In recent months, the press in Ukraine has gone through a series of important changes, as it had to adapt to the new realities dictated by the war – funding cuts, personnel problems, involvement in the effort to mobilize the population. On the other hand, the media landscape is also feeling the impact of the “deoligarchization” law, promulgated by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in November 2021, before the start of the war.
The independent and local media crisis
The war has aggravated the issues facing the local and the politically unaffiliated independent media. Online publications complain about the lack of advertising and sponsorships, and some of them are on the verge of bankruptcy. Smaller radio stations are announcing that they will lay off more and more journalists, and local media are becoming less represented, especially in conflict zones.
During a conference on the functioning of media during wartime, organized by the OSCE in mid-May, representatives of the Ukrainian media mentioned a number of issues they were facing .
Newspapers have been closed in the east and south of the country. Many journalists have fled the war and are now unemployed. Some newsrooms do not know where their employees are at the moment, after the localities they were broadcasting from were occupied by Russia. Various local publications have stopped funding documentary projects, analyses and media studies, reducing their activity to news streams about the situation in Ukraine, based mainly on what they can take over from the central press. Managers of independent Ukrainian publications or local publications claim that many businesses, shopping centers, shops, etc. have been closed or have reduced their advertising spending. According to the director of the “Abo” News Agency, Lera Lauda, without grants and donations from international organizations, many media projects would no longer be able to survive in Ukraine.
“Media deoligarchization” in times of war
In July, 10 television stations, the “Segondia” portal and the “Vogue” magazine ceased to exist following the decision to close them by the owner and founder of “Ukraine Media Group”, the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. More than 4000 employees of these media institutions will be gradually fired, and all other licenses of Ukraina, Ukraina 24, Futbol 1/2/3, NLO TV and Indigo TV stations have been returned to the competent Ukrainian bodies. Without licenses these enterprises are no longer media outlets.
Akhmetov explained this spontaneous decision, which journalists learned about at the last minute, by the need to comply with the “deoligarchization” law, voted in November 2021. The law presented by Volodymyr Zelensky as an initiative aimed at ending the influence of very rich businessmen on politics provides for the creation of a registry of Ukrainian oligarchs. The criteria considered for the drawing up of the list include participation in political life, the influence on several media institutions, the ownership of a company considered monopolistic and of assets worth more than 85 million dollars.
Akhmetov said he had invested more than 1.5 billion dollars in his media business and now, in the absence of a serious buyer in the war context, he’s made the decision to cancel all licenses in order not to be considered an oligarch. Rinat Akhmetov has complained about Zelensky's law, saying that he was obliged to sell the TV stations within 6 months, but that’s impossible in times of war.
The Ukrainian press writes that Akhmetov's example could be followed by other media owners, who, in the context of the shrinking advertising market in Ukraine, will close television stations, radio stations, news agencies or newspapers. This process is not beneficial for preserving pluralism and diversity of voices in the information space, especially during the war with the Russian Federation.
In fact, even before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, many political analysts called the “deoligarchization” law an initiative aimed at blocking publications and television stations that were critical of Zelensky. Many have complained that the law curtails freedom of speech. In the context of the military actions in Ukraine, the “deoligarchization” law becomes a factor of homogenization and depletion of the media landscape.
Ukrainian media narratives: between encouraging resistance and sowing fear among the Russian military
Media narratives are generally pro-Kyiv and anti-Moscow. At the government’s initiative, a number of television and radio stations now have a daily common broadcast slot. Official information, statistics and interviews about the war are broadcast during the national telethon.
As we have shown in other public analyzes by Veridica, Kyiv applies various methods of informational and psychological defense in this war. Kyiv’s narratives are subtle and include clear elements of psychological warfare : appealing to myths in the collective mind by comparing the fight against Hitler's Nazis to that against “Putler's racists”, distributing information intended to sow fear among the Russian military .
Also, in the national telethon, Ukraine uses various narratives to maintain the fighting spirit of the population against the aggressor. To counter the effects of war fatigue within Ukrainian society, the authorities, army press offices and the central press shifted their focus from statistical information about the war to so-called human stories—portraits of soldiers, stories about victims or cases of exemplary civilian resistance.
