Ukrainian elections are four times more expensive than in the US, in proportion to GDP, — Taras Shevchenko
Media expert Taras Shevchenko speaks to Marta Dyczok about Media and elections. “You need to have both components. Media and a pretty strong candidate. If the candidate is not interesting then even huge coverage in media will not help”
Hello. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo and I welcome to a new edition of our Ukraine Calling Programme for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. As always, there’s news, an in depth-interview on a topical theme with a special guest, and some new music. This week Marta Dyczok talks to one of Ukraine’s top media analysts, Taras Shevchenko, about how media is playing a role in the Presidential election campaign.
FEATURE INTERVIEW: ‘In Ukraine you can buy unlimited airtime”
Dyczok: Ukraine’s presidential election is just around the corner, and Ukrainians are getting ready to vote on March the 31st. How are they getting information about candidates and issues? One important source is mass media. I’m Marta Dyczok for Hromadske Radio. With me is one of Ukraine’s top media experts, Taras Shevchenko. He is now the Co-Chair of the Board of Directors at the Reanimation Package of Reforms. He had previously set up the Media Law Institute, which is now part of the Centre for Democracy and Rule of Law (CEDEM), and Mr. Shevchenko was on the supervisory board of UA:Suspilne, Ukraine’s new public broadcasting company. Mr. Shevchenko, thank you very much for finding the time to speak to us.
Shevchenko: Thanks a lot for inviting.
Dyczok: We now live in what a lot of people call the era of fake news and post-truth. But most people are still getting their information about politics through the media. In your opinion; you’re an expert, how has Ukraine’s media served voters during this election campaign? It’s kind of a big question, but let’s start with the big picture.
Shevchenko: I would also clarify that most Ukrainians get news about election not just from media, but specifically from television.
Dyczok: Oh, thank you.
Shevchenko: Television is source number one as a source for news, and unfortunately a source for fake news as well. So, it’s an issue of quality. Are televisions channels are doing a good job for society, for citizens? I would say definitely not. Unfortunately, we see that television channels are very biased, and they rather demonstrate one candidate whom they support, who owner of the television channel supports in a positive light, while others in the negative.
Dyczok: So, it’s pretty biased coverage you would say, on television?
Shevchenko: Absolutely. And that’s the issue that we speak about with international observers. That’s the issue that should be also be dealt by regulators, National Council on TV and Radio, but we don’t see any wish [desire], any will to act in that direction.
Dyczok: Hmm. You’ve been involved in the very important and complicated process of setting up public broadcasting in Ukraine, which has been set up. And this is the first election, if I’m not mistaken, that Ukraine has a public broadcaster. Has this had any impact on how information about the election is existing in the information sphere? Is the public broadcaster having an impact?
Shevchenko: Currently Public Service Broadcasting is organizing debates [among candidates]. I believe that programs where candidates can come and speak directly to the auditorium and ask/answer questions is crucial in any democratic society to demonstrate the quality of our thinking, of the ideas, and that’s very good that PSB is doing that in Ukraine. At the same time, also being a little bit –
Dyczok: Sorry I’m just going to interrupt you just to clarify. So, the Public Service Broadcaster has been holding debates between the candidates, which other channels have not been doing, is that correct?
Shevchenko: Yes, that’s correct. Some channels invite candidates for programs, but it’s not clear how they invite them, who has the right to come, so there is no clear standards for that programming. But also saying one thing more critical about Public Service Broadcasting, I believe that especially on television, in order not to be blamed they support some candidates, they dramatically decreased news coverage of the election campaign. And, unfortunately, they don’t show enough information about the election situation, about the candidates, and in that way they are not serving as a primary source of information for Ukrainian citizens.
Dyczok: Wow, that’s very interesting. So, in your opinion, where are Ukrainians getting their information about the election campaign? If it’s not from the public broadcaster, and the other channels are all biased? How are people supposed to know who to vote for?
Shevchenko: Definitely, that’s the issue. They receive information from biased television channels. Unfortunately, the Public Service Broadcaster is only getting one percent of TV audiences, and ninety-nine percent of viewership goes from private television. And these private television channels belong to oligarchs, and they serve interests of oligarchs. And that’s definitely, I believe, one of the worst issues during this election campaign, which in other terms is pretty free and pretty equal. But equality for the access to television, and also the issue of money, the very big money that you need to get access to paid materials, is playing unfortunately negative part of this campaign. Because Ukrainian elections are extremely expensive. It’s very different from many democratic countries because in Ukraine you can buy unlimited airtime, and that’s considered to be the easiest way to influence voters, is through paid materials on television.
