In 2014, Russia launched its war against Ukraine, deploying troops, lies and propaganda against its neighbor.
Now, with the war in its sixth year, pro-Russian forces are quietly grabbing up Ukrainian TV stations to increase their political presence inside the country.
On June 14, journalists began leaving the ZIK news channel en masse after it came under the control of notorious pro-Russian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, a close friend of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
See Kyiv Post editorial “Media Oligopolies”
Lawmaker Taras Kozak, Medvedchuk’s political and business partner, had purchased ZIK, announcing that the channel would become part of his holding company alongside Channel 112 and News One, two channels Kozak purchased in 2018.
Taken together, the three channels have a 5 percent share of total viewership, according to an audit conducted by the BIG DATA UA rating agency in May.
But while that number may not seem so huge, the three channels also produce 18 out of the 40 most popular information programs. In that way, they could easily influence public opinion, warns media expert Tetiana Popova, citing research by the Arena Media marketing agency, where she is managing partner.
“Russians are trying to enlarge their share of information and political broadcasts, and they are doing it successfully,” Popova said.
It isn’t just pro-Russian forces doing this. Deeply unprofitable, most Ukrainian television channels are owned by oligarchs who use TV to push their own political and personal interests. This poses a distinct threat to the country’s elections — including the upcoming snap parliamentary vote on July 21 — and press freedom more broadly.
According to a poll carried out by the Democratic Initiatives Foundaton in May and June, 70 percent of Ukrainian journalists call censorship by media owners the main threat to freedom of speech in the country.
Source: Big Data UA rating agency
Dictatorship of television
Television remains the central news source for 74 percent of Ukrainians, according to a survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology published in March.
Medvedchuk’s Channel 112 is Ukraine’s 6th most popular television channel, with 16 percent of respondents saying they watch it the most frequently.
Medvedchuk was the most known and powerful in 2002–2005, when he headed the administration of President Leonid Kuchma. In this period, Kuchma’s office started sending the notorious “temniky” — written instructions about coverage it wanted, which were daily disseminated to the main media. Medvedchuk was deemed a “prince of darkness” for personalizing cronyism, corruption and pro-Russian agenda. The pro-Western Orange Revolution ended Kuchma’s era, ushering in five years of Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency, and Medvedchuk receded in the background.
In 2012, however, he returned to the public spotlight. He started his Ukrainian Choice civic movement, which tried to steer public opinion against the European Union and in favor of Russia.
His past, combined with Russia’s war against Ukraine, should be serious obstacles to any political ambitions. But the oligarch stands a strong chance of getting elected to parliament next month. He is third on the pro-Russian Opposition Platform — For Life party list, which has 11 percent support, according to a recent poll by the Rating Group.
Part of the party’s popularity may come from the support of major television channels.
Besides his own channels, Medvedchuk’s party is also endorsed by Inter, one of Ukraine’s most watched television channels. It is owned by fugitive oligarch Dmytro Firtash, who is now hiding in Austria and fighting extradition to the United States on bribery charges that he denies. Another co-owner is Serhiy Lyovochkin, the former chief of staff of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. Lyovochkin is also fifth on the Opposition Platform list.
Popova says Medvedchuk’s channels are already helping him gain more political support.
Other main TV channels are owned by oligarchs like Rinat Akhmetov, Victor Pinchuk, Ihor Kolomoisky, and former President Petro Poroshenko. They use the channels for the same purpose: political leverage at the expense of free speech.
After Medvedchuk took over, dozens of journalists and TV managers announced their resignation from the ZIK channel. TV anchor Tetiana Danylenko said that she doesn’t want to “shoot people in the head” with lies by working under Medvedchuk.
Medvedchuk’s spokesperson has denied that he owns these television channels. However, there is little chance that Kozak could afford to buy them on his own.
According to Kozak’s 2017 asset declaration, he owned just $500,000, two houses and a land plot in Crimea. He purchased Channel 112 for Hr 73 million and News One for Hr 42 million, about $4.4 million combined.
