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Ukraine Media Leaders Sound Alarm on Oligarchical Control at Virtual VOA Town Hall

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov speaks at a press briefing on the results of the investigation into the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet, Kiev, Dec. 12, 2019.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov speaks at a press briefing on the results of the investigation into the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet, Kiev, Dec. 12, 2019.

For the first time since achieving independence in 1991, Ukraine has ranked among the top 100 countries in the world for press freedom, according to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

But observers and journalists on the ground in Kyiv paint a more nuanced picture of the former Soviet state's media landscape.

Although Ukraine climbed six spots in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index, it is partially because press freedoms are in decline elsewhere.

“We can talk about some relative progress of Ukraine — indeed, we are in the first hundred countries in terms of freedom of speech, and this is for the first time in our history," said Sergiy Tomilenko, chairman of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine.

"At the same time, I would not overestimate these few points,” he said.

Like other experts participating in a recent VOA Virtual Town Hall on Ukrainian media, Tomilenko still sees room for improvement.

"There is freedom of the press in Ukraine, but there's a lack of independent media,” said Ukrayinska Pravda editor Sevgil Musaeva, who has run the nationally prominent independent digital outlet since 2014.

Some 85 percent of Ukraine-based publications and broadcasters are controlled by oligarchs, she said, who use them primarily as vehicles to advance their own political interests.

"It is extremely difficult to survive in this environment, [especially] for the small number of independent media organizations," she added. "There is no fair competition.”

'White noise,' 'warm baths'

Hromadske TV co-founder and deputy editor Nastia Stanko said although Ukrainian journalist enjoy substantial press freedoms, a perpetual "white noise" of dueling narratives and disinformation can cloud coverage.

"It is difficult for people to figure out where the truth is,” said Stanko, a recipient of the Committee to Protect Journalists 2018 International Press Freedom Award.

That makes some Ukrainians more likely to trust rumors circulated online by bloggers or bots than stories reported by traditional news outlets.

“The media hygiene is very bad," she said.

Victoria Sumar, former chairwoman of the parliamentary Committee on Freedom of Speech, says skepticism of traditional mainstream outlets has a lot to do with the fact that they are largely owned and run by oligarchs.

“If we look at one of the biggest corruption stories on the internet and social networks today — ‘Yermak’s recordings’ — the big channels have been silent about it," she said, referring to a series of leaked videos that appear to implicate Denys Yermak, the brother of Zelensky’s Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak, in corruption.

"And it is understandable, since Andriy Yermak, the head of the presidential office, has a serious influence and is the main negotiator for Ukrainian oligarchs and channel owners,” she said.

“The authorities want to stay in warm baths," she added, using a term to describe news media coverage that never asks difficult questions. "And media owners actively arrange and sell such warm baths for them."

“Ukrainians are already used to the TV channels saying what their owners want," said Musaeva of Ukrayinska Pravda, explaining that consumers are increasingly turning to digital platforms for hard news.

"Ukrainians are watching TV for series and entertainment shows," she said. "News is being generated on social networks. This is our window into democracy.”

Violence, harassment

Musaeva also expressed concerns about journalists being harassed, threatened and attacked with impunity.

“In 2020, journalists in Ukraine are under fire from every direction—government, activists, bloggers, audience," she said, adding that the aggression is often rooted in the assumption that journalists are viewed as political opponents.

"There is demand in Ukrainian society for journalists to take a position," she said. "It raises a critical question: who are journalists, what are the professional standards?

"This misunderstanding puts journalists in way of harm or danger,” she said.

Instead of marshaling legislation to protect reporters, said union chief Tomilenko, President Volodymyr Zelensky's cabinet ministers instead spent the past year focused on drafting media regulations designed to combat misinformation, a move that drew international criticism.

"After the new president came to power and the whole political landscape was rebooted, the efforts still were focused on strengthening media regulation and developing the draconian law proposed by ex-Minister of Culture Volodymyr Borodiansky,” Tomilenko said.

The experts appeared to agree that strengthening and modernizing Ukraine's public broadcasting system, an effort that has been under way since 2013, is one way to keep private interests in check.

"Until we make public broadcasting strong and limit the oligarchs' influence on the media market, I don't foresee any hints of improvement," said Svitlana Ostapa, who chairs the supervisory board of Ukraine's National Public Broadcasting Company.

"At least we don't hide these facts if they happen,” she said, comparing the rigorous documentation of basic facts to the power of reliable coronavirus testing.

"Less testing, less data," she said. "We know there are countries under authoritarian regimes where the situation for journalists is definitely worse than ours. However, [at least] we are talking about it and recording it.”

RSF on Thursday called on Ukrainian officials to enact laws to safeguard journalists from harassment and attacks. The statement followed reports that a correspondent was assaulted by officers in Kyiv last week while filming an anti-lockdown protest.

They called the incident one of "many other cases of threats and acts of aggression and intimidation” against journalists amid the COVID-19 health crisis.

Ruslan Deynychenko and Oksala Ligostova contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine. This story originated in VOA's Ukrainian Service.