Russian-speaking media: Can Ukraine compete with the Kremlin?
The Zelenskyy administration’s decision in early 2021 to shut down a number of Ukrainian TV stations linked to Putin’s ally Viktor Medvedchuk refocused attention on the Kremlin’s continued efforts to manipulate the Ukrainian media environment. .
This issue has been the subject of heated public debate since the outbreak of hostilities with Russia seven years ago. Since 2014, Ukraine has taken a number of steps to counter the Russian information war in Ukraine. The restrictions included banning Russian TV channels, Russian social media platforms and TV content produced in Russia.
Although there is a broad consensus on the need for such security measures, less attention has been paid to the means by which Kiev might be able to counter Russian propaganda by creating Russian-language media content independent of the control of the Russian Federation. Kremlin. As Russia once again escalates its disinformation attacks against Ukraine and seeks to target Russian-speaking Ukrainians, this topic is now particularly relevant.
The Zelenskyy administration certainly seems to recognize that simply banning Russian-language media linked to the Kremlin is not a viable long-term solution. Instead, it is understood that Ukraine must seek to counter Moscow’s narratives in the Russian-language news space by producing rival content capable of rivaling the Kremlin.
While Russian-speaking online platforms play an increasingly important role with Ukrainian audiences, television remains the dominant media format for Ukrainian Russian-speaking audiences. This is especially true for elderly citizens and those in rural areas, both of these categories traditionally being among the most vulnerable to disinformation from the Kremlin.
Thanks to President Zelenskyy’s vast experience in the television industry and the showbiz experience of many in his entourage, hopes were high in 2019 that the new authorities would be able to make progress in defending the Ukrainian information space.
In early 2020, Ukraine launched DOM TV in Russian language. Initially, this new channel was aimed at reaching audiences in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine and Crimea. In recent months, it has also started broadcasting via satellite.
According to Andrii Ianitskyi of the Journalism Center of the Kyiv School of Economics, a special exemption in Ukrainian language law was created in order to accommodate DOM TV and to exclude the project from Ukrainian language content quotas.
Much of DOM TV’s content initially came from three other Ukrainian TV channels. This Russian-language programming was provided on the assumption that it would only be broadcast to audiences living in the regions of Ukraine occupied by Russia. However, in recent months the channel has started producing more of its own content in Russian.
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The challenges Ukraine currently faces are reflected elsewhere in the former USSR. While most post-Soviet countries are primarily concerned with countering the heavily biased media coverage of Russian television, this is usually not the greatest difficulty they face. On the contrary, news and current affairs programs are relatively inexpensive to produce. The real problems arise when it comes to big budget entertainment programs. This is where Russian television tends to dominate, thanks to lavish funding and world-class production quality.
Gunta Sloga of the Baltic Center for Media Excellence says research consistently indicates that Russian-speaking audiences in the Baltic states watch Russian TV channels primarily for their entertainment value rather than as a source of reliable news or credible information. The Kremlin understands this and uses high quality entertainment content to attract audiences.
To help overcome these funding barriers, the Nordic countries and the UK have provided initial seed capital for Russian-language media projects in the Baltic States. Despite budget cuts, Estonia has been able to produce Russian-language programs for its public Russian-language TV channel ETV +, which is now self-sufficient and advertising-funded.
In neighboring Latvia, the national government has not focused on creating its own Russian-language media, while language laws make it difficult to import Russian-language content from Russia itself. Instead, there are a number of relatively small Russian-language online media outlets based in Latvia, such as Chayka.tv, which is based in the town of Daugavpils.
The three Baltic states share the same boundaries in terms of small population. In contrast, Ukraine is home to the largest Russian-speaking audience in the world outside of Russia itself. This makes Ukraine a natural hub for independent media content in Russian. However, the armed role of the Russian language in Vladimir Putin’s ongoing Hybrid War against Ukraine has greatly complicated the development of new Russian-language media projects in the country.
At this point, it’s unclear what impact DOM TV is having. Galyna Petrenko of Detector Media, Ukraine’s industry watchdog, said the channel’s audience share was unknown. She argues that there is significant scope for a greater Ukrainian role in the production of Russian-language television content for regional audiences.
Petrenko notes that Ukrainian television production companies are already co-producing an increasing number of series and films for the media markets of former Soviet countries such as the Baltic States and Georgia, as well as neighboring Poland. While not all of this is Russian-language content, she believes Ukraine is well positioned to become a Russian-language media center for Russian-speaking audiences throughout the former Soviet Empire and beyond.
While the debate over independent Russian-language media content has mostly revolved around the need to counter the Kremlin’s disinformation narratives, the Covid-19 crisis has also highlighted opportunities to take back the initiative from the Kremlin. information. Sergei Stepanov of ETV + in Estonia said the channel’s audience increased dramatically during the pandemic as viewers understood their coverage to be more credible and informative than reports from Kremlin-controlled TV stations in Russia. .
Although a combination of political sensitivities and security considerations make national Russian-language television programming problematic in Ukraine, significant international cooperation can be envisaged between Ukrainian media professionals and their counterparts in the Baltic States, Georgia, Moldova. and other areas of the former USSR. This type of partnership could help erode the Kremlin’s current dominance over the Russian-speaking media sphere, while providing content exempt from Moscow messaging.
Mitchell Polman is an expert in public diplomacy, media and international politics.
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