Ukraine’s information policy needs to be overhauled to combat both external and internal threats

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We live in a society driven by information, and its delivery is the media’s main responsibility. In Ukraine, television is the most trusted source of news for most of the Ukrainian public. But an analysis of the country’s media market easily reveals major flaws in its information policy. This is especially critical to Ukraine’s national security while it remains at war with Russia and its pro-Moscow separatist allies. For that reason, the current policy has to be perfected and revamped.

There are three main problems on the modern Ukrainian TV-market: a lack of regulation by government bodies, a politically biased structure of the ownership of the TV-channels, and an immensely weak presence of international broadcasting within Ukraine.

The Ukrainian television market is relatively young and is always responsive to political changes in the country. Even though Ukraine’s creative industries are considered one of the most developed and successful in the former Soviet Union, the channels continue to confuse viewers, muddy the political waters, and move the media away from being a public watchdog.

Furthermore, all of the channels show a relative weakness when it comes to Ukraine’s current information policy, which desperately needs to be revised as it remains under the threat from disinformation war and Kremlin propaganda.

Lack of Regulation

All of Ukraine’s broadcasters have proven incapable of strictly following the country’s guidelines with any sort of consistency. This lack of discipline is further compounded in a world of tangled disinformation, which can lead to social unrest or even the collapse of a country’s political system. So-called ‘fake news’, biased reports, and disinformation have drastically impacted the lives of ordinary people, and the dangerous spread of conspiracy theories during the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that some sort of regulation of the media is urgently needed to prevent additional deaths.

Ukraine’s National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting is officially the state regulator and has the authority to punish channels for any violation of Ukrainian and even to stop channels from broadcasting. However, despite many controversies, not a single national channel has been punished for committing serious infractions in recent years.

News programs from Inter, one of the country’s main channels, were accused of sharing blatantly false reports, including a 2016 story that supposedly detailed a ‘meeting’ between representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and ambassadors from the US and EU. The embassies denied tha any such meeting had ever taken place.

The channel’s main talk show, Everybody’s Business, is receiving a public backlash for its disrespect of human rights for exploiting cases that involve minors, including a recent episode about a 12-year-old pregnant girl that was called by British tabloid The Sun ‘the worst reality show’.

One of the biggest media controversies in recent years came from the channel Ukraine, and its series of shows from the pro-Russian Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics. The show portrayed the militant groups in a positive light and described their actions as ‘a fight for the freedom of the Donbass’ and ‘against the Kyiv ‘junta’’.

All of these cases were reviewed by the National Council, but none were ever reprimanded.

The lack of initiative by the Council only encourages channels like Inter and Ukraine to ignore the country’s ethical norms. As a result, these three cases are only the tip of the iceberg, and the whole media and information environment is Ukraine filled with bias, fakes, and disinformation. That is why the Council needs a stronger regulations policy.

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That said, a line must be drawn between regulation and control. The Council does not have to control the market or dictate the rules of the game through the sort of blatant censorship that one sees in China or Russia. Rather, thorough and deep analyses, and a robust fact-checking process, would verify the trustworthiness of the stories that are filed.

To guarantee the independence of that process, the Council can cooperate with investigative journalists and other groups to carry out a proper vetting process. Also, a strict and clear framework that details what sort of punishment can be handed out to violators must be established. This has to be implemented within a legal environment that will guarantee that such guardrails do not become useless. One of the key elements that have to be included in that framework is the degree of violations correlating with the following punishment.

A focus on the type of programing, not on the channels, can help with regulation, not state control. A similar approach had been introduced in Latvia in regards to that country’s laws which are aimed at fighting against fake news and disinformation.

‘Political Identity’ of the Market

A few channels in Ukraine truly consider themselves political, but most broadcast a range of biased programing that is created to manipulate, rather than to inform public opinion. The aforementioned regulation may help solve that issue because the content creators on these TV channels use many well-known techniques to spread disinformation and to sway viewers into thinking a particular way about a specific topic. The roots of that problem, most importantly, are hidden in the structure of ownership within Ukraine’s TV market.

To understand the details, it is important to analyze more than a dozen Ukrainian TV channels by their ratings share. All of the 15 channels are owned by major media groups and are owned by Ukrainian oligarchs, who are all linked to Ukrainian politics.

Since 2013, the Inter Media Group has been owned by oligarchs Dmitry Firtash and Sergei Liovochkin. During the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, Firtash was appointed to a few positions in his government, including in the State Commission of Cooperation with the World Trade Organization. Liovochkin was the head of Yanukovych’s presidential administration and is a member of the Opposition Platform – For Life – a party in the Ukrainian Parliament. Liovochkin is also infamous for coordinating the Yanukovych presidency with the key elements and interests of Russia’s political elite.

Ukraine’s most infamous oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, owns the Ukraine network, which also includes the channel NLO TV. Akhmetov is most famous for being the president of the Shakhtar football club, but he also has deep political ties that go back many years. In 2006, he was a member of the Ukrainian parliament from the Yanukovych-led Party of the Regions.

1+1 Media, one of the most powerful in the country, remains firmly in the hands of Igor Kolomoisky, a man who continues to wield significant influence in Ukrainian politics. In 2014-2015, Kolomoisky was the Head of Dnipropetrovsk Regional State Administration and his channel was key to the popular rise of Ukraine’s current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, as 1+1 produced Zelensky’s wildly successful political farce – Servant of the People.

Kolomoisky caused a major uproar earlier this year when, in an interview dedicated to  Ukraine-Russia relations, he shifted his previously pro-Western position and said Ukraine should return to Russia’s orbit.

