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Is Ukrainian TV Returning to its Past?Posted by: admin on Mon, 2010-09-27 16:26
Manager Lyuda Andriyevska visited Ukraine this summer. She was eager to see how
the presentation of news and the general media environment in her home country
had been transformed after the February 2010 elections.
By Lyuda Andriyevska
In July I spent several weeks in Kyiv, my hometown. This was my first trip to Ukraine after the February 2010 election of Viktor Yanukovych as president. I was curious to see how the country had changed and, being in the media business, how the presentation of news had changed. I was surprised to witness how fast the new president has transformed the country and how rapidly the media have deteriorated.
The quality of TV news, in particular, has degraded sharply. After watching news on several TV channels, I was struck by the absence of substantive news and alternative points of views.
For example, in late July the lead story on the main channels (UT-1, Inter, 1+1) was the visit of the Russian Patriarch (head of the Russian Orthodox Church) to Ukraine. These channels spent a significant amount of time covering meetings of the Russian Patriarch with Ukrainian officials, the faithful, the many churches he opened, etc.
Why did this story catch my attention? First of all, Ukrainians have many other things to worry about. It was the hottest summer in 100 years in central and eastern Ukraine, there were numerous floods in western Ukraine and the government increased gas prices by 50 percent. The latter decision would add a significant burden on at least one-third of the Ukrainians who are retirees and those with limited incomes.
Second, Ukraine has its own Patriarch -- Patriarch Filaret, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate). Matters involving the church are highly political in the region. When Ukraine gained independence in 1991, its church also gained independence from the Moscow Patriarchate. Both Patriarchates have a lot of ongoing disputes. In the past, I recall, such visits were handled delicately on national TV. After all, there are many more Ukrainians who consider themselves members of or feel closer to the Kyiv Patriarchate than the Moscow Patriarchate. To give so much attention to only one branch of the church (Moscow) ignores the role of the Kyiv Patriarchate. Where was the Ukrainian Patriarch in all this?
Rise of censorship: I am not alone in my observation that the quality of television news is degrading. Because I come to Ukraine only once or twice a year I am able to notice changes better than those who live there permanently. According to the Internews Network, “U-Media,” the main provider of television news, conceals important facts, fails to report events important to Ukrainian society or provide viewers with alternative points of view . Internews also reports that Ukrainian television shows a tendency to present the government in a positive light and at the same time paint the opposition negatively. Yet another organization – IMI Ukraine – reports rising censorship on the regional TV stations. They are told to consult with the Yanukovych administration about how to portray the president’s activities.
Absence of balance: What’s happened to balanced news? I do not claim that under the previous president the news was always balanced and trustworthy, but at least we had representation of alternative opinions and debates on TV. It seems like we are going back to managed news, self-censorship or outright censorship. This is what Ukraine has already experienced under its former President Kuchma (1994-2004), a situation that was changed by the Orange Revolution in 2004.
Live talk shows discussing politics are disappearing, replaced by mundane entertainment: Since the Orange Revolution, Ukrainian TV has been a haven for political talk shows. Nearly all national channels had their own weekly or even daily talk shows during prime time. These shows served as a forum for Ukrainian politicians of different persuasions to express their views on salient issues. Most of these shows are gone. Instead, Ukrainian TV currently features a growing number of commonplace entertainment programming – concerts, soap operas and comedy shows.
One example is Savik Shuster - the well-respected author and moderator of several talk shows on Ukrainian TV, most recently on TRC Ukraina channel. Beginning this month, his talk show on TRC Ukraine was replaced by a soap opera. Similar to neighboring Belarus and Russia, Ukrainians are likely to be deprived of political debate on the TV.
Licenses of two oppositional/independent channels are under threat: Two Ukrainian channels, whose news reports are considered more balanced – 5 Kanal and TVi -- are now in a court battle with Inter Group, a private broadcasting company, over expanding their licensing to cover more regions in Ukraine. The interesting fact in this story is that the owner of Inter Group – Valeriy Khoroshkovsky -- is the head of the USS, the Ukrainian Security Service. Moreover, he is the owner of several TV channels, including the highest-rated TV channel, Inter, as well as Enter Film and NTN. Experts treat this court case as a demonstration of what the government can do to those TV channels that do not give the president favorable treatment.
The Ukrainian president is copying Putin’s style: Many experts in Ukraine compare the changes taking place in Ukrainian media with those in Russia during Putin’s first term. At that time Putin’s government made sure that no opposition voices would appear on Russian TV. If an opposition voice got through, they were and still are presented in a negative light and distorted context. The news on most popular TV channels in Russia is heavily scripted, and live political talk shows are nonexistent. The Russian media is filled with entertainment programming, and the Russian president is always praised on TV as a workaholic serving the citizens.
I found it comical how Viktor Yanukovych not only copies Putin’s strategy but imitates his style. Usually, we see the president at the table in his office instructing or hectoring some minister and demanding actions. One day I tuned into the evening news on UT-1 to see the president demanding that the minister of internal affairs present a concept for reforming his ministry. The conversation made little sense to me, but the president looked very “impressive and decisive.”
Whether the “Russian way” will work in Ukraine is still to be seen. Ukrainian journalists are experienced in defending their professional rights and fighting censorship. At present there is an important national movement by journalists called “Stop censorship.” Although fragmented, the Ukrainian opposition is much stronger in Ukraine than the Russian opposition was in Russia in the early 2000s. What is obvious from the Ukrainian experience, though, is that, in a country with weak democratic institutions, it only takes a change of president to turn the country back to its past.
Lyuda Andriyevska is a project manager at InterMedia. She conducts research on information, media and communication trends in Eurasia.