Ukrainian parliamentary elections under pressure of Russian disinformation

Galyna Petrenko

director of NGO “Detector Media” (Kyiv, Ukraine)

On July 21, the Ukrainian parliamentary (Verkhovna Rada) elections – was conducted. The election was snap and initiated by newly elected president Volodymyr Zelenskyi, former TV producer and comedian who got unprecedented support from 73% of voters. As a result, his newly established party “Servant of the People”, which was named after his TV series, won 254 out of 450 mandates in parliament and got an opportunity to create a parliamentary majority.
The second most popular party in the parliament became strongly pro-Russian “Opposition Platform – For Life” (43 mandates). The election was full of disinformation efforts of Ukrainian political players, the Kremlin and the fight continues.

In the first month of the election campaign, the party “Servant of the People” with support of almost half of voters, behaved in the media space in a passive way. The headquarter obviously relied on Volodymyr Zelenskyi as a “locomotive”, which would pull the rating of the party, but did not promote other faces except for the party chair Dmytro Razumkov. Only in early July, after some polls began to show a decline in the party rating, the “Servant of the People” began to resort to PR in the TV news, broadened the pool of talk show participants, spoke on TV about one of its main problems – “clones” that use its symbols, stylistics and name. In addition, the representatives of “Opposition Platform – For Life” (OPFL), which until recently behaved as potential allies, suddenly became critics and opponents of Zelenskyi and his party.

At that time, it became known that Taras Kozak – close ally and business partner of one of the leaders of OPFL Victor Medvedchuk – had officially become an owner of ZIK TV channel, news agency and website. ZIK is a small news TV-channel with all-Ukrainian coverage and monthly share of 0,35%. But early in a year, Mr. Kozak has bought another two news channels: “112 Ukraine” and “NewsOne”. Altogether, these three broadcasters formed a powerful media holding with the fifth biggest audience in the country.

Victor Medvedchuk plays in Ukrainian politics for ages. Under times of the USSR, he was a lawyer of Ukrainian famous anti-Soviet poet Vasyl Stus: being a lawyer, he betrayed his client that caused the death of Stus in a prison. In 2012, he asked Vladimir Putin to become the godfather of his child. After the war in Donbass has started, he became a negotiator between Ukraine and Russia; in particular, he was in charge of not much successful exchange of prisoners. But in the history of Ukrainian media he is known the best as a creator of state censorship in order to support the falsification of presidential election in 2004 for the sake of the win of pro-Russian candidate Victor Yanukovych.

In the first two months after TV channel “112 Ukraine” had changed its owner, there appeared more news on Victor Medvedchuk than during the whole previous year. The keynote and content of the messages have also changed. Many pro-Russian speeches started to be broadcasted. “Peace by any price”, unconstitutional seizure of power in 2014, as well as the statements that the war was started not by the Russians, but by the Americans who were first to come to Ukraine to the Maidan to distribute cookies and to call for the overthrow of the regime. And there are no doubts about how harmful these messages are to Ukraine: according to a recent study conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology at the request of “Detector Media”, “112 Ukraine”, “NewsOne” and “Inter” (TV channel owned by another leaders of OPFL) viewers were less likely to share pro-Ukrainian interpretations of events in Ukraine, than the viewers of other television channels, in particular, events related to the war in Donbas.

After ZIK had been bought, the situation was repeated and supported by growing degree of pro-Russian rhetoric on “NewsOne” and “112 Ukraine” during parliamentary election. These broadcasters directly denied Russian aggression in Ukraine, told about civil war, asserted that only Lviv Oblast required joining NATO, doubted whether the reports of the armed forces on the return of control over the territories of the Donbas were true, declared that Zelenskiy’s first foreign visit should have been to Moscow, and Ukraine should have not blocked the “North Stream 2”. In addition, they convinced that gas should have been bought from Russia, monuments to Zhukov in Ukraine were destroyed by the fascists, and there were less “Russophobes” in the European Parliament after the election.

In addition, the level of rhetoric of Medvedchuk’s TV channels (but to be honest, not only his TV channels) reached record depths in terms of hate speech. For example, “112 Ukraine” hosted a program on LGBT rights, where they talked about homodictatorship, perverts, sinful sodomy and the offence of honor and dignity of passersby. On “NewsOne”, one of its hosts claimed that “a woman will always be secondary”, because Jesus was a man.

After acquisition of “112 Ukraine”, the channel was left by some of its journalists. But when ZIK had been bought, many of its journalists not only left the broadcaster but started protesting publicly. They issued a statement that was supported by journalistic Media Movement “For Conscious Choice” and NGOs and distributed among politicians and government authorities in Ukraine and abroad.

In particular, they stated, “We call on the president of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyi to finally define his position on information intervention of Russia to the Ukrainian media space and introduction of censorship on the media resources controlled by pro-Russian politicians. We call on the president and his team – and in particular, future members of parliament, – to introduce effective mechanisms that would demonopolize TV space, guarantee transparency of financing, editorial independence and protection from owners` dictate. We also call them to support independent public broadcaster.

We call on the National council on TV and Radio Broadcasting to thoroughly control compliance of content of ZIK, “NewsOne” and “112Ukraine” TV channels with Ukrainian legislation and conditions under which their broadcasting licenses have been issued.

We call on the Security Service of Ukraine to answer if money originating from the country-aggressor were used to purchase media assets, posing a potential threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Shall this confirm, we demand to take all the necessary measures to stop this process.”

All the above-mentioned authority bodies reacted immediately. For example, the president Zelenskyi met with former ZIK journalists, the National council on TV and Radio Broadcasting launched the task force on creating effective response to Russian informational attacks made through Ukrainian media outlets. Probably, thanks to strong public response, attention of international society and activities of authorities, “112 Ukraine” and “NewsOne” did not dare to broadcast propagandist movie “Revealing Ukraine” by Oliver Stone interviewing Vladimir Putin and joint teleconference with “Russia 1” TV-channel. Both pieces of content were finally shown on Russian TV which was very friendly towards Victor Medvedchuk during whole parliamentary campaign.

The election to Verkhovna Rada was finished but the problem still exists: Ukrainian media outlets, which are used by the Kremlin as informational weapon against Ukraine, could be a bomb at any time. That is why newly elected parliament as well as civil society have to find the efficient ways to protect the informational environment without any threat to the freedom of speech. In order to do that, we are studying recent legislation against fake news and hate speech adopted by France and Germany. Also, we need to improve financial transparency of media ownership and to find the ways to track Russian money, which are trying to influence minds, hearts and souls of Ukrainians.

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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