Editor’s Note: The following is an investigation conducted with the support of Objective Investigative Reporting Project, funded by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Oksana Lyachynska is a freelance journalist and former Kyiv Post staff writer. Re-publication of this story is encouraged with proper credits.
Author: Oksana Lyachynska
The new, post-revolutionary Ukraine looks a lot like the old Ukraine in many areas – courts, prosecutors and Soviet-style bureaucracy – but also, conspicuously, in media ownership.
Press freedoms have gained ground since President Viktor Yanukovych fled into the night on Feb. 21, 2014, capping the EuroMaidan Revolution. Ukraine’s new political leadership shows less appetite for the state-sponsored censorship and harassment of journalists that characterized Yanukovych’s four-year rule.
In fact, Ukrainian journalists are doing a far better job than state institutions – namely prosecutors, judges and police – in exposing corruption. And some of Ukraine’s best journalists and civic activists – Sergii Leshchenko, Svitlana Zalishchuk, Mustafa Nayyem and Hanna Hopko among them – are now in parliament, putting them in a better position than ever to blow the whistle on corruption around them.
News organizations such as Slidstvo.Info, Nashi Groshi, Ukrainska Pravda, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s “Schemes” program and several others routinely expose wrongdoing and even crimes – even though they rarely, if ever, get prosecuted.
Same old oligarchs
By and large, the same six oligarchs remain in charge of most major media outlets in TV, radio and print. They are: Ihor Kolomoisky, Dmytro Firtash/Serhiy Lyovochkin, Rinat Akhmetov, Victor Pinchuk, President Petro Poroshenko, and, amazingly, Serhiy Kurchenko, the fugitive who was Yanukovych’s alleged front man.
All six, in varying degrees, were either allies or found a working accommodation with Yanukovych and his two predecessors, Viktor Yushchenko and Leonid Kuchma.
Ukrainian TV camera operators shoot video of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s press conference in Kyiv on Jan. 14. (Volodymyr Petrov)
Media analysts say that most outlets remain unprofitable yet valuable tools for their owners in wielding political influence with few of the media moguls respecting the principle of editorial independence.
Just as some dogs resemble their owners, or so the saying goes, some Ukrainian news media outlets reflect the interests of their holders.
“Revolution in the Ukrainian media environment did not happen,” said Oksana Romaniuk, executive director of the Institute of Mass Information, which monitors the nation’s media.
“We can now identify media ownership just by their content. Owners’ censorship is one of the most serious challenges to freedom of speech.”
Natalya Ligacheva, former head of Telekrytyka media watchdog, now launching her new project Detector Media, agreed:
“What did not change absolutely (after the revolution) and what evokes great concern is the totally oligarchic nature of media ownership. And what became even worse in contrast to Yanukovych times is that oligarchic TV channels even formally discarded such standards as balance.”
Media monitors have flagged some of the biggest violators of such journalistic principles as balance and fairness at some of the biggest TV stations, including Firtash and Lyovochkin’s Inter TV station, Akhmetov’s Ukraina channel, Kolomoisky’s 1+1 and Pinchuk’s ICTV. Some analysts also say Poroshenko’s Channel 5 has lowered its standards.
Elections expose bias
The biased coverage is especially noticeable ahead of elections. The October 2014 parliamentary elections were no exception.
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe media monitors took note.
“The growing power and politicization of media groups affect both national and regional media. The political and business interests controlling the media often influence editorial policy, and the malpractice of paid-for journalism is widespread,” according to the post-election report, adding that monitoring “showed that only three registered parties were granted meaningful editorial coverage across the media landscape.”
The bias was obvious when the Kyiv Post monitored top TV channels on Oct. 23 – just two days before Election Day.
TV news reports resembled advertising in lining up with their owners’ choice of candidates.
Kolomoisky’s 1+1 channel favorably covered the owner’s ally, Hennady Korban, a Kyiv mayoral candidate who was arrested after the election on suspicion of numerous financial crimes – charges that he denies.
The Firtash/Lyovochkin Inter TV channel, which has national reach, favored the old Yanukovych allies who were running under the flag of the Opposition Bloc, a successor to the Yanukovych-led Party of Regions. Journalists, for instance, interviewed Mykhaylo Dobkin, a former Kharkiv Oblast governor and Party of Regions top figure, who was warning about rigged elections.
