Ukraine: shocking truths

People all over the world were shocked by reports on 29 May 2018 that Arkady Babchenko had died in exile in Kiev. The anti-Kremlin journalist had apparently been assassinated.

Reports of the murder of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko turned out to be false.
Reports of the murder of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko turned out to be false.
Then one day later Babchenko reappeared at a press conference, much to the amazement of the attending journalists. The Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that the Ukrainian security service had staged the murder in order to pre-empt an assassination attempt by the Russian secret services. So far, however, he has failed to produce any evidence to back this.

The staged murder not only cast doubts on the credibility of the Ukrainian government and secret service, but is also likely to have undermined readers’ trust in the Ukrainian media.

But independent journalism in Ukraine was already facing serious problems long before this incident. Media owners use the chronic underfunding of mass media as a means to exert political influence. And the events since Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and the ensuing war in Donbass in eastern Ukraine dominate the news.

The daily newspaper market is dominated by Russian papers with a high percentage of tabloid content (Vesti, Segodnya, Fakty, KP). The only surviving political daily with any claim to quality content is Den, which appears in Russian and Ukrainian. There is more diversity among the weekly papers. The bilingual intellectual paper Dzerkalo Tyzhnia and the Russian-language journal Novoye Vremya are both regarded as influential, but the general view is that their circulation figures are doctored.

Digitalisation has also made its mark on Ukraine’s media sector. Websites like Ukrayinska Pravda, which was founded in 2000, are highly influential. Social media, in particular Facebook, are used intensively for discussion. Politicians pay bloggers to influence online debate.

Despite widespread Internet use, television remains the most important medium in Ukraine. In 2017 there were more than a dozen channels devoted exclusively to news, perhaps more than any other country in the world. Many of them, including Hromadske.TV (which is financed by Western sources), the private channel 112 Ukraine, or Espreso.tv, which has close ties to the interior ministry and the co-governing People’s Front party, went into operation around the time when the Euromaidan protests began. Their live coverage of the events played a significant role in bringing down then President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. The state TV broadcaster launched in 2016 and founded on the basis of the former public service broadcaster is still widely regarded as irrelevant.

Self-censorship is widespread not only among regional media. One reason for this is a string of contract killings targeting journalists, most of which have never been properly investigated. In 2000 the murder of Georgiy Gongadze, founder of Ukrayinska Pravda, attracted international attention. After the Euromaidan protests in 2014, the pro-Russian journalist and former editor-in-chief of the daily Segodnya, Oles Buzina, was murdered in 2015, and Pavel Sheremet, the Belarusian-born executive director of Ukrayinska Pravda, was assassinated in 2016. Ukraine’s National Union of Journalists reported ninety physical attacks against journalists in 2017, most of which never went to trial.

Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders):
Rank 101 (2018)

Last updated: June 2018
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