Media Owners See Their Corporations as Instruments of Power
Updated: Feb 4, 2021
Marta Dyczok is an Associate Professor of Political Science/History (joint appointment) at Western Ontario University.
She specializes in international politics and history, focusing on East-Central Europe and Eurasia, and specifically Ukraine. Her research interests are on the politics of history, mass media, migration, post-communism, and World War II.
1. Has the media situation in Ukraine improved?
When we talk about the media in Ukraine, we need to put Ukraine in the global context, since media and Ukraine do not exist independently of other countries in the world. The question of media freedom and quality is one of the primary global concerns. There is a trend in many countries that media focuses on the sensational and distorted rather than accurate and objective news. We can observe this in many countries, like the US, as well as Ukraine. The question of media freedom is how we look at it. There is no media censorship in Ukraine as was the case during the Yanukovych or Kuchma presidencies in Ukraine. However, there is a remaining problem with the accuracy and quality of media information.
Overall, there has been one significant change in the Ukrainian media space since 2014. The Ukrainian government created a Public Broadcasting system. Until 2014, the Ukrainian state owned a national broadcast company (UT1) and numerous print media outlets. Then, in war conditions, the Ukrainian state gave up control over its media outlets. It transformed the state broadcaster into a public broadcaster and privatized print media. This was quite a phenomenal development, since previous efforts to end state ownership of media had failed.
Public broadcasting is now active and tends to meet high normative standards of media in a liberal democracy, which are serving as a watchdog in the state, providing objective and impartial information, and representing different views in society. Finally, Ukraine got its version of BBC called UA:Suspilne.
Other than that, there have been no significant changes in the media owner structures. The Ukrainian media system looks very similar to those systems in established democracies. The overwhelming majority of media outlets are owned by large corporations, there are a few small independent media outlets, and now there’s a Public Broadcaster. The largest media corporations are owned by oligarchs like Pinchuk, Kolomoysky, and Akhmetov. Most of such oligarchs use these media outlets as instruments to influence public opinion and position themselves politically and economically.
2. Has the oligarchic influence over media persisted, especially regarding clear anti-Ukrainian messages translated via some of these channels?
Yes, you are right. These owners see their media corporations as instruments of power and exert a high degree of influence over the types of media messages transmitted via them. They promote their business interests that can change over time. For instance, we can see how Kolomoysky, a Ukrainian oligarch, shifted his political allegiances in the last six years. When he was the governor of Dniepr oblast, Kolomoysky's 1+1 Media channels transmitted favorable news about President Poroshenko's policies. However, when their relations deteriorated, the messages on his media channels changed dramatically and became sharply critical towards the president.
A worrying tendency is that political groups who hold pro-Russian views utilize their Ukrainian media outlets to promote pro-Russian messages. For instance, there is a strong influence of Medvedchuk and other pro-Russian politicians in the Ukrainian media space. There are 24-hour information channels, such as 112 Ukraine, and NewsOne channels owned by people with pro-Russian views that promote pro-Russian agenda. However, other news channels, such as Priamiy, promote pro-Ukrainian ideas.
3. Perhaps it is a good sign that there is no monopoly and difference in opinions?
It reflects the state of society and political elites. In Ukraine, oligarchic groups are competing against each other in political space. Such a situation, in turn, influences the state of media as well.
4. Overall, has Ukraine moved in a positive direction since 2014?
There have been positive developments since the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. For instance, the abolition of media censorship after the collapse of the Yanukovych regime. However, while Ukrainian people toppled this dictator and political and other freedoms emerged, the Russian war against Ukraine has led to numerous hardships for Ukraine and Ukrainian society.
5. How can we counteract Russia's informational warfare and other techniques used by the Kremlin against Ukraine?
Russia has actively engaged in information warfare against Ukraine and other countries. Russia was using Ukraine as a lab for developing information warfare for global application, with Ukraine being on the receiving end of such techniques for a long time.
Ukraine has responded to Russia's informational warfare positively. It responded by counteracting and exposing fake and distorted information. President Poroshenko adopted policies to block Russian media outlets that were deliberately presenting fake news. In this regard, it should be noted that Russian media channels spreading Russian narratives were readily available in Ukraine up until 2014-15. By adopting the decision to block Russian channels transmitting fake news stories, it became possible to prevent it.
However, under Zelensky's presidency, things have drastically changed. He rarely communicates with journalists directly, and prefers to communicate with society via social media, thus is able to control his media messages and avoid scrutiny.
Another risk is a new law being debated in the Ukrainian parliament by Zelensky's team attempting to reform legislation on information covering disinformation issues. Some journalists are worried that this law might adversely influence freedom of speech in Ukraine.
6. Do you think Ukraine can boost the counteraction of informational warfare conducted by Russia?
Ukraine is at a disadvantage as its economy is much smaller than the Russian one. Russia spends vast amounts of money on information warfare against Ukraine and the West. It is a structural issue that will never change. However, Ukraine needs to ensure efficient allocation and usage of state resources for informational policies. While the Ukrainian Ministry of Information's formation in 2015 was an important step, it remains crucial to ensure sufficient budgetary allocations to guarantee its effective operation.
7. With the current adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and other pressing issues, there is a risk of overlooking the informational sphere, right?
While COVID-19 impact is a priority, it is essential to ensure allocation of funds for the media sphere to secure delivery of unbiased and transparent information for the general public and holding Ukrainian authorities accountable, including information on COVID-19. Since the Dignity Revolution in 2014, there have been some positive developments with civil society's more stringent influence and more transparent media space. Unfortunately, these trends are currently being reversed under the current president of Ukraine.