apparently for nothing). Ukraine Today was an early attempt along these lines. But, as already mentioned, it was a Kolomoisky project rather than a strictly government one.
Ukraine Tomorrow was conceived as another attempt, this time under the aegis of the newly-minted Ministry of Information, often deridingly referred to as the Ministry of Truth a la George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. The channel is meant to provide a Ukrainian perspective on events, providing material in Ukrainian and English, but despite being announced over a year ago and interviewing potential anchors, it is yet to materialise.
Ukraine’s television broadcasters fail to act as true checks on the government. These channels are, first and foremost, loyal to their owners
Even if it does, however, as its name implies, Ukraine Tomorrow is meant to copy Russia Today — albeit with a fraction of the budget. This type of project can provide an official Ukrainian version of events that would doubtlessly contrast with the version coming from Russian propaganda outlets. But in the end, it is meant to support the state, rather than criticising and holding it to a higher standard.
The third main category is post-Maidan citizen media like Hromadske TV. A non-profit organisation, Hromadske TV is neither beholden to the oligarchs nor the state. Instead, it initially relied on donations and now on westerns grants from sources like the European Commission’s Delegation to Ukraine, the Canada International Development Agency (CIDA) and the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA).
Hromadske TV came into existence in 2013 after the television channel TVi, known for its investigative reports, was bought by a businessman close to then president Viktor Yanukovych. Fearing their editorial autonomy and ability the criticise the government had been lost, 31 journalists left the station. They vowed to create what would eventually become Hromadske TV (literally “public” or “civic” TV in Ukrainian), which emerged along with the Maidan protests.
Since its original launch, Hromadske has continued to grow and develop, launching a Russian-language programme and an English-language programme, which I was a part of. Hromadske’s goal continues to be to provide critical news coverage untempered by the ownership interests restricting other Ukrainian media.
More recently, Hromadske has faced challenges with one of its founders, Roman Skrypin, who left the network and is refusing to turn over roughly $200,000 in donations collected via a PayPal account he registered during the Maidan protests as well as the organisation’s domain name. This situation has forced Hromadske to take legal action against Skrypin as it tries to develop from an enthusiastic, if sometimes slapdash digital media outlet, to a standard bearer of journalism in eastern Europe.
Risks of autonomy
Thanks to its autonomy from both the state and the oligarchs, Hromadske is one of the best equipped media outlets to fill the important role of checking abuses of power — it is not beholden to an oligarch or state owner. What it does struggle with, however, is expanding its limited market reach. That reach is ever more restricted outside of Ukraine because of its limited English-language programing.
This creates a catch 22: Hromadske TV was able to get international grants because of international media attention focused on Ukraine. But as that attention fades, the sustainability of that funding model becomes questionable. As coverage dwindles, western grant-giving organisations become more important, but they are less aware of events in Ukraine because of the lack of international coverage. It is the same dilemma faced by the Ukrainian state, which also relies on western funds.
The “Ukraine story” ending does not mean that nothing significant happens in Ukraine anymore. Rather, the world has grown accustomed to, and thus uninterested in, a slow decline
Meanwhile, in post-Maidan Ukraine, the rules of media have changed little. A harsh reminder came in late April when Ukraine’s most prominent talk show host Savik Shuster, who is a dual Canadian and Italian citizen of Soviet extraction, abruptly had his work permit revoked. Shuster is known for being critical of president Poroshenko: the move seemed a clear attempt to silence him just as he started his own Internet channel.
Shuster mobilised the media and went on hunger strike. After international outrage, his work permit was reinstated. But not before it was made clear that the Ukrainian authorities are not above their old tricks — no matter how much talk of reforms and western values.
Shuster’s reinstatement was an example of media functioning as it should. But that role, particularly when relying on international media, becomes more limited as Ukraine fades from view. The “Ukraine story” ending does not mean that nothing significant happens in Ukraine anymore. Rather, the world has grown accustomed to, and thus disinterested in, a slow decline — just like it has in the Ukrainian soldiers still regularly killed in the ones and twos in the east.
When media coverage reaches that point, it stops trying to check abuses. Instead, it simply documents decline. That is precisely what happened to international coverage of Ukraine under Yanukovych.