The Ukrainian press writes about the military conflict with Russia as a “holy” war, a civilizational battle. Political analysts and historians quoted by Ukrainian publications claim that this is a war for Ukrainian independence, and an increasing number of politicians, regardless of party, are of the opinion that peace at any price should not be accepted. For example, the second president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchima, has stated that there can be only one winner in this war. He believes that Ukrainians must not be swayed by the Western illusion that the war can end in a compromise. “Hundreds of Ukrainian children have been killed - I don't know how too seek compromises after that. The level of confrontation is already too high, so there can be only one winner in this war - and I think it will be us”, the former president of Ukraine said.
To encourage Ukrainians’ resistance and overcome the first phase of war fatigue, Kyiv has initiated a series of discussions in the national telethon, which are not only about the “post-war reconstruction of Ukraine” and “ Russia’s demilitarization”. Ukraine is shown as a state with a great future, and Russia as a soon to be “Eurasian ruin”.
In fact, these narratives aim to convince the population that, after the end of the war, the Russian danger to European security will be permanently eliminated in the process of “democratization, denazification and demilitarization” of Russia.
Information sources. Radio, Telegram channels, social media
On the very first days of the war, Russian hackers blocked a number of state websites, including the national news agency Ukrinform. In parallel, the Russian troops bombed radio and TV transmitters – including a radio antenna in Kyiv on February 24 – jammed mobile phone signals and tried to block access to the Internet. The aim was to leave Ukrainians without access to information, prevent them from communicating with each other and disorient them.
The Russians did not manage to block all radio signals, though, and according to testimonies by people who were under occupation for several weeks, their only source of information was radio . The Ukrainian press wrote after the liberation of the Kyiv region that people were looking for old radios to hear about what was happening in the country. In Mariupol - but also in other localities controlled by the Russians – even today the only Ukrainian source of information is the public radio station broadcasting on medium waves.
Journalists’ work, especially in the first period of the war, when the Russians were still trying to conquer Kyiv, was carried out under conditions of siege: they would broadcast live from shelters and subway stations; even President Volodymyr Zelensky held a press conference under such conditions in Kyiv. Gradually, however, things have begun to return to normal.
At the moment, the Telegram channels of national and local publications, as well as of central or regional authorities, are very popular with Ukrainian society. Telegram is widespread in the former Soviet states, a number of Russian publications use it to distribute false narratives about the war in Ukraine, but it is also used by Ukrainian journalists.
For example, the Telegram channel of the Ukrainian news service TSN has about 900 thousand subscribers. Telegram is also used by authorities as a channel of communication with citizens and a source of information. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has one of the most developed Telegram channels, with over 450 thousand subscribers . Telegram is also used by the regional military administrations to inform citizens about anti-aircraft alarms or other operational information.
According to a survey published in June, the impact of social networks as a source of information for the population increased during the war. A study funded by the “Opora” network of organizations shows that 76.6% of Ukrainians regularly read news on various social interaction networks. Television ranked 2nd with 66.7%, and the Internet (including Telegram, news agencies, but excluding social media) came in third with 61.2%. Radio is listened to by 28.4% of respondents, and print newspapers are read by 15.7% of Ukrainians.
A strong independent media, essential for Ukraine’s European aspirations
The brutal war in which Ukraine has been involved since it was attacked by Russia also dictates the agenda of the Ukrainian media. It cannot remain neutral in the face of the existential threat facing the country, especially since Russia is also waging an information war. Ukraine cannot afford to let Russian narratives regain influence over Ukrainian society. Moreover, military reasons also justify to a certain extent a greater control of the authorities over the media.
It is essential, however, that this whole situation is only temporary, until the end of hostilities at the latest. Ukrainian media, especially local media, independent portals and television stations, need financial support through various grant programs to maintain pluralism of opinions and diversity of voices in the information space, shaken by several unfavorable factors at the same time.
The European option - assumed by the government in Kyiv, but also by the Ukrainian society - presupposes the existence of a strong independent press, which can fulfill its role as a “watchdog of democracy”.