A small portion of 1+1’s shares also belongs to Oksana Marchenko, a TV-presenter and the wife of Viktor Medvedchuk, one of the leaders of the pro-Russian Opposition Platform – For Life party and the godfather of one of Vladimir Putin’s daughters.

The title of the most influential media group in Ukraine belongs to StarLightMedia, which is owned by Viktor and Olena Pinchuk. The former, like his competitors, is both an oligarch and politician with powerful connections to the country’s political elite – he is the son-in-law of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. Pinchuk is known as a supporter of political changes and is a patron of modern art. In a 2016 article for The Wall Street Journal, Pinchuk came under severe criticism from some sectors of Ukrainian society when he proposed that the Ukrainian government should officially reject the idea of ever joining the European Union and NATO.

Ukraine’s Channels Follow the Political Whims of Their Owners

All of the channels’ owners are linked with Ukraine’s political process and it is easy to predict that the substance of the content depends on the political interests of the owners.

The most popular channel, Ukraine, supports two parties – Fatherland led by Yulia Tymoshenko, and The Servant of the People, which was created and is led by President Zelensky. The channels ICTV and UA:First seem to be neutral, which is especially surprising due to the fact that ICTV is connected to Pinchuk. 1+1 has the most diverse political framework in its programs and as expressed support for three different political parties, The relatively new party, For Future, is led by Igor Palytsia, and has the support of Kolomoisky. Pinchuk’s STB supports the liberal party Holos. And, finally, Inter has been open about its bias towards the Opposition Platform – for Life, led by Medvedchuk and Vadim Rabinovych, another pro-Russian oligarch.

Though news channels are not overly popular, they are the main source of information for many Ukrainians. The structure of ownership here is even more politicized than those with general programing.

Straightforward and The 5th Channel are owned directly or with other sides by ex-President Petro Poroshenko. ZIK, NEWSONE, 112 Ukraine, and OURS are owned by Taras Kozak who is a close friend of Medvedchuk. UNIAN is owned by Kolomoisky’s 1+1 Media, ESPRESO is owned by the son of Ukrainian billionaire Konstantin Zhevago, and The 24th Channel is owned by the wife of Lviv Mayor Andrey Sadovy.

Poroshenko decided to focus on a news channel to promote his European Solidarity party. The OURS channel supports The Opposition Block, another party led by Yanukovych’s former vice prime minister, Alexander Vilkul. Though these channels say they are meant to be political by nature, they manipulate and attempt to hide the political interest of their owners.

The market can change if the government pays more attention and puts more resources into the functioning of the public broadcaster, which faces a lack of finances. In comparison to the rest of the media landscape in Ukraine, the public broadcaster’s programing is truly neutral and meets all of the standards of a reliable news outlet. If the broadcaster finally gets some much- needed resources, it can get play a leading role in the market and set new trends for the delivery of information to the Ukrainian people.

International Broadcasting

Ukraine lives under a constant state of information war that has many layers and players, most of which are linked with Russia’s propaganda. The Kremlin spends an endless amount of resources to help spread disinformation around the world, including all the way up to the Trump administration, about the situation in Ukraine.

This coordinated disinformation campaign finds an audience both abroad and domestically due to Ukraine’s provincial view of and total lack of a presence on the international broadcasting market and the near-non-existence of foreign media outlets that regularly broadcast in Ukraine. For that reason, Ukraine has to create an adequate strategy that has to include stronger international broadcasting as a key element.

The Ministry of Information Policy is currently joined to the Ministry of Culture, but when it was a separate authority during the Poroshenko administration, its main focuses was to spread feel-good pro-government stories about Poroshenko’s initiatives. This meant that a very important layer of international broadcasting that focused on hard news from Ukraine was completely ignored.

The end result has made it increasingly more difficult to combat damaging propaganda from abroad. Russia has media outlets such as Russia Today (RT) and international versions of their main channels (Channel 1 Russia, Russia One, etc.) that have good ratings and get a lot of financial support from the Russian government. Without a counter initiative, Ukrainian policies and Ukrainians themselves, are described from the perspective of Russia’s leaders and their interests.

Admittedly, there have been some modest efforts by the government and private networks to reach an international audience, including UATV and 1+1 International. But UATV never had enough diverse or serious content and quickly became a source of what was essentially government mouthpiece propaganda. None of this was or would be of interest a foreign viewer, which ultimately led to the shut down UATV’s international broadcasts in January.

1+1 International does not have any informational value and just rebroadcasts programs created by 1+1 Media.

Poland’s TVP Polonia can be used by a future Ukrainian international broadcaster as a model to build a new, and far more professional and effective, new network. TVP Polonia is considered the main source of information about Poland on the international television market and has a diverse content framework.

Looking Ahead

The information policy of Ukraine has to be revamped to solve the current issues on the Ukrainian television market. At first, the government has to pay more attention to the regulation of the market, create a clear and understandable framework to punish violations of journalistic standards. That regulation does not, however, have to threaten freedom of speech in the country.

Private Ukrainian television networks have to become less dependent on the political interests of their owners in order to give access to reliable information to the Ukrainian public. What’s paramount is that stronger support for the public broadcaster can force private channels to follow the basic journalistic standards of a free society and move away from biased reports.

That said, the government has to pay more attention to the sort of disinformation that flows into the country, particularly from Russia. All of this can help to make the Ukrainian television market better and give people access to high-quality content that brings more political stability and even saves lives.

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