Ukraine’s independent media, which have been defenders of truth against Russia’s weaponization of information since its aggression began in 2014, are now transforming under the grinding pressures of all-out war since February 2022. As unlikely as it may seem considering the dire conditions of wartime, what emerges may give the rest of the world a glimpse of their own media’s future, for better or worse. The result will help determine the health of public spheres everywhere – and thus any country’s democratic aspirations.
Ukraine has long been at the vanguard of era-defining challenges to media, and a year of full-scale war has been an accelerator for previously slow-burning fires: a deteriorating business model and precarious financial viability, outdated regulatory structures in the face of digital convergence, and the lack of a definitive response to digitally supercharged foreign propaganda campaigns.
A Lesson in Resilience and Dedication
In some ways, and perhaps surprisingly, the war has amplified the fundamental strengths of Ukrainian news media. The war has bolstered public support for democratic values, including the ideals of free speech, journalistic freedom, independence, and pluralism. Since the start of the full-scale war, Ukrainians have actually become more resilient to disinformation, as they have sought out trustworthy news. In a flight to quality, some audiences have shifted to independent online outlets such as Ukrainska Pravda, public TV broadcaster Suspilne, and regional radio broadcasters.
On their smart phones, TVs, and radios — even for those trapped under Russian occupation or fleeing to safety — Ukrainians have remained connected to news outlets providing life-saving information and unblinking coverage of the mounting toll of war crimes committed by invading Russian forces. Leading Ukrainian journalists and newspapers around the world have collaborated on a special initiative, the Reckoning Project, that is bringing global attention to Russian war crimes, documented through harrowing storytelling. On March 4 this year, Ukrainian public broadcaster Suspilne premiered its most recent documentary film, “Bucha: Execution in Kyivo-Myrotska Street,” which reconstructed minute-by-minute the events exactly a year earlier, when several Ukrainian volunteers rescuing animals near Bucha were executed by the Russian military. Suspilne journalists managed to identify the Russian soldiers who committed the crime.
Ukrainian investigative journalism, which historically has been, perhaps, the most well-developed across Eastern Europe, the Caucuses, and Central Asia, continues to be a watchdog of Ukraine’s democratic governance as well. The war has not silenced critical reporting, even on highly sensitive issues of alleged military leadership misconduct or corruption allegations.
A Lesson in Openness
The government, for its part, has largely remained committed to transparency and openness. While internet shutdowns have become a recurring response to security threats in far too many countries across the globe, Ukraine has bolstered connectivity and stepped up official communication to counter disinformation.
At the same time, a government-supported media initiative that brought together major television news channels to share and transmit the same content in assigned time slots, known informally as the United News telemarathon, has drawn criticism as a potential risk to media pluralism and independence. As Russia targeted telecommunications infrastructure, the telemarathon ensured essential information was disseminated on many channels and spared resources, as staff fled to safety and advertising revenue dried up. But with the public increasingly turning its attention elsewhere (to social media, for instance) for news, the most likely outcome is that the telemarathon will gradually fade away. In just seven years, the proportion of Ukrainians who get their news from TV has fallen from 85 percent to 36 percent.
A Lesson in Loss and Destruction
Like the country as a whole, Ukraine’s media sector has also been deeply wounded by the war. Ukraine has nurtured a generation of world-class journalists over the past decade, but has lost scores of talented reporters in just a year. Eight journalists have been killed in the course of their work during that period, 13 others were killed by Russian shelling or torture, and 27 died as combatants, according to the Institute of Mass Information in Kyiv. This tremendous loss of highly qualified human capacity will take dozens of years to restore., Additionally, the accumulated stress and trauma for journalists is bringing many to the point of professional burnout.
News outlets are literally and figuratively running on fumes, running their operations on gas-powered generators amid blackouts and an industry – and economy-wide — financial crisis. Though Russia’s full-scale invasion prompted an initial tide of donations, subscriptions, and membership contributions to news outlets, media managers say that wave has subsided. Meanwhile, Russia’s attacks on the power grid have reduced the availability of electricity and internet service, which is translating into a loss of audiences. Advertising revenue continued to trickle in for a few outlets in the aftermath of the invasion but has since dried up entirely. As a result, outlets have in some cases slashed staff salaries down to survival wages.
Ironically, Ukraine’s media pluralism, especially in the broadcast sector, has long been dependent on financial support from the country’s business moguls – the plethora of oligarchs translated into a kind of plurality in broadcasting. But their waning fortunes amid the war and associated economic woes has delivered another financial blow to broadcasting in Ukraine, as they lose interest in supporting media outlets. The final outcomes of this major funding shift for the broadcasting sector are yet to be seen.