Dyczok: Explain this. I think it’s kind of unique in Ukraine how this works, when you say paid material, paid information, explain to our listeners, how does this work? Is this advertising?
Shevchenko: Yes, this is advertising. So, candidates can buy airtime, which is very expensive, and put on anything into this airtime – either advertising, or their own show, or they just use this airtime as they wish, and this advertising is extremely expensive.
Dyczok: Sorry again to interrupt – is there not legislation that regulates how much political advertising is allowed per candidate, etc.?
Shevchenko: No, there is no limitation, it’s only advertising; it’s only legislation that allows candidate to buy this airtime but without any limitation, either of the amount of airtime or the amount of money that one candidate can spend during whole elections. It’s not, there is no limitation at all.
Dyczok: Oh my goodness, so no spending limits.
Shevchenko: No spending limits at all.
Dyczok: Is there legislation, because this is your area, one of your areas of expertise, legislation which governs that you have to clearly state, “This is political advertising” as opposed to “hidden advertising”? Is that regulated?
Shevchenko: Yes, this is regulated, and this legislation is rather focused on transparency that this is paid material and also on then transparency how money much one candidate spends with each television company. Also, television companies, they advertise the price for one second and it’s really very expensive. But the complete amount, this is not regulated. So Ukrainian parties for example in parliamentary elections spend same amount of money in Ukraine as for example in United Kingdom. Or presidential candidates in Ukraine spend the same amount of money as presidents, candidates to be president, in France while the economy of Ukraine is twenty times smaller than the economy of France. And that’s also the ability, a huge varying source of corruption. When you are in power, when you know that you will participate in next elections, you need to gain these huge amounts of money from somewhere. And in most cases, these come from corruption. And people who participate in government, people who work in political campaigns, they actually accept these rules of the game because that’s the way how democracy operates in Ukraine for many years. It’s not something new. That’s the problem which is here in place for dozens of years.
Dyczok: Are Ukrainian citizens, voters, aware of this? And if yes, how does this affect their choices?
Shevchenko: I don’t think that they that very aware [of this], and especially, I believe that in many cases, when you live in one country and know the experience only of one country you think that that’s the global practice everywhere.
Dyczok: So that’s the norm.
Shevchenko: Like Kipling said in one of his famous songs, «And what should they know of England who only England know?» You need to have a comparison. I know the experiences of many different countries, and I know that what is happening in Ukraine during this election season, is not normal. It’s rather closer to India, or Nigeria. These are countries that also spent enormous amounts of money during elections. Indian elections are happening right now, Nigerian will be a little be later, but that’s not the norm. Even if you compare to the United States of America, which is considered to be very expensive in terms of elections, but comparison of amount of money that is spent versus GDP would make a figure that Ukrainian elections are four times more expensive. It’s more money that you need to take from economy and to spend on elections. And then also if you take this money from oligarchs, they would expect some benefits, illegal benefits afterwards, that they need to take. And the system makes it nearly impossible for any new political party, new political force, new leaders to participate effectively in these elections, because without money you can gain nothing.
Dyczok: Well, let me ask you about how money can be used in a negative way. Because so far you’ve been saying they’re using money to promote themselves. Are we seeing this money being spent in negative advertising? This is something that’s become very popular in many Western democracies, trying to make the opponent look bad, by digging up dirt and saying “Vote for me because that person is crooked or evil or corrupt.” Are we seeing this in Ukraine’s media coverage?
Shevchenko: Of course, there is a lot of negative information, and we see this both on the paid materials that were officially paid, and it’s media and billboards. But I think even more of such information is shown formally as editorials, as its journalist’s investigations. And even such dirty materials are prepared and broadcast against NGOs, against prominent NGOs that participated in the monitoring of elections. And I see one of the dangerous trends that is happening in Ukraine, that this might be done in order to decrease trust. That people would not consider that these elections are fair. That people would consider that these elections are organized with many violations. And the outcome might be street protests, might be attempts to arrange new revolutions. Or to actually just to have chaos either after second round or even after the first round of elections.
