Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
A policeman speaks to a journalist on Hrushevska Street, Kiev, January 2013. (Photo: Rob Stothard/Getty Images)
Journalists in Ukraine who covered the Kiev protests are now expected to play a vital role in holding government to account. IWPR editor Daniella Peled speaks to Tanya Lokot, a journalist from Ukraine and currently a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, about the changing media landscape.
What did the Ukrainian media scene look like on the eve of the protests?
Before the protests started, there were some very marked changes. Ahead of the presidential election planned for 2015, political forces were very aware the media landscape was where the information wars would take place.
In 2013, before any noticeable protests began, there were signs of things gearing up for the election.
An oligarch close to the president, Serhiy Kurchenko, came onto the financial market a couple of years ago and started buying up media assets. During the second half of 2013, he started buying up shares in key publishers such as Ukrainian Media Holding, which produces many titles under license. This includes Forbes Ukraine, which had already published an investigative report about Kurchenko.
The editor-in-chief of Forbes Ukraine resigned, and more than half the journalists left, citing censorship and pressure.
This is just one example. We lost a few independent business magazines and websites, some doing pretty good work.
There are six or seven national television channels, the majority private and owned by people who, if not overtly pro-Yanukovich, were affiliated with pro-government parties.
One state-owned channel, First National, was probably the worst in terms of quality and acting as a mouthpiece for the government.
Another one, 5 Kanal TV, is owned by opposition politician Petro Poroshenko, the top contender for president now. It came to prominence during the Orange revolution so it had that trust.
Online media remains, of course, the most independent and varied. The legendary Ukrainska Pravda was founded by Georgy Gongadze who was killed [in 2000] by the Kuchma regime, although some people still deny this. It was a watchdog criticising those in power. A lot of people consider it independent, others say it has its own agenda. Whatever the criticism, it remains a key part of the media, and it produced really good journalism on the Yanukovich regime and kept the media scene on its toes.
Most people who are media-savvy are aware of which outlet is biased, but the majority of the population don’t consume media very critically, especially since lots of cable packages included Russian TV. This has higher production values and is more effective as it looks more attractive than the regular content.
But during the protests, lots of people became more knowledgeable and more media-literate.
What role did the media play in the run-up to and during the Euromaidan protests?
The media were really closely involved from the beginning; they watched the progress of the European Union association agreement closely.
A lot of people said that a Facebook post by Mustafa Nayem, an investigative reporter known for asking difficult questions, was how they found out about the protests. It got thousands of likes and shares.
As the protests grew larger, journalists became very aware that this needed to be documented as it was happening. I don’t know who first had the idea of live-streaming, but it became massive.
One of the first was Hromadske TV, an online initiative, crowd-funded and run by a few journalists disillusioned by the mainstream media. They had planned to launch anyway but scrambled to start two weeks early. There were other initiatives like Radio Liberty and Espreso TV, a few exclusive live-streams, and then activists’ own live-streams.
Suddenly a lot of people knew how to do it and live-streaming took off as a tool. It was very important that key moments in the violence were not only shown live but also recorded.
The fact was that by November 30, when the riot police beat up hundreds of people, including journalists and activists, the videos were put online very quickly, so that the next day more people showed up. This made the protests swell.
Live-streaming was very important as a way of sharing this with the international community. Often the footage didn’t even need translating, although some streamers tried to provide commentary in English. The foreign media then came in, but the initial push very much helped.
What work is now being done by journalists investigating the corruption of the previous regime?
Before the revolution, there were attempts by journalists to trace the finances of the Yanukovich regime and his close circle known as the “Family”.
They were able to dig up quite a lot on offshore links and so on, but it was difficult to act on. If you discover something illegal, you can take it to court, but if the court is owned by the president, it isn’t going to act on it.
When the regime collapsed, journalists went to Yanukovich’s palatial estate just outside Kiev. When they arrived, they intended to photograph the outrageous stuff inside, but they also found someone had dumped paperwork into the water and so they started trying to get it out. Professional divers were recruited and found folders of documents. Others were found which people had tried to burn.
Suddenly they had a trove of records about the structure of the state and the everyday finances and expenses of Yanukovich and his milieu.
There were several journalists from different outlets like Ukrainska Pravda and the Kiev Post – an English-language paper and website – and others, so they could have argued about who gets what story, or they could make sure they preserved this and investigated together. And they decided to cooperate.
For the first month, some of the journalists camped out in a guesthouse on the Yanukovich estate, drying the documents in his sauna and photocopying them. There were also shredded documents which needed to be put back together.
Slowly they started to understand these corrupt schemes. It is a work in progress, but very exciting.
What will the media’s role be ahead of the elections due in May?
People – especially journalists – are mistrustful of the government in general.
It’s really important to note that even though the previous regime was very corrupt, no one has any illusions about the people currently in power. Journalists are asking, what do we know about these people? They demand transparency about expenses, about finances. We will continue to be suspicious, even though this is just an interim government. We will give them some room but our message is, “If you misbehave, we are going to go after you”.
So far, they have not been merciful to [former prime minister Yulia] Timoshenko, either. Her rhetoric is that everyone else running for the presidency is basically an oligarch. Journalists have said, “Ok, you’re not – but don’t expect an easy ride”.
Journalists are already pretty good at asking questions about the candidates. Their next very important role will be ensuring that the elections are fair and transparent.
Journalists will work with civil society and NGOs on this, a good example being the 2012 elections when there were several civic initiatives involving crowd-mapping of election violations, working with journalists from the regions.
This was very successful and we are ready to do the same thing again.
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