Akhmetov’s Ukraina channel invited a top Yanukovych ally, Borys Kolesnikov, a former vice prime minister and minister of infrastructure, to warn that Poroshenko’s allies were going to disrupt elections in Mariupol because they were afraid of defeat. The channel also regularly covered humanitarian aid to Russian-occupied Donetsk by Akhmetov’s foundation.
Pinchuk used his ICTV station to urge voters to support Oleksandr Vilkul, the Opposition Bloc candidate.
“He has job experience,” Pinchuk said on his channel. “He is young, full of energy.”
Away from the capital, media monitors say the situation in the regions remains deplorable, with local outlets mimicking the bad habits of national and Kyiv-based media – or even worse.
“Unfortunately, the situation in the regional media is catastrophic, and after (the revolution), it did not improve,” said Svitlana Yeremenko, executive director at Pylyp Orlyk Institute of Democracy.
The institute’s monitoring of local newspapers and news sites in different parts of the country one month before the elections revealed that almost 40 percent of stories had signs of hidden political and commercial advertising.
“If we don’t change our media, if we don’t change the attitude of journalists to their job, then in fact any changes in the country won’t happen,” Yeremenko said. “A new Ukraine cannot be built with such media for sure.”
Free speech in war
Russia’s seizure of Crimea and war in the Donbas, coupled with non-stop Kremlin propaganda against the West and Ukraine, triggered a patriotic backlash among Ukrainian journalists. It was so pronounced that crisis coverage frequently was uncritical of Ukrainian authorities.
“A phenomenon which happened with Ukrainian journalism is called ‘loyal journalism,’” said Valeriy Ivanov, president of the Academy of Ukrainian Press. “Many journalists decided that their support of the country means that they should give only those stories which, to their mind, will support their country. This is a big mistake…because a journalist is not the Lord God and is not able to decide what will be better and what will be worse for his country, for his audience.”
As the crisis eased, however, and the military conflict ebbed, journalists returned to their watchdog role in varying degrees.
The case of Vesti
Ukraine’s relatively free speech climate – certainly far better than most of its former Soviet neighbors – also made room for Vesti, a free and large-circulation tabloid that is suspected of having Kremlin financial backing and coverage to match.
It began publication on May 14, 2013 with massive financing of unknown origin. It claimed a daily print run of 350,000 copies and more than 100 employees with distribution in all parts of Ukraine.
Its existence was quickly noticed by the new Ukrainian officials, who launched an investigation into tax evasion and promoting separatism. Authorities conducted raids on the newspaper’s offices, finding large amounts of cash and seizing its servers in 2014. The raid on May 22, 2014, by tax police discovered Hr 1.8 million and $60,000 in cash. Also, bank accounts with more than Hr 400,000 were seized.
The probe appears to have stalled with inconclusive findings, but officials haven’t said much publicly. The publication is still in business.“Our point of view: an outlet publishing so many materials which have all signs of fomenting separatist sentiment; a publication with a completely non-transparent funding, cannot operate,” said Valentyn Nalyvaychenko, the former head of the Security Service of Ukraine in an interview with local news site www.lb.uapublished last year. “This is our position and we will defend it in court.”
Nayyem, the former investigative journalist now in parliament, launched his own investigation.
Nayyem’s investigation also brought him to Oleksandr Klymenko, Yanukovych’s top tax man, with whom Guzhva was acquainted. A subsequent investigation by Ukrainian media outlet Insider found that Klymenko owns Vesti.
Vesti newspaper turned out to be also linked to Kurchenko. His Real Bank transferred a financial aid to the newspaper though a fictitious firm without paying taxes. Journalists of the YanukovychLeaks project also found out that Vesti newspaper was in the list of duties of Anna Sytnyk, a staff lawyer of Kurchenko’s company VETEK.
“The newspaper was really funded by people who were in Yanukovych’s government, whose money are arrested now in the country, who are not allowed to enter Ukraine, who fund separatism, according to the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine),” Nayem said.
Meanwhile, monitors of Vesti’s content – including those from Telekrytyka – found that some stories spread panic, were pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian, presented issues in a one-sided manner and commonly used anonymous sources and rumors.
Last year, protesters even demanded that the Security Service of Ukraine shut down the newspaper. But unethical journalism is not illegal.
