Reforming Ukraine’s media. Slow progress at risk
Interview with Roman Shutov, programme director with Detektor Media in Kyiv. Interviewer: Adam Reichardt.
ADAM REICHARDT: What is your assessment of the current media situation in Ukraine? We hear a lot of criticism that the situation has not changed much since the Revolution of Dignity. Would you agree with this statement?
ROMAN SHUTOV: It is true that the situation with the media in Ukraine is very tense. Some things have changed since 2014. The media are more free and active in control over the government and they feel less pressure from the state. Media reform was boosted and important decisions have been made in regards to public broadcasting, transparency of media ownership, privatisation of state-owned printed media and other matters. But still, there are plenty of problems that the Revolution of Dignity could not change. One of them is the oligarchisation of the media landscape. Media are used more and more as a tool to promote economic and political interests of their owners. State censorship has been replaced by owners’ censorship, which can be sometimes even more severe. The lobby of industry blocks important legislative initiatives by civil society, such as transparency of finances or digitalisation of broadcasting.
And, naturally, the war. When there are so many emotions in the society, these emotions penetrate into the journalism sphere. There are heated discussions regarding what journalism should look like at a time of war and what is the mission of media during a crisis. Sometimes things are done that should never have been, for example the publication of journalists’ private information by “Mirotvorets”. This discussion is rather painful for society, but we have to go through it.
The situation is complicated by the Kremlin’s information aggression. There is still a very strong influence of Russian agents of information and these agents are trying to actively undermine the society and destabilise the situation inside the country. I do not know if I could mention here the terrible murder of the well-known Belarusian-Ukrainian journalist Pavel Sheremet. In fact, we do not know who is responsible, it is not clear who was interested in killing him; but, in a situation when so much is done to discredit Ukraine in the world, we can suggest anything, even a foreign actor. There are journalists in Ukraine who make life difficult for others through their investigations or disclosure of corruption schemes, etc. And we have journalists who investigate sensitive issues and are objects of hatred from some political forces or social groups. But Sheremet was not one of them. I cannot find a reason for the government to be behind the killing either. That is why we are surprised and baffled as to who did it. The only thing that we can do is to wait for the results of the state’s investigation and hope that it would be objective.
Another recent case connected with the media in Ukraine was the arson attack on the Inter TV channel. It is widely known that the Inter TV channel belongs to the pro-Russian oligarch Dmytro Firtash. For the last two years, this TV channel has declared itself to be “patriotic”, but between the lines you can see manipulative messages which are very close to Russian propaganda. It is a constant platform for the pro-Russian political force called the Opposition Block, which declares to be a democratic opposition but in fact promotes the pro-Russian, anti-European and anti-American messages in Ukraine. So in this sense, Inter TV can be seen as an agent of Russian influence.
In the beginning of August this year there were some email communications released publically which were between Mariya Stolyarova, who was a news editor of the Inter TV channel, and representatives of the DNR (the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic – editor’s note). In this communication Stolyarova agreed upon the editorial policy of Inter TV channel with the separatists and received clear instructions from them. This unbearable situation is a real scandal at time when our people are dying in the war.
In response, our government did nothing. The security services did not react. We know why, because this TV channel is owned by a very powerful oligarch; if they start investigating this channel it would mean a war against the oligarch, but no one is ready to start this. After a month, some strange people showed up at the Inter TV channel’s offices and set it on fire. Ironically, Inter TV is now claiming that it is the victim of the violation of freedom of speech. Clearly it is a manipulation.
What about the overall media situation in Ukraine since the revolution. Has it changed much?
The revolution broke the spine of state censorship policy. In Ukraine there is no longer state censorship as it was before. Ukrainian TV channels no longer receive instructions from the presidential administration on what topics to cover. In fact, the government is too weak and too helpless to do anything like that. They have no resources and they have no leverage of influence on the key national TV channels or newspapers, as these media outlets belong to the oligarchs who are now stronger than the government. That is why we have another problem: we may not have state censorship any more but we have oligarch/owner censorship. In other words the owner dictates the content and editorial policy of the media and has a real influence on how the very important topics are covered in Ukraine.
So in fact it is not much different than it was before…?
Before the state was the first agent to violate the freedom of speech. Now the state does not, but the oligarchs who own the media do. This does not mean that our government is so democratically-minded, unfortunately not; really, it is more open for dialogue than it was before. Yet, time after time, we detect some attempts to increase its influence on and regulation of the media. But we – the civil society – have much more tools to prevent such things from happening. However, I am not sure that this is sustainable.
What about the public broadcaster? This was one of the reforms that was called for during and after the Revolution of Dignity.
We really expected the public broadcasting reform to be a true success story, but now its future is unclear… But the process has been started and in fact it is hard to drive it back.
In Ukraine, we had a huge state-owned media – from the national TV broadcaster, radio broadcasters, local TV broadcasters and several state-owned printed media. We now have a new law adopted according to which in three years there will have be no state-owned printed media. In other words, in Ukraine, state-owned printed media will totally disappear and this is obviously progress. At the same time, the state-owned TV broadcasters are currently being transformed into public broadcasters. The national broadcaster has already been largely reformed; it still lacks some legal frameworks, but in fact the editorial board is already independent from the state and the supervisory board has been created. This supervisory board consists of really independent people and this body is capable of controlling the editorial policy of the broadcaster to ensure an unbiased approach. The previous Director General of state broadcasting company, Zurab Alasania, was very determined to complete this reform and give the real public broadcaster to Ukraine. He was among the locomotives of the process, but unfortunately, he left the post.
