The Ukrainian media market had to be developed from scratch after the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Most all-Ukrainian media of Soviet times were closed, and the market was opened to private entrepreneurs at the national level. At the same time, at the local level, media that are financed from the local budget and depend on local officials still have strong positions.
State-owned all-Ukrainian media have been underfinanced and understaffed during all the post-Soviet years. This has created a media market that is dominated by oligarch capital. This applies to all national-level 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 the 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 neighbors.
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. At the local level, there are strong independent editions, but their audience is also small, and business models are weak.
Social networks and Television are the most popular media distribution platforms among Ukrainians, 68 and 66 percent of the population respectively uses it as the main source of information (USAID-Internews 2019 study of media consumption in Ukraine). https://www.slideshare.net/MarianaZakusylo/2019-185366145 Online media are a runner up: their main benefit is that they are free. A 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 the 1990s and 2000s, but today their presence is less visible than before.
Even the coronavirus epidemic has not changed this situation. Only one nationwide HB media introduced a paywall, other notable media started collecting donations, but they publish their content for free.
Radio stations and 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. During quarantine, many print media ceased to be published.
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 example, the media holding 1+1 of billionaire Igor Kolomoisky actively participated in the election campaign of the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky elected in 2019. A year later, the media holding Ukraine of another billionaire Rinat Akhmetov actively supported the acting Minister of Energy. At the same time, Akhmetov owns a large business in the energy sector.
Former 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-Poroshenko. Indirect involvement means that a media owner supports certain politicians and/or political parties.
A good example of this is Viktor Pinchuk, one of the richest people in the country. His media group StarLighrMedia, which consists of several TV channels, a newspaper, and a website, gives a lot of coverage and air time to various politicians and parties. Но все может быстро измениться. Just a year ago, Rinat Akhmetov’s media group could be considered fairly objective, but the situation has changed, and today his media are actively lobbying for the interests of his energy business.
As there took place both presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019, the political influence on media has been at the highest point in recent years. In 2020, local media are more important because the country is preparing for local elections in October. One of the former members of parliament with great influence in the Ukrainian capital, Vadim Stolar, has already announced the launch of a new city television channel.
In the years the 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 position 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, ZIK, or NASH. Some of these media are connected with the former head of the presidential administration, Viktor Medvedchuk, who is a godfather to Russian President Vladimir Putin. There are also influential pro-Russian bloggers on YouTube. As well as media that only pretend to be Ukrainian, but in fact, their editorial staff is in Moscow, not in Kyiv. For example, the site Ukraina.ru.
The politicization of Ukrainian media sometimes blurs the lines between politicians and journalists. Journalists going in politics were 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 programs. 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 programs 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 organizations and NGOs have published statements criticizing its management.
The independent media union of Ukraine was a prominent organization until 2016, but after several internal conflicts lost its influence.
Media-focused NGOs often assume the role of media watchdogs, even though Eurosceptic and pro-Russian media tend not to trust these organizations 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 the 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 the Ukrainian language in media. To this end, language quotas have been introduced for TV channels and radio stations. For licensed all-Ukrainian television and radio companies broadcasts and films in Ukrainian should make up at least 75 percent of the total weekly broadcasting between 07:00 and 22:00. For local audiovisual media, the mandatory quota of content in Ukrainian between 07:00 and 22:00 is 60 percent. There are exceptions for television and radio companies that broadcast in the languages of the indigenous peoples of Ukraine: the Crimean Tatars, Karaites, and Krymchaks. Meanwhile, radio stations are obliged to air at least 35 percent of songs in the 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.
After the election of Volodymyr Zelensky as President of Ukraine in 2019, language policy has faded into the background. The language ombudsman prescribed by law was not able to start work due to a lack of funding and announced his resignation. Several prominent supporters of the Ukrainian language were withdrawn from the National Council on TV and Radio. At the same time, Zelensky extended sanctions against Russian social networks and the Russian search service.
Ukrainian media sphere is designated as “partly free” by Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2019-2020 reports. 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 organizations. The publication was harshly criticized by many journalists and media NGOs, but there was 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, the 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.