Political expert Volodymyr Fesenko says that the National Commission for Television and Radio Broadcasting should investigate where Kozak got the money to buy yet another television channel.
ZIK’s main audience is in western Ukraine, where Medvedchuk’s party has a marginal electoral base.
Fesenko believes that, by purchasing ZIK, Medvedchuk is attempting to gain influence over those who don’t support his political force. Support for “the Opposition Platform has reached its ceiling,” he said.
Fesenko added that Pryamii channel, controlled by Poroshenko, may be Medvedchuk’s next target to create a monopoly in Ukrainian television news and influence the Ukrainian-language audience as well.
However, Volodymyr Makeyenko, the official owner of Pryamii, denied plans to sell the channel.
Media expert Otar Dovzhenko said the audience of specifically news TV channels is limited and is predominantly composed of men over 65.
Nevertheless, other media pick up their stories and politicians’ comments to them.
“It’s possible to put some propaganda there, which they (channels) eventually do,” he said.
NewsOne and Channel 112 have similar approaches to their broadcasts. First, a news segment mentions that someone from the Opposition Platform, usually former Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko, helped rebuild a school or hospital in some regional city.
This is followed by an analytical segment in which Opposition Platform leaders Medvedchuk, Boyko or Vadym Rabinovych promote their party’s political agenda. The primetime segment is usually either a big interview or a political talk show.
Firtash & Lyovochkin
Firtash remains a prominent oligarch in Ukraine, despite living in exile. But his fortunes are on the decline.
His net worth has decreased from $1.5 billion in 2014 to $489 million in 2018, according to Novoye Vremya news magazine. Still, Firtash has managed to keep control of over the Inter channel, a critical media asset for pro-Russia politicians.
Inter is traditionally more popular in eastern and southern Ukraine and was partly owned by Russia’s state Channel One until 2015.
Firtash’s political TV agenda is identical to that of Medvedchuk. While Inter may have a general mix of programming, its evening Podrobnosti news broadcast is among the most watched television programs in Ukraine.
On June 18, for instance, Inter’s prime-time slot was dominated by Boyko. In its news block, Boyko was featured in Sumy Oblast meeting with retirees and promising to lower utility prices for households. The news was followed by a 20-minute, largely flattering interview Boyko gave to Ukrainian channels. Only three channels were present at the interview — Inter, NewsOne and Channel 112.
Since 2003, Poroshenko has owned Channel 5, a news channel which was the only opposition broadcaster during the Orange Revolution in 2004. Now, however, it has a marginal viewership.
But Poroshenko’s biggest asset is the one he doesn’t own officially.
Pryamii television channel is officially owned by Makeyenko, a former lawmaker from the Party of Regions led by ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.
The television channel hired some of the most popular hosts in Ukraine and got a studio in an expensive office building — Parus, in downtown Kyiv. Pryamii’s spending hardly matches Makeyenko’s latest publicly available income declaration, dated back to 2013, in which he claimed not to own any businesses. Media experts believe that the channel is controlled by the former president.
“It’s obviously, most certainly the channel of Poroshenko,” Dovzhenko said.
The channel’s broadcasting is centered on criticizing Poroshenko’s political opponents. But with Poroshenko out of office, it may be facing crisis of mission.
“Pryamii isn’t needed. It’s a Frankenstein which was specifically created to attack foes and praise its owner,” says Dovzhenko.
Of all the oligarchs, Ihor Kolomoisky is the most outspoken about the role of TV. With his business partner Hennadiy Boholyubov, he owns 1+1, Ukraine’s most popular television channel. It has an 11.65-percent share of viewership across the country.
“TV is the first power, not the fourth one,” he said in a recent interview with The Babel website, of which he is also co-owner.
Kolomoisky has also claimed in interviews that Poroshenko wanted to force him to hand over control of 1+1 before the presidential elections, which he refused to do. The channel would contribute to the Poroshenko’s loss by constantly broadcasting President Volodymyr Zelensky’s television shows.
