How Ukrainian media fell asleep at the switch of the president Zelenskyi
Galyna Petrenko, Director, NGO “Detector Media” (Kyiv, Ukraine)
In 2019, TV comedian, producer, and co-owner of production company “Kvartal 95” Volodymyr Zelenskyi was elected as a president of Ukraine. Despite 73% of votes in favor in the second round, this electoral success was unexpected for the media.

The strangest observation about presidential election is the fact that traditional media fell asleep at the switch in terms of Volodymyr Zelenskyi. The growing popularity of the idea of choosing the showman Volodymyr Zelenskyi as the president was well documented by means of sociology; his supporters were grouping and were active in social networks, but traditional media behaved like all of this was a joke. What is more, it was not because state censorship – the censorship did not exist. It looks like journalists and editors just did not take Zelenskyi seriously. After all, concealment of information about Zelenskyi by large TV channels before the first round could be attributed, for example, to the pressure exerted by their owners, which was either the result of an agreement with the current authorities or the result of the fact that they were acting in their own interests, whereas the lack of attention of independent media and investigative journalists to the figure and the phenomenon of Zelenskyi, his team, ties, partners, campaign financing, etc. cannot be attributed to such a pressure. This was a conscious choice of editorial teams of independent media.

Zelenskyi’s campaigning strategy, which was focused on social networks andcomedy TV shows, was only one, and hardly the main, reason why the top TV channels (with the exception of “1+1” owned by Ihor Kolomoiskyi who had strong business relations with Volodymyr Zelenskyi as broadcaster of his TV shows) showed their audience a distorted picture of the election reality. Indeed, the candidate almost did not seek meetings with journalists, did not invite them to press conferences, and did not come to live interviews. He almost did not use the “black” and “gray” commercial opportunities which television channels offered to election participants. But the very willingness of a large part of the society to vote for the TV presenter was a sufficient “coverage opportunity” for television channels to find out what was going on and how real this prospect was. Instead, they were constructing a reality in which Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko were the main contenders for the post of a president, and – depending on the interests of the media owner – Yuriy Boyko, Oleh Lyashko, Oleksandr Vilkul, or Anatoliy Hrytsenko were on their heels. Independent media and investigators were also only focused on Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko.

Meanwhile, political talk shows on Russian TV were full of information about Ukraine. In the period from January 14 to March 17, three most popular programs – “Evening with Vladimir Solovyov”, “Time Will Show”, and “News of the Week with Dmitry Kiselev” – brought to life 183 episodes; 109 of which, that is, almost 60%, concerned Ukraine.

Russian talk shows systematically did not support any candidate for the position of the president of Ukraine. On the contrary, they said that all of them were equally bad for the people. They aggressively criticized Petro Poroshenko for the alleged alcoholism, corruption, and his service to the West. Yulia Tymoshenko was blamed for corruption and for being part of the old system. Volodymyr Zelenskyi was perceived exclusively as Kolomoiskyi’s puppet. The only exception was Viktor Medvedchuk. But since he was not running for president, then Russian TV supported his partner from the party “Opposition platform – for life” Yuriy Boyko.

The majority of propagandist programs were very similar. When discussing various coverage opportunities, talk shows reached the same conclusions, communicating the same messages.

68% of the programs claimed that Ukraine was under the external control of the West. According to Russian shows, the US Department of State provoked the Maidan, maintained the war in the East, determined the outcome of the election, and even obtained tomos about autocephaly of the сhurch for Ukraine. Moreover, Petro Poroshenko was the creation of US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch (even though Poroshenko became president two years before her appointment).

In 64% of episodes, Russian shows could not do without mentioning the rampant Nazism in Ukraine. Any manifestation of Ukrainian ideology or national policy was perceived as Nazism. The bill on language, which strengthened status of Ukrainian language, the process of decommunization, and counteraction of the Russian “soft power” were all manifestations of Nazism. Just as the Revolution of Dignity, the tragedy in Odesa, rallies against pro-Russian politicians, and “Glory to Ukraine” cries. Russian talk shows were so outraged by the latter, that they could not understand how Donald Tusk – a Pole and the President of the European Council – could say such words in the Verkhovna Rada (after all, according to the Russians, that “the mass murders of Poles” took place with these cries).

55% of the shows claimed that the elections in Ukraine would have been rigged. Voters would have been bribed, servers would have been hacked, opponents would have been intimidated; and if this did not work, they would simply disrupt the vote with the help of a martial law or terrorist attacks.

Other trends included the alleged repressions and restrictions on freedom of speech in Ukraine, church-ideological-historical split, accusations of murders against ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone) veterans, justification of aggression in the Kerch Strait, accusations of terrorism against Ukrainians, statements about the fact that the Revolution of Dignity was a mass psychosis.

It is important to note that all of the above concerned only the Ukrainian authorities. It should be noted that that Russians attributed to them Russophobia, Nazism, corruption, low intelligence, and treason. Russian talk shows even thought that Ukraine betrayed Russia. However, in 28% of the programs the Ukrainian people were called a “fraternal” people. Propagandists claimed that Ukrainians had a good attitude towards Russia, were kind-hearted, intelligent, and sought peace. But the authorities interfered in everything with negative effects.

Russian TV channels are banned in Ukraine since 2014, but there are 4% of Ukrainians, that is, about 1,300,000 people, who claim in opinion polls that they are still receiving information from the Russian television (it is possible on the internet and through the satellite television). Moreover, we have repeatedly noted that there were similar theses promoted both by the Kremlin TV channels, Medvedchuk’s channels (“112 Ukraine” and “NewsOne” at that time and “Inter”). In particular these included information about the possible disruption of the elections and the fact that their result would have not been legitimate due to falsifications. These predictions had nothing to do with reality and were fueled by the news about networks of bribes and other technologies real scale of which is likely to remain unknown to the public.
All these events brought to life a lot of discussions on how to improve the regulation of the media sector:

  1. To strengthen media regulator and its capacity to react on fake news, hate speech, and anti-Ukrainian statements on TV and radio
  2. To start thinking about regulation of internet media outlets
  3. To start co-operation with the biggest social networks, e.g. Facebook
  4. To strengthen media literacy of Ukrainian citizens

There is still a lot to be done.

The Article is prepared in the framework of the project “EaP&V4 Countries Countering Disinformation” with the financial support from the International Visegrad Fund. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not in any way represent the views of International Visegrad Fund or the partner organisations.

The project is implemented by the Europe-Georgia Institute and Civil Development and Research Institute. 

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