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Media in Ukraine: A Domain of the State, the Oligarchs, or the Public?

In Ukraine, "most politicians, as well as oligarch owners of media, believe that media is a very powerful instrument they can use to shape public opinion," stated Marta Dyczok, Associate Professor of History and Political Science, University of Western Ontario, and Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center, at a 14 February 2006 Kennan Institute seminar. Dyczok, along with Elzbieta Olechowska, Editor in Chief, International Training, CBC/Radio-Canada; and Nataliya Petrova, attorney-at-law and media law expert (Kyiv), and Fulbright-Kennan Research Scholar, analyzed how the Orange Revolution created opportunities and momentum for media transformations, and concluded that the media remains caught between state and business influences.

During the Orange Revolution, Ukrainian journalists rebelled against the heavy state censorship imposed by the Kuchma regime, said Dyczok. It was a return to an earlier era, when, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the state had relinquished its monopoly ownership of media outlets and ended official censorship. By the late 1990s, censorship began to reemerge, according to Dyczok, and oligarch control over privately owned media had made it clear that "privatization of media does not guarantee freedom of speech." But since the Orange Revolution, there has not been much structural change in Ukrainian media—the owners are the same, state-owned media continues to exist, and most journalists, editors, and managers remain in the same positions.

Dyczok argued that, given the performance of oligarch-owned media, the remaining state-owned media assets should not be privatized outright, but should be transformed into a public broadcasting system. At the individual level, Dyczok continued, people are better informed than previously, but the public still does not receive complete information. Oligarchs continue to try to shape public opinion via the media, although many independent journalists are attempting to improve the tone and quality of their publications. Wider Internet availability and access has created a new outlet and audience for writers, Dyczok asserted.

Olechowska recounted the experience of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in Ukraine, as a broadcaster since 1952, and later as a partner and provider of assistance. Since gaining independence, said Olechowska, Ukraine has struggled to develop clear policies on schedules, formats, and standards on television, as well as to promote professional journalistic standards. The CBC during this period has offered and provided assistance to Ukraine in the form of training and advice on public media management, broadcasting skills, and media legislation and regulations.

Media reforms remain an important priority for Ukraine, but will have to wait until after the parliamentary elections in March 2006, contended Olechowska. She noted that there are 1,200 valid broadcasting licenses in Ukraine, of which 500 are active. Only 12 percent of active licenses properly function. The remaining licenses are held and sold to politicians and their allies during election periods. The ownership of these licenses is not transparent, continued Olechowska, and the result is that "objectivity does not exist in the media." The reputation of journalists as a group is not much higher than the media outlets themselves. "Journalists are considered servants of specific political groups that often try to manipulate rather than inform the public," said Olechowska.

Petrova assessed the legal framework under which media operates in Ukraine, one which was built as a break from the legacy of Soviet control and censorship. In the period 1992-93, Petrova reported, laws on information and print media were passed to promote the free flow of information and establish a legal framework for private print and broadcast media. Petrova noted the difficulties encountered by private media outlets in a new market environment: "Very soon it became clear that the right to publish papers is not equal to the duty of others to buy and read them." Nevertheless, she asserted that in a society in transition, "media has the extra mission of public civic education."

Echoing Olechowska and Dyczok, Petrova stated that both the state and business interests exploit the media to conduct information wars. She added that beginning in 1998, "top public officials and government agencies started to file libel suits against newspapers, television companies, and journalists for publishing critical materials." This contributed to an environment of self-censorship, and led to the Committee to Protect Journalists to place President Leonid Kuchma on their "Ten Worst Enemies of the Press" list three times (1999-2001).

Even following the remarkable bravery of many in the press during the Orange Revolution, too many journalists remain closely connected to the state, according to Petrova. For example, some still draw salaries from the state, while others have agreed to join party lists while retaining their media positions. In order for Ukrainian journalists to earn credibility as objective reporters, they must first overcome their dependency on the state. Petrova recommended that the press avoid agenda-based stories and initiate policies to minimize conflicts of interest. Other journalistic traditions, such as source confidentiality and fact verification, are gradually becoming standard procedures. Petrova concluded that the Ukrainian media will improve its professionalism, but "the culture of public oriented journalism must be fostered, and this will take time and will."


About the Author

F. Joseph Dresen

F. Joseph Dresen

Senior Program Associate
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more