So you would assess this as a positive reform?
Sure. We really have a chance to receive an independent broadcaster. Now, we see that the state has no leverage to influence this TV channel any more, while before it had been a tool of state propaganda. When the Panama Papers were published, the public broadcaster was the only TV station in Ukraine to show the investigation against President Petro Poroshenko. This was unbelievable for a state-owned medium. The monitoring that Detektor Media (a media watchdog) conducts has revealed that the journalistic standards are much better for this channel than any other national TV station; UA First is one the best TV channels in Ukraine from the point of view of balance.
What will change after Alasania’s resignation? Will the reform continue?
We believe that it will. The process has gone too far to be driven back. The only loss is that Alasania was a strong manager determined to overcome all the obstacles to accomplish the reform. Now the process may go a bit slower, but it continues.
Tell me more about the watch dog that you work for, Detektor Media…
Detektor Media has two sides to our work. The first side, which we have been doing for many years, is “media about media”. We previously worked as Telekrytika but recently transformed into Detektor Media. We cover all the events and processes related to the media landscape in Ukraine and we report on them to citizens and journalists. The second side to the organisation is the think tank-like activities that we conduct. We carry out research related to media, reforms, state policy and information security. We were among the experts who developed the draft strategy of information security for Ukraine and are also involved in drafting regulations which focus on media reforms. In addition, we pay a lot of attention to media literacy and promotion and we have special resources dedicated to media literacy. We also monitor propaganda and hate speech and develop ways to counter these activities.
Do you have support from the West?
Well, we do not have any financial support from Ukraine unfortunately. In Ukraine, our government does not provide any funding for initiatives like this. Instead we receive funding from countries like the United States, Sweden, Germany and the Czech Republic. We also did some work with the Solidarity Foundation in Poland with whom we had a joint project.
Do you feel any pressure from the oligarchs in your activities?
Actually no; largely because we do not depend on them at all. We do not receive money from them and in fact we are the mirror of the quality of their media and sometimes they are interested in what we do. From time to time, they are even open for dialogue when we are trying to promote better rules for media behaviour, but it is quite rare.
Looking at the activity of pro-Russian propaganda in Ukraine today, how would you characterise the level of penetration? Obviously the Russian channels have been shut down but are there other ways that pro-Russian propaganda is reaching Ukrainian society?
Unfortunately it is still very present. Yes, we have banned a number of Russian TV channels that promoted aggressive anti-Ukrainian and anti-European propaganda, but nevertheless the citizens still have access to them on the internet or via satellite and of course on the occupied territories there is only Russian TV channels. In Ukraine, the most dangerous is that it is not the Russian media that are the agents of disinformation; it is the Ukrainian media which are, and they are often controlled by Russian money. Among the top five TV channels in Ukraine, two of them belong to pro-Russian groups. Among five of the most popular printed newspapers three of them belong to pro-Russian business groups and their content is greatly manipulated. And we see clear traces of Russian narratives in them and they are the platform for pro-Kremlin political forces to spread their propaganda. The most influential is the Opposition Block, which I mentioned earlier; it is basically made up of the remnants of Viktor Yanukovych’s party. Even though they claim to be the democratic opposition, they blame Kyiv for the war in Donbas, hint at a rise of “Nazism” in Ukraine, and they keep silent on the fact that Russian soldiers are in Donbas and that Russia finances the separatists.
How do we deal with this? We have not found a solution yet. If we limit their activities, we will be violating democratic principles. This political party and the media that support them do not violate the law. They do not call for violence or hostilities and they are free to express their opinions, but we know these opinions come from the outside and are undermining the Ukrainian democracy. But, this is a question to be discussed not only within Ukraine, the same dilemma is faced by all the European societies.
The situation with the Inter TV channel shows that when the government is idle in addressing the security challenges, people (especially, if being driven by interested forces) take matters in their own hands and produce violence and destruction instead of solving problems. And now Inter TV is claiming to be the victim, despite their collaboration with the separatists, and nothing has changed.
Would you say that Ukrainians believed this “victim” narrative?
It is difficult to say. I would say that they rather do; it is one of the most popular channels. In Ukraine there is still a large number of people who accept the Kremlin narrative and share the beliefs spread by Moscow. What is more, Soviet myths are still alive. More and more people are becoming tired of the war and the economic troubles, so it is easy to convince them that Kyiv is to blame for all this. I am concerned that one day these people will be mobilised to fight back.
This means that there is a real risk that the old Yanukovych elite will regain power. This would mean a real crash of democracy in Ukraine as they will clear the field of “western agents” and other potential opponents. The democratic developments in Ukraine would then be thrown back many years and be very traumatic to the society willing to go the democratic way. It would also be a massive defeat for Europe as a whole.
Roman Shutov is a programme director at Detektor Media, a media watchdog based in Kyiv.
Adam Reichardt is the editor in chief of New Eastern Europe.