While having benefited from both conventional and new media during the election campaign, the new team in power had a rough start with some segments of the media and NGO community once elected. The part of the new government that is responsible for media-related policies is comprised of media professionals with extensive background in the business, which they gained working at oligarch-owned broadcasters. They have an ambitious agenda for transforming the legislation and the media landscape overall, building on the reforms implemented under the previous administration and government after 2014. They are now working on new media legislation that may bring about profound changes in the way media – both conventional and new, such as online and social media – operate and are regulated in Ukraine. The media and expert communities are engaged in the process to some extent, although some of the proposed changes raise concerns about the impact they could have on competition in the media market, survivability of some media, and the interference of political actors in media work.
TV and Social Media are a Candidate’s Best Friend
Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s communication during the election campaigns in 2019 attracted a lot of attention for his use of both conventional and new media tools. Beyond the election framework, Zelenskyy’s long-time presence on TV, including in his increasingly politicized comedy shows, made him one of the most recognisable figures in Ukraine’s political landscape, and certainly the most recognisable ‘new face’. According to a 2018 survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), his rate of recognition was nearly 92% in April 2018 – compared to 29% for journalist-turned MP Serhiy Leshchenko or slightly under 8% for Maksym Nefiodov, then first deputy minister of Economy and a driver behind ProZorro, a new system for transparent public procurement.
A monitoring of the election coverage in conventional media by the National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting found that entertainment shows featuring Volodymyr Zelenskyy at 1+1, one of the Ukraine’s most popular TV channels, amounted to 14% of total airtime in the two months before the first round of the presidential election. The channel did not criticise him and gave him a chance to speak personally in political shows during that period.
His digital communication was impressive. Throughout both campaigns, Zelenskyy’s team focused on expanding outreach and building up direct engagement with social media users. The invitation to send proposals for his platform in early January 2019 or the launch in May 2019 of LIFT, a website for headhunting and idea hunting for Zelenskyy’s team, were just some of the many examples. His digital campaign coordinator Mykhailo Fedorov described channels of communication via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube as ‘our own media’.
Beyond the election campaign communications, there was no clarity on what Zelenskyy’s policies would be with regard to the media in Ukraine. Plans to de-oligarchise media and create a Russian-language public TV channel were mentioned, but without any specifics. And it was too early to judge about his future policies before the key media-related appointments took place after the parliamentary elections.
What Is New?
With the new administration, parliament, and government in place now, a number of approaches appear in their relations with the media that are different from the traditional politics vis-à-vis media framework.
Firstly, nobody in the new team in power owns media so far. While many of its representatives come from different kinds of media background, they are not known to actually own or control any TV channels, online or other outlets. At the same time, they hardly have any open conflicts or clashes of interest with most owners of major TV channels in the country, even if they speak about diminishing the influence of oligarchs and political actors on the Ukrainian media.
Secondly, the new team in power often acts in order to be perceived as the media in itself. It seeks to create and distribute news or information without intermediaries while experimenting with different formats to attract more attention. Examples include videos of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s monologues in a Tesla car while driving around Kyiv or an ‘interview’ with an actor from his Servant of the People television series to mark the first 100 days of his presidency.
After much criticism for avoiding speaking to the press properly, especially from parts of the media community, Zelenskyy finally did an interview with journalists in mid-October. However, he did so in a 14-hour press marathon at a food market in Kyiv, using the opportunity to offer a different format and attract public attention to himself and some of his messages, rather than to the substance of the conversation. Seven channels broadcasted the press marathon live on TV and on their YouTube channels.
Apart from that, the new team continues to use social media and the formats popular there to communicate with the audience. For example, Ze!President YouTube channel regularly features videos of Zelenskyy’s addresses to the public on important issues, his trips to the frontline and the regions, and the way he deals with local authorities. Apart from Zelenskyy himself, the channel features videos of bloggers that talk about the same issues in short explainers or in ‘myth debunking’ videos. This is oriented at a wider audience that is likely to prefer form or format to nuances of the policy discussed.
Similar formats are used by other representatives of the team as they seek to increase direct engagement with the audience: For example, Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk hosts the Premier’s Cup chat vlogs on YouTube on a weekly basis. These moves work to some extent: According to the latest survey by KIIS, Volodymyr Zelenskyy still enjoys a high level of trust at 66%, even if it is down from 73% in September. At the same time, Zelenskyy’s communication is criticised by some segments of the society for the lack of detailed professional explanations of the policies that his team puts forward or that the party in the parliament votes for, such as the land sale reform, war-related security issues, etc.
What Is Old?