Dyczok: To try discredit the process and raise tensions which are already high. That sounds very disturbing. But let me push you a little bit on this. I think there are some very good journalists in Ukraine. And I’m just wondering if there has been any good investigative journalism that has uncovered things about candidates that are important for voters to know that’s making it into the media sphere. Not the sort to deliberately blacken your opponent but, exposing problems. Because the Manafort case is something that I was just telling my students about. It was a Ukrainian journalist who exposed Manafort. Are there any examples of journalists in Ukraine really doing proper investigations of Ukraine’s politicians that are having an impact here?
Shevchenko: Absolutely. I believe that we have strong teams of investigative journalists in Ukraine. And for me personally, I think Mr Bigus and the job that his team are doing, and especially his recent reports about UkrOboronProm and possible corruption in the sphere of military and defense area –
Dyczok: Sorry to interrupt, but can you tell our listeners who this journalist is, who he works for and what the scandal is?
Shevchenko: It’s the program “Nashi Hroshi” and the scandal is that was revealed just recently this week in March. That people who are close to the President were involved in corruption on tenders and money that was spent for the defense area. Especially during the time of war, and a time when we are fighting against Russian soldiers in the east. And that affected the situation now in the election period. Probably the President lost some part of his supporters because of this investigation. And what I heard from my colleagues, and it’s my view as well – that the quality of investigation, and the quality of reporting is really very high in these programs. Because sometimes you can hear that journalists are blamed for being provocative, for being sensationalist, to play on feelings and emotions, while the quality of these reports, I believe, are of the highest level that is possible. And, of course, journalists are a really important part of Ukrainian democracy.
Dyczok: Do you think that the timing of this investigation is political? Because corruption in Ukraine’s military sector by people close to the President, this certainly can’t be new. But the fact that this investigation gets aired in the pre-election weeks, is there a political dimension here?
Shevchenko: When we speak about professional journalists, I believe that journalists should disseminate information first of all when they believe this is true information. And they should not stop reporting only because it’s an election, or only because it’s not appropriate at this time, or wait for some better time. Definitely the sources that gave this information probably they could have some political interests while giving this data to journalists this time. But when we evaluate the job of journalists, first of all their goal is to check if this is true information, and then, I believe, they should not consider (whether) it’s election time or not election time. There is no good time to disseminate information about corruption of people who are close to the President.
Dyczok: Corruption is corruption. When we talk about elections, in this day and age there’s a lot of talk about foreign interference in elections. There is a lot of evidence that Russia interfered in the US election. Canada’s now facing an election, we’re worried that Russia is going to be interfering in ours. Is there any evidence that Russia has been interfering in Ukraine’s election through the media, or perhaps through other means?
Shevchenko: Russia interferes with Ukrainian affairs always. And, of course, it’s not something new, and not a secret. I believe that now the possibility for interference is a little bit smaller than let’s say five years or ten years ago.
Dyczok: Interesting. Why?
Shevchenko: Because the situation with war really made, I believe, a big number of people more immune, first of all. Secondly, direct Russian TV channels are not transmitted in most parts of Ukraine because they were just banned. And even the issue of the church. Because the church was always a way to transmit Russian propaganda to Ukrainians, and with the creation of the new Ukrainian [Orthodox] church, the process that started last December and is going on now, this channel of [Russian] influence is also a little bit smaller. Not unfortunately eliminated, but a little bit smaller than before.
Dyczok: That’s very interesting. So, Russia’s aggression has made Ukraine more immune to its interference.
Shevchenko: But it’s only in comparison with the situation when we were completely dependent, and completely vulnerable to the influence that was happening here in Ukraine.
Dyczok: Something I can’t not ask you about, because everyone’s talking about this one candidate, Volodymyr Zelensky. The wild card candidate, who, for our listeners, he played an ordinary man who becomes elected President on television. And now he’s doing it in real life. He’s running for President and he’s doing really well in the polls. I’d be very interested in your view on that. Is this life imitating art? Is this infotainment? What do you make of this?
Shevchenko: Hard to say. But I believe that this is a global trend. There is global demand for a new kind of politician, not politicians who are traditional politicians. We see this in many, many countries. The fact that Trump was elected as President of the United States of America, is again not traditional politician. We also see Italy, Spain, and other countries, where even comedians can also be very successful in elections. So, this I believe is a Ukrainian and global situation, when people expect some absolutely different type of politician, who would rather be closer to them, would communicate in different ways, would engage them in communication and even deciding about the agenda together. That is a successful strategy. But also, we should add that the television channel owned by one of the oligarchs is very, very favourable towards this candidate, and presents a lot of positive information about him, while demonstrating mostly negative information about the existing [incumbent] President. Without this television media support I think it probably would not be possible to gain such big results as Mr. Zelensky now has.
