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Ukraine suppressing independent reporting?

Roman Goncharenko
September 28, 2018

Ukraine's public broadcaster is being modernized with Western help. But with just half a year until the country's presidential election, the outlet is not finding much political backing domestically.

TV static
Image: Colourbox

Ukraine's media landscape is not particularly diverse. Indeed, most of country's television and radio stations are owned by businessmen with close ties to the political class. President Petro Poroshenko, for example, owns his very own news channel, although he has officially relinquished control over the station.

Now, things appear to have gotten worse: Ukraine's public television station UA:Pershyi, or UA:First in English, has had its analogue broadcasting service suspended. The official reason is outstanding debt for transmission services provided by a state-run company.

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The result is that just half a year ahead of Ukraine's presidential election, people in the countryside are cut off from public television. "It is an absurd situation," the acting director of the Ukrainian Institute of Media and Communication, Diana Dutsyk, told DW. That's because, she explained, analogue broadcasting services are often the only option available in rural Ukraine. That the country is currently embroiled in civil war only makes the situation more unacceptable, Dutsyk added.

Western money and pressure

For decades, UA:Pershyi was part of Ukraine's state broadcasting operation. Since 2017 and with support from Germany and other outside parties, the television station is gradually being modernized and is now part of country's new public broadcasting company, UA:PBC. This rebranding was kicked-started in the winter of 2013 with the rise of Ukraine's pro-Western Europe protest movement. However, the process was dogged by setbacks as Ukraine's government initially showed little interest in the idea. Western pressure reportedly helped push the project forward.

Kyryl Savin of the DW Akademie
Savin heads the international effort to modernize Ukraine's public broadcasterImage: DW/F. Rohmann

The European Commission has pledged €5 million ($6 million), and Germany's Foreign Ministry €1.5 million, to help Ukraine establish a modern, multimedia news station. Kyryl Savin of the DW Akademie, who runs this international initiative, says that preparations are currently underway to launch the project. "I hope construction work on the station will begin in October," he said. The station's new headquarters is set to be completed by 2020.

It will mark a major change in the country's media landscape. In the past, Ukrainian public broadcasting produced low-quality content with government-friendly overtones that reached very few viewers. Now, new television formats have been planned that emphasize investigative reporting and critical analysis.

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"The station is basically independent and autonomous from the government," said Dutsyk, though she conceded that there is still room for improvement in its political reporting.

German ambassador demands support

As Ukraine's analogue television broadcasts were gradually being switched off over the past few weeks and months, an exception was made for UA:Pershyi. The regions in eastern Ukraine bordering rebel-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk kept receiving its analogue signal. And similarly, residents in these parts of Ukraine can receive its programs digitally or via cable. But given the problem of chronic underfunding, it is unclear how much longer that will continue.

Donetsk airport sign
Amid funding concerns, residents in war-torn eastern Ukraine may soon lose public broadcaster accessImage: picture-alliance/epa/L. Piergiovanni

Ukrainian law stipulates that UA:PBC should receive 0.2 percent of the previous year's state budget. However, parliament decided to only grant half of this sum for 2018, or the equivalent of €23 million. That amount is a major problem, according to UA:PBC financial director Rodion Nikonenko. "There is enough money to pay our employees' salaries," he explained, but not to run the station or produce any programs.

On Wednesday, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), an alliance of public media outlets, called on the Ukrainian government to provide UA:PBC proper funding. "The EBU is extremely concerned about the future of public service media in Ukraine after broadcasts from EBU Member UA:PBC were terminated," the organization said in a statement.

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Germany's ambassador in Kyiv, Ernst Reichel, took to Twitter a day later, urging Ukraine to swiftly address UA:PBC's dire financial situation and guarantee funding for coming years. The country must ensure the station is "fully operational" ahead of the upcoming presidential election, he said.

Suppressing investigative journalism?

Svetlana Ostapa, who sits on the UA:PBC supervisory board, suspects the government decided to switch off analogue broadcasting for political reasons. In light of the upcoming presidential election, Ukraine's leadership is displeased with the station's investigative reporting and the fact that authorities "can no longer order it around," she said.

Denis Bihus, who hosts the station's investigative show "Nashi Hroshi" (Our Money), agrees. He said the government is deliberately withholding funds as an indirect form of "punishment."