The Ukrainian media market had to be developed from scratch after the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Most media of Soviet times were closed, and the market was opened to private entrepreneurs. State-owned media have been underfinanced and understaffed during all the post-Soviet years. This has created a media market which is dominated by oligarch capital. This applies to all media: TV, radio, print and online. But while in the TV segment the presence of oligarchs is the most visible, in other segments there is much more room for independent journalism. The problem with oligarchic influence is that oligarchs can control the agenda and messages of the media they own. At the same time, the Ukrainian media and NGO community is quite strong, there are traditions of journalists’ fight against censorship, and there is significant room for independence of editorial boards even on oligarchs-controlled TV channels. After the Euromaidan events of 2013-2014, independent media had a new boost. Generally speaking, freedom of expression has numerous distortions in Ukraine, but it is stronger than in many of its post-Soviet neighbours.
Ukraine also has no influential broadcaster to counterweight the oligarch-owned media. Suspilne (Civic), the public broadcaster, has been launched on 19 January 2017. It still remains underfinanced, and its audience is less than one percent of the population. Other independent outlets, like Hromadske TV (Civic) or Hromadske radio (Civic radio), or more niche media projects appeared; they are influential in their segments, although they still cannot compete for massive audiences with oligarchic TV channels.
Television is the most popular media among Ukrainians, more than 70 percent of the population still uses it as a main source of information. Online media are a runner up: their main benefit is that they are free. Paywall is not common for Ukrainian online media, who mainly earn money via ads and paid articles, often hidden. Such hidden adds are called dzhynsa. Dzhynsa were widespread in 1990s and 2000s, but today their presence is less visible than before.
Print media, which must be purchased, are the least popular source of information. Due to the overall low level of welfare, people prefer to get their news from free sources, online or on TV. There are very few successful print projects, mostly based in Kyiv. The main newspapers are part of media houses which also include news websites, TV channels and radio stations. They are often not profitable, so media houses treat print outlets as a matter of status for niche audiences and cover expenses with profits from other sources.
The most popular Ukrainian media have clear links to politicians and political parties, as they belong to oligarchs who are often involved in politics directly or indirectly. Direct involvement means that a media owner holds an official position in the government or is a member of parliament. For instance, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko owns news TV channel 5 Channel and allegedly controls a recently created news TV channel Priamyi (Direct), whose editorial policy is openly pro-presidential. Indirect involvement means that a media owner supports certain politicians and/or political parties. A good example for this is Rinat Akhmetov, the richest person in the country. His media group Ukrayina (Ukraine), which consists of several TV channels, a newspaper and a website, gives a lot of coverage and air time to various politicians and parties. As there will be both presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019, the political influence on media is at the highest point in recent years. In the years 2000s, one could trace a clear distinction between pro-European, pro-Western, media and Eurosceptic, pro-Russian, media. Today this distinction is much less clear. As the majority of Ukrainians consider that Russia has illegally annexed Crimea and provided its military support to secessionist forces in Eastern Ukraine, it is very difficult for any media or political force with a clear pro-Russian positions to get any audience in today’s Ukraine. At the same time, several media maintain editorial lines that are rather aligned with pro-Russian narratives. This is a case of such media as Vesti (News), Strana.ua (Country.ua), 112 Ukrayina (112 Ukraine), NewsOne or Ukraina.ru.
The politicisation of Ukrainian media sometimes blurs the lines between politicians and journalists. Journalists going in politics was quite typical for Ukraine and it has become even more common after the Euromaidan. Former journalists serve as diplomats, they are represented in the government, as well as in Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada (the parliament). Likewise, politicians appear in media not only as those being interviewed or spoken about, but as hosts of talk shows and news programmes. For example, Vadim Rabinovich, a Ukrainian MP and one of the leaders of Za Zhyttya (For Life) party, hosts a one-man talk show on 112 Ukrayina (112 Ukraine) TV channel. Some other MPs have their TV programmes as well.
The Natsionalna Spilka Jurnalistiv Ukrayiny (National Union of Journalists of Ukraine) unites professional journalists and oversees journalistic standards, but it is not very influential and effective because most journalists do not join it and several key Ukrainian media organisations and NGOs have published statements criticising its management.
Media-focused NGOs often assume the role of media watchdogs, even though Eurosceptic media tend not to trust these organisations because they receive financing from the West and allegedly act against opposition outlets. Examples are Detector Media and the Instytut Masovoi Informatsii (Institute of Mass Information).
After 2016, the government has also tried to regulate the language policy of media. As use of the Ukrainian language was hampered during Tsarist and Soviet periods, the Ukrainian government tries to provide the national language with regulatory support. Thus, it launched a campaign aimed at strengthening the role of Ukrainian language in media. To this end, language quotas have been introduced for TV channels and radio stations. For licensed television and radio companies, the transmission of European productions, and also American and Canadian productions, should make up at least 70 percent of the total weekly broadcasting between 07:00 and 23:00. Out of these hours, at least 50 percent of the total weekly broadcasting must be of Ukrainian production. Meanwhile, radio stations are obliged to air at least 30 percent of songs in Ukrainian language. At the same time, Russian is still very widespread in Ukrainian media: There are numerous websites, magazines and newspapers in Russian; Russian is also a language often used during talk shows or interviews.
The monitoring of the implementation of these norms is being handled by the official regulatory body, the National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting of Ukraine. Its members are appointed by the president and the parliament. Sluzhba Bezpeky Ukrayiny (Security Service of Ukraine) has also been active in this sector recently: It has conducted numerous searches in the premises of media suspected to have been funded with Russian money.
Ukrainian media sphere is designated as “partly free” by Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2019 report. There are several vulnerable spheres such as personal data protection and security. In May 2016, the website Myrotvorets published the personal information of approximately 5,000 Ukrainian and foreign media professionals. Those on the list have received accreditation from the self-proclaimed authorities of the non-government controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk to report on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The website said that by publishing their personal data, it was disclosing information about “collaborators” with the “secessionist republics” which Ukrainian authorities consider to be terrorist organisations. The publication was harshly criticised by many journalists and media NGOs; but there were substantial support for this in some parts of Ukrainian society; it was also backed by the Interior Ministry. The website exists to this day despite official inquiry.
Attacks on media professionals and houses are occurring. On 20 July 2016, a prominent Belarusian-Ukrainian journalist, Pavel Sheremet, was killed in a car explosion but those responsible have not been found yet. Manipulations with media have also happened. On 29 May 2018, media reported that Arkady Babchenko, a Russian journalist who moved to Ukraine, was killed. The next day it turned out that Babchenko was indeed alive and his “murder” was a decoy for security services to catch a killer, allegedly linked to a broader plan by Russian security services to murder journalists and activists working in Ukraine.