Guzhva has denied wrongdoing and criticized the police raids.“We are deeply convinced that the only goal of the search was to block the activity of the staff of Vesti newspaper,” read an appeal signed by Guzhva. “Given that the company performs the function as the publisher of the biggest daily newspaper in Ukraine, the interference with the media may be regarded by the international community as a limitation of pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which a democratic society is impossible.”
He also dismissed criticism that Vesti is a Kremlin propaganda tool.
“We are not an instrument of the informational war,” Guzhva wrote on his Facebook page. “We are trying to help people understand the reality that surrounds them and to survive in it.”
But his past is also fuel for critics. He launched Vesti shortly after returning from Moscow to Ukraine nearly three years ago. In Russia’s capital, he was the chief editor at Moskovskie Novosti newspaper and also once headed Ukraine’s Segodnia daily newspaper, owned by the billionaire Akhmetov, who strongly backed the pro-Russian Yanukovych.
After Guzhva left Vesti last summer, the publication became less pro-Russian and started portraying former Yanukovych allies in a more favorable light. It also became less critical toward the current Ukrainian leadership.
Kharkiv businessman Serhiy Kurchenko, 30, became rich during Yanukovych’s presidency from 2010-2014. After Kurchenko’s companies won lucrative government tenders to buy liquefied gas at discounted prices he was called “The Gas King” in a cover story by Forbes Ukraine magazine in 2013. He decided to buy Ukrainian Media Holding, which publishes Forbes and other editions, from Borys Lozhkin, now President Petro Poroshenko’s chief of staff.
“We are looking for profitable and promising Ukrainian media assets,” Kurchenko said in a statement explaining the reported $340 million deal.
But Vladimir Fedorin, former editor-in-chief at Forbes Ukraine, told the Kyiv Post that Kurchenko’s motivation was different. “I am convinced that the buyer pursues one of the three aims (or all three at once): to shut the journalists’ mouths before the (2015) presidential election, to whitewash his own reputation, and to use the publication to solve problems that have nothing to do with the media business.”
The EuroMaidan Revolution that forced his patron Yanukovych to flee also forced Kurchenko and other Yanukovych allies to leave Ukraine.
Kurchenko is wanted by Ukrainian authorities and is under U.S. and EU sanctions. He is suspected of large-scale embezzlement, theft of funds and causing the state Hr 5 billion in damages.
Nevertheless, Kurchenko’s media business, though not as lucrative as before, is still functioning.
“Putting on a wanted list or criminal probations regarding someone is not an obstacle for a person to be an owner of some business,” explained Roman Holovenko, head of the legal department at the Institute of Mass Information. “He could be deprived of his business only after the court verdict that sanctioned him with confiscation of property. Otherwise he has no legal problems.”
It is still a question who is the real owner of the Ukrainian Media Holding.
The state register says that the beneficiary owner of Ukrainian Media Holding is 28-year-old Belize city resident Matthew Adrian Bradley. He is also listed as an officer in more than 40 other companies, according to the U.K. company registry. “According to the law, as I understand, it is difficult to deprive Kurchenko of his property,” Ligacheva said. “As far as I know, he remains the owner of the holding.”
Oligarchs won’t let go
While Russia’s war, the Kremlin annexation of Crimea, the hryvnia’s loss of two-thirds of its value and economic recession have caused the top oligarchs to lose more than half their wealth since 2012, they are not shedding their unprofitable media assets.
Ivanov, president of the Academy of Ukrainian Press, thinks the oligarchs will keep their media assets.
Billionaire Igor Kolomoisky is one of Ukraine’s top media owners. Media monitors say that he and other oligarchs have reputations for interfering with the editorial independence of journalists in news outlets. (UNIAN)
“Media are a powerful instrument of influence and nobody wants to refuse from it just so,” Ivanov said. “And they will rather save money on something else but will keep these channels of influence open.”
The willingness of the oligarchs to heavily subsidize their media makes it difficult for outlets that survive on paid advertising or subscriptions.
The financial woes contribute to an assessment by media watchers that the industry is not healthy and must improve or risk further losing public trust, which has never been high anyway. A 2015 survey by the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Science of Ukraine found that only 25 percent of Ukrainians trust the news media in general.
“Problems will simply accumulate more and more,” said Ihor Rozkladay, a media expert from the Reanimation Package of Reforms. “Falling trust in media is a serious signal that something should be changed.”