Dyczok: So, the media coverage has been a key factor in his popularity as presidential candidate. Do you happen to know if he has agreed to participate in the debates on the public broadcaster? I have not yet had the opportunity to see this candidate speak live so I have no idea what he looks like as a candidate – you have. So, if you could comment on you know how he appears on television and whether he is willing to meet with his political opponents in an open debate if you know?
Shevchenko: I met him personally in a meeting and I don’t know if he he agreed to participate in debates before the first round. But he nearly for sure will be in the second round of elections and I should mention that Ukrainian legislation provides for obligatory let’s say debates for two candidates who proceed into the second round. This means that the Public Service Broadcaster is obliged by law to organize a two-hour debate program for the two best candidates and also with the extra rule that if one will not show up then another one will take up the whole time. So, there is still a possibility for this debate not happening and in fact in 2010 when Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovych were expected to participate in such a debate Yanukovych did not show up…
Dyczok: That’s right, that’s right. Viktor Yanukovych did not show up.
Shevchenko: …and Tymoshenko took the whole time which is not really beneficial in such a situation, just to be alone in the studio. But I think that there are more chances to see such debates before the second round than before the first round. We also know from global situation that the candidate who is winning with a big gap is maybe not likely to participate in debates where he might be viewed in a worse situation than presumably his voters consider. So…
Dyczok: Well this is was what I was thinking, why would he want to go to a debate where some of the other candidates might be politically more astute, articulate so that would make him look bad.
Shevchenko: Some people consider ‘let’s make legislation that make debates obligatory and those who do not participate in debates shall be taken out of the race.’ I disagree with that and I don’t know a single country that has such rules. And this is still a political system and a political situation, and if a candidate first of all voters decide how they evaluate the candidates and his actions, including the action of decision whether to participate or not participate. If this is so important for voters they will make a negative opinion about a candidate who is not participating in election – debates. But I am not sure that for his voters this will be of crucial importance. It looks like those who definitely do not support him they rather want him to participate so that other would see that he is not good enough for these debates let’s say.
Dyczok: To expose his weaknesses as it were.
Dyczok: I am just wondering how we can sum up this conversation you said so many interesting things. On the one hand you said that the media is very biased and it is not presenting factual information, complete objective information. And on the other hand, you said the success of candidate Zelensky is because of the media coverage he’s been receiving on one TV channel. So, I am just wondering how do we make sense of this? How do Ukrainian voters make their choices and what is their relationship with media? Is it the fact that the TV channels they like to watch are endorsing certain candidates? Or are they making their opinions on who to vote for based on conversations with neighbours and not paying attention to media? How important is media in all of this?
Shevchenko: I believe that media is very important in Ukraine during election campaigns. And that those candidates who receive big coverage they receive a big advantage. But at the same time, it is important to be like in business when you advertise some product. Advertisement is important to gain some popularity for the product. But the product itself shall be good as well.
Dyczok: That’s right!
Shevchenko: If the product is not interesting at all then even huge coverage in media will not help. But if you are a good candidate but without any access to media, without any coverage, there is nearly no chance to succeed in the race. So, media is still very crucial, but you cannot have only media and succeed in elections. You need to have both components. Media and pretty strong candidate.
Dyczok: Hmm. That’s very astute. Last question: which channel will you be watching on election night? You’re clearly going to be watching to see who’s winning, and how people are doing, so which channel will you be watching? Or will you be channel surfing? Or where else are you going to be getting your information?
Shevchenko: I haven’t had a TV set for years. I’ll be following information with my laptop and with my iPhone, and looking for information on different websites, and probably I will check Public Service Broadcaster –
Dyczok: And Hromadske Radio.
Shevchenko: Which can be viewed on the internet as well.
Dyczok: So, you’ll be looking at various sources. Well, I think this is going to be a very interesting race, and I don’t know which candidate will make it to the second round. You’ve articulated who you think is going to be one of them, so we’ll have to wait and see. And see how they’re going to be presented by the media on election night. Is there anything you’d like to add that I haven’t asked you, that you think is important?
Shevchenko: I think we pretty covered nearly everything, and the only thing that I would probably add is about future of, we have next elections in half a year. And I think there are –
Dyczok: Parliamentary elections, yes.
