She sat there each morning, at the entrance to the metro. An elderly lady, shouting out the headlines of the day, selling the nation's main daily Segodnya (Today). Not a particularly informative read – murders, scams and scandals, Ukraine's equivalent of the Daily Mail. Still, it provided some insight into how recent developments were being spun, and those sales certainly went far to supplement her meagre pension.
Everything changed this spring when Vesti, a new daily with almost four times Segodnya's print run, appeared on the market. Advertised on huge banners throughout the city with the dubious slogan “We're not for sale”, the paper was distributed free at metro stops and city choke points by an army of young workers. The people gobbled it up. Both quality and content were comparable to Segodnya – many of its journalists, including the chief editor Ihor Huzhva, had come from there – and it was a free way to get the anxiety-news-fix during your morning commute.
But it took a hard toll on the entrepreneurial babushka. Soon, instead of sitting at the entrance to the metro itself with a large stack of papers, she would run frantically between the people at a tunnel leading to the metro gates, holding a thin bundle of issues, hoping to sell a few copies before people saw the free product further on. This only lasted a short while – two young Vesti distributers were positioned even further ahead, making sure that each traveller would have their free newspaper before getting a chance to spend 2 hryvnia (0.25 cents) on a paid one. I haven't seen her in recent weeks; no doubt she could not survive in a rigged market.
Playing the field
While newspapers, particularly print, are dying in the West, in Ukraine, times have never been better. Or, at least, that is what a superficial glance at the market would suggest. Broadcast journalists have seen double-digit salary growth, according to a EY survey (Ernst & Young); new publications are sprouting up all over the place, major deals are taking place. And TV is the fastest growing sector in terms of salaries with a 13 per cent increase.
At the beginning of this year Inter, the country’s main TV channel was sold for a reported 2.5 billion dollars (experts dispute this figure) by Valeriy Khoroshkovsky, the former head of the security services, to Dmytro Firtash, a billionaire, and Serhiy Lovochkin, the head of the presidential administration.
In mid-June UMH group, one of the biggest print players in Ukraine with such reputable titles as Korrespondent and Forbes Ukraine, was bought by Serhiy Kurchenko, a 27-year old multimillionaire who had been first put in the spotlight after Forbes Ukraine wrote an article about him titled “The Gas King of All Ukraine”, highlighting his ties to gas smuggling. Chief editor Vladimir Fedorin bluntly stated the acquisition was not a commercial decision. He also said he would resign on October 1st, two months before his contract ended – so as to give the journalists the time to think about what to do.
Soon after he was replaced in late-July, two journalists made up their mind. Deputy online editor Oleksandr Akymenko and one of the top investigative journalists Sevgil Musaeva announced they would be leaving. Musaeva noted it would be unethical to work for a man she had spent six months investigating.
Meanwhile, potentially threatening voices are being shut out. In April TVi, the last major opposition channel, went through an ownership quagmire involving shady offshore transactions, forged power of attorney documents and mysterious new owners. The station had long suffered from lost licenses and providers. After a series of scandals caused most journalists to leave, it also lost its reputation.
In the regions, the game is even blunter. TVA, a television station in Chernivtsi, in Western Ukraine, witnessed on July 23rd what some observers described as a “selective fire” (in reference to the selective justice applied to former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko), which supposedly destroyed its equipment. The station’s specialists were not allowed to retrieve the equipment or enter the room in which it was located, and cable providers refused to carry their material on August 2nd. Opposition deputies are working to restore its broadcasts, while journalists are seeking help from European Union officials.
Experts are clear about the reasons for this situation. Ukraine’s current leadership, most notably its president, come from the “Blue camp” that lost in the Orange Revolution after a rigged election outcome favouring Viktor Yanukovych was overturned amid mass protests. Many see those protests as a specoperacya, a political ploy masterminded by the West and carried out through the subservient media. With a presidential election slated for March 2015 and rising popular discontent, the current authorities know they have to get the media under control.
As a result, independence is slowly but steadily being stamped out. The few opposition voices that still speak out (predominantly online projects) subsist on Western grants and political donations. Their work is invaluable – they provide an alternative source of information, even if it fails to reach most of the population in a country that still has less than 40 per cent broadband penetration.
But without working on market-based principles they all share a fundamental weakness. Any cynical observer can argue that they are nothing more than the mirror image of Russian or Ukrainian propaganda projects. After all, whether you receive money from the Kremlin, your local oligarch or a Western donor – you’re just a stooge with a different master.
The lessons for ordinary citizens, with only a cursory knowledge of the intrigues, are devastating. First, all news is propaganda, just for different purposes. Second, values and ethics be damned, the only thing that matters is picking the winning side. But perhaps most importantly, in the long run, at least, is the fact that no matter your talent, knowledge and hard work, it all comes to nothing. Just like that entrepreneurial elderly lady, you are simply a pawn, with no control over your own destiny, or that of the country.
Jakub Parusinski is Chief Editor at the English-language weekly Kyiv Post and a contributor to the Unravelling Ukraine column.