A Lesson in Legislating
Meanwhile, the country is preparing to implement a bold new media law that aims to balance free expression with the need to address Russia’s propaganda for war. Adopted last December as one of the requirements for obtaining European Union membership, the law broadens the power of the media regulator, the National Council on Television and Radio Broadcasting of Ukraine, to include print and online media, on-demand media services, and video-sharing platforms (though excluding individual accounts on online platforms such as YouTube or Twitter).
The new law, titled “On Media,” gives the National Council authority to register additional types of media and to sanction them for content violations. Some of the regulator’s powers, including over the registration of print media and oversight of pre-election campaigning violations by print and online media, were previously held by other bodies, so the new law provides a more unified regulatory system.
Proponents of the new law cite the failure of the media sector to introduce effective self-regulation over the last two decades, creating vulnerabilities to the spread of Russia-backed lies and propaganda. Some observers are concerned that the president will have too much influence over the regulator through the power to appoint half of its council members. But changes to this require amendments to provisions in the country’s Constitution, currently impossible under martial law. In the meantime, Ukrainian civil society, which has always been a driver of media reforms, will have to maintain active watchdogging of the regulator.
One of the most innovative features of the law is the creation of a co-regulatory system for each media sphere. Each media sector, such as audiovisual, online, and print media, will have the ability to set codes of conduct for the media to interpret the law’s content prohibitions, and can appoint independent committees of experts to review complaints based on those codes. Should the regulator find significant reason to depart from the recommendations of those experts and reverse their decisions, the media outlet subject to the complaint can appeal in court, using the expert committee’s judgment in its favor.
Interestingly, the new media law places Ukraine among global pioneers in convergent regulation, which is likely to come to media sectors everywhere, as news outlets and other media advance their cross-platform operations to adjust to the technological changes of the past decade. A final expert review of Ukraine’s law by the Council of Europe called the scope of the regulator’s coverage “unusual,” but determined that the law was largely aligned with the Council of Europe standards. As a raft of draft media laws are being prepared in Central Asia, it will be interesting to see whether those draw inspiration from the new Ukrainian law as an alternative to relying on the patterns of Russian media regulation, as has been the case in the past.
While the war has exacerbated many of the most vexing challenges faced by media in Ukraine, it has also reaffirmed the country’s commitment to a democratic public sphere and bolstered the dedication of a vibrant coalition of civil society and media actors. They will now need long-term support, partnership, and trust from the international community to chart an innovative path for the media sector. They inevitably will confront three major issues.
First, Ukraine will offer lessons for how to balance legitimate national security interests with freedom of expression in media regulation. Even with legal safeguards introduced to prevent potential abuse of the law, civil society will need resources to engage in meaningful and continuous monitoring of the media law’s implementation and to potentially push for further reforms, especially on the national media regulator’s independence. Furthermore, Ukrainian civil society will need support so that it can take a seat, along with their counterparts from around the world, in global debates about how current international laws and norms can be better tailored to the challenges of information weaponization. One example is the question of how the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’ Article 20 prohibiting “propaganda for war” can be better interpreted and enforced to protect against disinformation campaigns and propaganda for war such as that waged by Russia.
Second, Ukraine has been a laboratory for experimentation for news media finance models, and the only certainty for media outlets is continued change. Audience data is in short supply because of the challenges of funding and implementing surveys, not least because audiences are constantly on the move in wartime. News outlets in every segment of the market will need support to navigate these changes. Public-service media have built trust and widened their audiences during the past year, benefitting from previous reform efforts. Will these institutions have the resources they need to continue serving the public? Regional media, especially radio, and local media have also won trust among audiences, but have yet to translate that trust into financial viability. Membership models and subscriptions have brought much-needed financial infusions to national digital outlets but have proven hard to sustain. Over the past year, Ukrainian media have survived on volunteer support, ingenuity, pluck, and the aid of international assistance; they will need support to create an enabling environment where they can thrive in the long term as well.
Finally, Ukraine will need support to rebuild its shattered communications infrastructure as a foundation for a vibrant public sphere. The experience of the war has demonstrated that a multi-faceted communication infrastructure is the most resilient. Three quarters of Ukrainians get their news from social networks, up from 62 percent in 2020, according to a survey conducted for Internews. Meanwhile, listeners of regional radio stations jumped to 56 percent from 31 percent a year earlier. As a matter of principle, pluralism must apply not only to content, but also to channels of communication; it must be preserved in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Ukrainian media are facing every challenge, all at once: a culmination of the struggle for public attention and appreciation of the media’s role in democracy; a financial crisis in the advertising-based model for journalism; the profound dangers created by the war to journalists’ physical safety and emotional resilience; and the need to balance free expression with the threats to national security stemming from Russia’s propaganda for war and related disinformation.
The Summit for Democracy, co-hosted this week in Washington D.C. with partner events across the world, includes several sessions on the criticality of media to the health of democratic systems. Those sessions would do well to acknowledge that Ukraine, with the long-term partnership and support of the international community, can help redefine how news media worldwide reckon with era-defining challenges to the public sphere.