Ukraine’s new TV channel aims to counter Russian propaganda in the Donbas
A still from a UATV broadcast of an interview with the former head of the State Border Control Service, Petro Tsygykal, aired on Dec. 4, 2018.Photo by UATV
When the staff of Ukraine’s state-funded international broadcaster UATV returned to work after the holidays on Jan. 3, they received bad news.
The government had decided to close the channel’s English, Arabic and Crimean Tatar departments and turn its Russian-language service into a new television channel aimed at parts of eastern Ukraine occupied by Russian-backed militants and in the firm grip of Kremlin-funded media.
With a mix of Ukrainian entertainment shows and news, the yet-to-be-named broadcaster will be vying for hearts and minds on the other side of the front line.
It’s no easy task: Russia has been waging war against Ukraine in Donbas for nearly six years. More than 13,000 people have lost their lives in the conflict, and those who remain in the war zone are often isolated from the Ukrainian information space.
There is no doubt that President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedy actor and television producer, and Culture Minister Volodymyr Borodyansky, the former CEO at StarLightMedia group, know well how to create entertainment products.
But many experts question whether the government will be able to build a compelling television channel and compete with Russia’s most seasoned propagandists.
The obscure idea
Critics of the plan, like Natalia Ligacheva, chief editor of Detector Media watchdog, suspect that Zelensky is pursuing his own business interests. His companies previously thrived making shows and films for the Russian market, but had to exit it after the war started.
Even those who agree Ukraine needs to communicate with people living in the occupied territories are skeptical.
There are three television towers built in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts to broadcast across the front line. But their signals are regularly jammed and are generally weaker than that of the militant-controlled signal tower in Donetsk city.
Borodyansky claimed that the government will be able to cover 80 percent of the occupied Donbas.
Ukrainian television has not been completely cut off on the separatist-held territories. Today, 23 TV channels owned by media groups 1+1, StarLightMedia, Inter, and Ukraina are available to viewers through satellites and free of charge.
But this will change soon.
Starting at the end of January, these satellite signals will be encrypted as an anti-piracy measure. Viewers will have to buy receivers and pay subscription fees. Russian television, meanwhile, is free.
But besides technical details, the important question is what message the new channel will communicate to the audience.
Talk of creating a Russian-language Ukrainian channel has been ongoing since Zelensky took office. But even now, concrete information on the project is scant.
What is known is that the new channel is slated to go live on Feb. 15. In the beginning, it will only broadcast entertainment shows, football, TV series and movies provided by the leading Ukrainian media groups for free. A month later, it will start news broadcasts.
The government has yet to announce an open competition to hire the channel’s director. At the moment, it is run by Yulia Ostrovska, the interim manager, who was an executive producer with Studio Kvartal 95, Zelensky’s production company.
Oleksiy Kiryuschenko, director of Servant of the People television series starring Zelensky, has also been seen in the studio several times. But his role at the future channel is unknown.
Neither Ostrovska, nor Kiryuschenko replied to the Kyiv Post’s requests for comment by the time of this publication.
Before the official launch, news service chief editor Olena Trybushna quit on Jan. 22, citing disagreements with other managers over their visions for the new channel, but said she wouldn’t disclose details.
UATV bid farewell to its viewers on Jan. 12. Now it only broadcasts reruns. Bureaus in Washington, Istanbul and Warsaw shut down. Correspondents in Toronto, New York and Beijing, who had already obtained their journalists’ visas, were told to cancel their plans.
The international broadcaster was launched in 2015, at the height of the war in the Donbas, as Ukraine’s attempt to counter Russian propaganda and promote the Ukrainian perspective in the world. Russia already had well-funded media operations abroad, and Russian media had long been the sources of information about events in Ukraine.
UATV focused on positive coverage of Ukraine, telling international viewers in five languages about the country’s achievements, its people and culture. It was available on cable and satellite television networks in Asia, Europe, and North America.
However, some questioned its effectiveness, saying it never gained wide recognition, nor had many views on YouTube.
“UATV was quality enough for the money it received. I believe it satisfied the needs of the foreign audience that was interested in Ukraine. But I assume that this interest might have been sporadic, and the audience was modest, although I can’t prove it,” media expert Otar Dovzhenko told the Kyiv Post.
According to him, gauging the broadcaster’s success or the size of its foreign audience was impossible. Since it wasn’t a commercial channel, it couldn’t be measured by revenue or audience growth.
As the war continued, Ukrainian authorities blocked Russian media outlets and social networks. Russian journalists were barred from entering the country. Language quotas obliged television channels and radio stations to prioritize Ukrainian content.
While these measures significantly reduced the Russian propaganda influence, they also widened the divide between government-controlled territory and the Kremlin-occupied Donbas and Crimea.
“Ukraine has never had a single strategy on countering Russian propaganda. There are many outlets that are doing something at their own discretion to fight Russia in the information war, and UATV was one of them. It has been like a chaotic partisan resistance,” Dovzhenko said.
He says Ukraine needs a central body that will set the news agenda for the frontline and occupied territories.
Propaganda or journalism
Oleksiy Matsuka, editor-in-chief of the Novosti Donbasa (News of the Donbas) website, hopes that the news channel will be a journalistic project, not propaganda, and will cover not only the separatist-held territories but the entire south and east of Ukraine, where the majority of Russian-speakers and internally displaced persons live. He estimated the potential audience of such a TV channel at about 10 million people.
“I don’t want it to become war television, but instead show balanced coverage of civilian life, military and humanitarian aspects, and emphasize common values,” he told the Kyiv Post.
He believes the narrative of southern and eastern Ukraine is absent from central television, which primarily reports from Kyiv.
“People in the Donbas need news relevant to their everyday lives. They also need explanations of the (government) decisions from Kyiv — for instance, why the (economic) blockade (of the region) was imposed. This vacuum is filled by Moscow.”
In November 2019, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty surveyed residents of Donetsk, the largest city in the Donbas now controlled by the Russian-backed separatists.
Asked about the region’s possible return to Ukrainian control, respondents on the streets were skeptical. One elderly man said that Ukraine was ruled by Nazis, adding: “I watch Solovyov every day.”
Vladimir Solovyov, one of Russia’s top propagandists, and others like him have been promoting the image of Ukraine as an ultranationalist state hostile to Russian speakers.
A survey published by the Dzerkalo Tyzhnya news site that same month showed that Solovyov was the second most trusted public figure in the occupied territories after Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Dzerkalo Tyzhnya dubbed it “a sobering survey,” as it revealed an information gap that Ukrainian authorities need to reduce.
Russian television remains the most popular source of information in Donbas. As for social media, the majority prefers YouTube and two social networks blocked in Ukraine, VKontakte and Odnoklassniki.
Less than 5% of locals watch Ukrainian TV at all, and nearly 60% have no access to Ukrainian television channels.
The survey respondents’ opinions echoed their media sources: 76% believed that the war in the Donbas was an internal conflict and 86% did not believe the Kremlin and Russian troops had been involved since the beginning. The majority blamed the conflict on activists, the United States, the European Union and the Ukrainian leadership after the 2014 EuroMaidan Revolution ended Viktor Yanukovych’s rule.
But there is a glimmer of hope: 57.8% of 1,600 people surveyed called themselves citizens of Ukraine.
(C)KYIV POST 2020