Shevchenko: Yes, parliamentary elections in October. And I would say that legislation on that elections is also quite inaccurate, and these problems that we covered for presidential elections, they are there as well. And there is still some time to make amendments to that legislation. And I would really want Ukrainian government, Ukrainian parliament to make amendments to parliamentary legislation so that some of these problems would be solved.
Dyczok: To make it a more even playing field and more fair.
Dyczok: Well I think that’s a nice note to end on. Thank you very much for joining us, for your insight. We’ve been speaking with Mr. Taras Shevchenko, one of Ukraine’s top media experts, law experts. I’m Marta Dyczok for Hromadske Radio. Thanks for listening.
Zelensky leading in Polls
Comic actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy has kept his lead in Ukraine’s presidential election race, according to latest opinion polls. The polls indicate that this newcomer to politics is is asserting his lead over incumbent Petro Poroshenko and politician Yulia Tymoshenko who are battling it out for second and third place. A total of 39 candidates have registered for the election. If no candidate wins 50 percent, the top two will face each other in a run-off election on April 21.
New US sanctions against Russia
The United States, in coordination with the European Union and Canada imposed new sanctions on Friday on more than a dozen officials and businesses in response to Russia’s «continued aggression in Ukraine.» Six Russian officials, six defense firms and two energy and construction firms were targeted, either over the seizure of Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Straight, or for their activities in Russian-annexed Crimea or separatist eastern Ukraine, a US Treasury statement said. The US sanctions freeze all property and interests in property belonging to the designated individuals and entities and prohibit US persons from transacting with them.
Canadian mission is extended
Canada is extending a 200-strong military training mission in Ukraine. Canada’s Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan (Гарджіт Сейджан) and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland announced that the Government of Canada is extending Operation UNIFIER, the Canadian Armed Forces military training mission in Ukraine, until the end of March 2022. Through Operation UNIFIER, the Canadian Armed Forces will continue to provide military training and capacity building assistance to Ukraine’s defense and security forces.
Russian observers: No entrance
Ukraine’s Central Election Commission (CEC) has denied registration to the citizens of the Russian Federation nominated by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) as international observers at the presidential elections in Ukraine on March 31. Secretary Natalia Bernatska said the commission received an application from the OSCE/ODIHR on March 15 to register 24 citizens of the Russian Federation as official observers at the presidential elections in Ukraine.
5 years of annexation
President Vladimir Putin visited Crimea marking the fifth anniversary of the Black Sea peninsula’s annexation from Ukraine. Speaking at an outdoor concert in Crimea’s regional capital of Simferopol, the Russian leader hailed Crimea’s residents, likening them to the Red Army soldiers of World War II.
6 years for Pavlo Hryb
A Russian court has sentenced Ukrainian political prisoner Pavlo Hryb to six years in prison. Lured in August 2017 into Belarus to meet a girl he met on a dating site, he was seized and taken to a Russian prison, He was accused of «inciting a third person to a terror attack.». Hryb has serious medical and has complained that he has not been provided with proper medical care.
More killed in the East
One Ukrainian soldier has been killed, another two have been wounded when their car hit a landmine near the town of Avdiyivka in Donbas, eastern Ukraine. Another three Ukrainian soldiers were wounded in another shelling in Donbas
Lutsenko Vs Yovanovitch
Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko told Hill.TV’s that U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch gave him a do not prosecute list during their first meeting. The State Department called Lutsenko’s claim «an outright fabrication.» Both President Poroshenko and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Klimkin distanced themselves from Lutsenko and praised the work of the Yovanovich.
Here’s a song for you by Paul Manandise. He sings in Ukrainian although he’s just learning the language. Born in Brussels to a French mother and Sicilian father, Paul fell in love with Olena from Ukraine while living in Paris. Now they both live in Ukraine. He submitted this song to the Ukraine Eurovision contest. It’s called «Про що мовчить моє серце» (What my heart keeps to itself). Enjoy!
Next week we will be bringing you a pre-election curtain raiser with Political Scientist Olga Onuch. So be sure to tune in for a new episode. And we’d love to hear from you. Write to us at: [email protected] I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.
Interview transcribed by Marta Dyczok, Caitilin O”Hare, Oksana Smerechuk, Leah Wagner and Alexandra Wishart. News by Ira Zolomko. Music selected by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineers Adam Courts and Andriy Izdryk. Web support by Kyrylo Loukerenko. E-mail distribution Ilona Sviezhentseva. Special thanks to 94.9 CHRW Radio Western.