When it comes to communication with the media, the new team has been sending controversial signals. Some of its representatives build constructive communication with the media and voice support for them as an important actor of democracy. Others try to discredit and attack the media for investigations or critical reporting via lawsuits, social media, and other tools traditionally used by politicians and business actors.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s interaction with journalists started on a rough note at the dawn of his campaign in January 2019: He then rebuffed a Radio Free Europe reporter for stopping him near his office in Kyiv to ask about his business in Russia, but apologised for that incident shortly after. However, other controversies followed during and after the campaign. These ranged from Zelenskyy not showing up for the election debate at the public broadcaster before the second round of the presidential election to his press secretary shoving reporters away when they tried to speak to him after the election, to him avoiding communication with the press in the first months of the presidency.
The conduct of some other top officials from his circle or party has triggered more criticism. While doing interviews with conventional media from time to time, Chief of Staff Andriy Bohdan said in a comment, ‘As our election campaign proved, we speak to society without intermediaries, without journalists’, and he sued Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty investigative journalists for alleged misinformation in their reporting on him. Some Servant of the People MPs have attacked media and journalists for critical questions, reporting, or investigations about them.
Thus, instead of building up a culture of communication with the media and leading by example, some of the top representatives of the current political leadership treat the media as their opponents, trying to further undermine trust for them.
What Is Ahead?
The new team in power is proactive in discussing reforms of the media sector. This discussion focuses on the upcoming Media Law that will replace a number of current laws covering the sector.
One aspect of this discussion is related to de-oligarchisation in the media. In 2015, a law on transparency of media ownership was passed mandating that broadcasters disclose their ultimate beneficiaries and ownership structure on their websites annually. This allows the audience to find out who owns the broadcaster and who may be influencing it.
The next step long discussed by media experts is requirements on financial transparency. This would allow the authorities to trace the sources of funding (among other things, the upcoming law restricts funding or ownership of media from an aggressor state) and the extent to which the media is subsidised. Oleksandr Tkachenko, Servant of the People’s chair of the Verkhovna Rada Committee for Humanitarian and Information Policy and former director general of 1+1 Media, announced on November 6 that he would like to see the principle of financial fair play applied to the media in Ukraine and potential sanctioning of the media that operate with losses for a certain period. This could boost commercialisation of Ukraine’s media landscape, where many people are used to getting content virtually for free. Moreover, major private broadcasters plan to switch large segments of their audiences to paid TV in 2020.
At the same time, such requirements and sanctions could hit smaller non-TV media that have been on the market for a long time, trying to stay true to the standards of journalism and hold those in power accountable, but struggling to remain profitable. Also, the new law is intended to regulate jurisdictions to limit offshorisation of ownership that is common in Ukraine’s biggest media.
Another focus of the reform is regulation. The new law aims at updating and streamlining the regulation in order to meet the demands of modern media landscape, i.e. to cover both conventional and digital media. As part of this law, Ukraine has to meet its commitment under the Association Agreement with the EU and harmonise with its legislation on audiovisual services. The new team has spoken of plans to merge regulators and update their functions to give them more enforcing powers, including mechanisms of fining violators, which they currently do not have.
Some in the media community are concerned about the point on the definition of ‘disinformation’ in the proposed law and punishment for it, including criminal liability – as was outlined during the proposal’s presentation.
Public discussions of the draft law started in mid-November, engaging media experts and journalists. Since they have just started, it is too early to tell what the final legislation will look like, what purposes the new legislation will serve, and how it will be enforced. The new draft law is expected to be finalised by the end of the year.
In this context, it is important to focus on a number of other elements in Ukraine’s media landscape. The new team in power should continue supporting Suspilne, a reformed public broadcaster. Amidst the growing commercialisation of the market, it is important to have a broadcaster focused on serving the public interest rather than earning profits and creating popular entertainment content over any other priorities.
Another key task is to provide protection to journalists. In September 2019, the Office of the President established the Council on Freedom of Speech and Protection of Journalists with representatives of media NGOs, journalists, and professional associations. The Council will work on formulating a modern concept of the freedom of speech notion, self-regulation of journalists, and the principles of their work. It should also look at problems in the work of journalists and work out ways to solve them.
Like in other sectors, the new team in power has a proactive approach to shaping media-related policies. It seems to focus, among other things, on the problems in Ukraine’s media landscape that have long been discussed as pressing and in need of solutions. However, just like with its other policies, there is little clarity on the details of the changes and their enforcement.
Therefore, a more nuanced and clear communication of the proposed changes is needed in order to address legitimate concerns and to avoid misinterpretations and speculations. Amidst potential change of the regulatory and market environment, it might be useful to look for ways to support good-quality smaller media – print and online, nationwide and local – that operate in line with professional standards, and the production of quality domestic media products.
Finally, protection of journalists is a top priority. While the new team in power has launched some initiatives to that end and plans to include this aspect in the new media law, the implementation is what matters. That is a challenge within two realms: the realm of the judiciary and law enforcement reform, and that of the culture of communication with the media by the new team in power itself.
Publication “Ukraine: Great Expectation” is prepared within the project “Ukraine Elections in Focus”, supported by the Black Sea Trust, a Project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent those of the Black Sea Trust and its partners