Besides Zelensky, Kolomoisky also admits to supporting former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is a frequent guest on 1+1’s Pravo na Vladu talk show.
Dovzhenko says Kolomoisky also often gives a platform to politicians from the Opposition Bloc, a pro-Russian party tied to oligarch Akhmetov which split from Opposition Platform — For Life. In this way, Kolomoisky wants to take votes from Medvedchuk’s political force.
In a recent interview with the Ukrainska Pravda news site, Kolomoisky called Medvedchuk, Boyko and Rabinovych “traitors of Ukraine.”
Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, has one of the country’s largest channels: Ukraina. It has a nearly 10 percent viewership share.
During the recent presidential election, Ukraina endorsed Radical Party leader Oleg Lyashko, and former Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Vilkul. In the first round of the election, Lyashko received about 5 percent of the vote, while Vilkul took 4 percent.
Dovzhenko said that these results prove that “a scheme where the TV tells people whom they should vote for and people go and vote doesn’t work anymore.”
Instead, people have become more cautious and selective in trusting the media. Now, a TV channel can only make politician more well-known — as Inter did with Boyko through years of constant PR, Dovzhenko said.
Of all the oligarchs, Victor Pinchuk has the largest viewership share, thanks to three popular channels: ICTV, STB and Noviy, as well as music channels. ICTV is the most popular among them, with a viewership share of 8.53-percent. It is also the most political.
Dovzhenko says Pinchuk gives access to his channel to “anybody who pays for it” — either for visits or for flattering news about them. The only exception here is Medvedchuk and Boyko; they are never invited on Pinchuk’s channels.
Pinchuk is the son-in-law of former President Leonid Kuchma, and he has a storied personal rivalry with Medvedchuk, who used to be Kuchma’s chief of staff.
“I think Pinchuk has a long feud with Medvedchuk and realizes his danger,” Dovzhenko said.
Five years ago, there were six oligarchs among the main media owners in Ukraine. It’s still that way — albeit with a slight difference.
Oligarch Sergiy Kurchenko, who used to own several large print media, is now hiding in Russia. Medvedchuk has now taken his place among top media owners.
Dovzhenko says the trend of monopolizing TV and the entire media market has only intensified since 2014, when Yanukovych was ousted, leading to a change of power.
During his presidential campaign, Zelensky mentioned an idea for a law that would ban oligarchs from meddling in the coverage of media they own.
Zelensky personally suffered from this when he was a top manager at Inter. In 2012, he was forced to leave due to an argument with the channel’s owners.
But experts believe this law would hardly make a difference, as there’s no respected body that could analyze the TV content and say if it was influenced by oligarchs.
Dovzhenko says most of Ukrainian TV channels were specially created by oligarchs for political leverage, not for making money. With the current low prices for advertisements, TV channels simply cannot survive without being subsidized by their owners, he believes.
The only two truly independent Ukrainian TV channels are the state-run UA: Pershy and the public-sponsored Hromadske TV. Respectively, they have a viewership share of just 0.36 percent and 0.02 percent, according to BIG DATA UA monitoring.
Popova, who used to be deputy minister of information policy in 2015–2016, said her group has developed a plan to limit the influence of oligarchs on media in election periods. They have developed a draft law on political advertisements, which they based upon Latvia’s experience.
The law proposed having the National Agency for Corruption Prevention check media coverage starting three months before the elections to ensure that all politicians are given equal representation. Media and politicians who violated this norm would face a fine.
But Minister of Information Policy Yuriy Stets didn’t support the bill.
“Stets though it would be against the interests of Petro Poroshenko,” Popova recalls. Soon after that, she left the ministry.
Stets ministry’s press service said that it wasn’t Stets but the ministry’s chief lawyer who blocked the draft law, finding it “unviable.”
Before entering politics, Stets was the chief producer of Poroshenko’s Channel 5.
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