Media Capture Series Pt. 5: The Oligarchy Crowds Ukraine’s Media Market

mediacapture5In October, the Institute for International Communication hosted Dr. Marko Milosavljevic who discussed his cutting-edge research on media capture . A group of undergraduate students of International Communication reflected on the theme. 

Communism or democracy – which government body do you reckon allows more freedom in media? Which do you expect is more likely to use media for its own agenda? There is a seemingly clear difference in the roles each body of government will adhere to. However, when taking a closer look, one can find that many countries that identify themselves as democratic actually have many correlations with communist methods of media control.

As a post-communist country, the Ukrainian government struggles to become independent of the influence of wealthy individuals. Reporters Without Borders, an online news and statistical database on the world’s aptitude to media freedom, finds that Ukraine is still under the control of the oligarchy and not many media outlets are willing to exert editorial independence. This is drawn from the failure of authorities to protect media outlets from crimes that occur when a media publication toes the line, such as the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet and the arson against Inter TV.

The top ten televisions channels in Ukraine are owned by four businessmen whose primary businesses are not in media and all of them are among the richest in the country. Though the way we receive news is changing as more people use social media and the internet for news, television is the most popular medium with 96.8 percent of Ukraine’s population using television for news weekly.

Much like how publicly recognized figures with no political training had taken up positions in politics, like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Donald Trump, revolving doors allow politicians to take on positions in media ownership. In his visit to St. John’s University, speaker Dr. Marko Milosavljević, Associate Professor at the University of Ljubljana, had touched upon the topic of media capture. This concept involves the private ownership of media by significant individuals in society such as policy makers and other key figures (i.e Rupert Murdoch) who may use media channels to satisfy their own agendas – either political or commercial agendas – rather than the public’s interest.

Many observers compare this course of action to be like hidden money used for questionable transactions hidden in jeans, which led to people using the Ukrainian word for jeans, dzhynsa (джинса). Dzhynsa is content published by a journalist or press service with the intent to influence ideas of specific organizations or individuals without the audience being aware of its advertisement purposes. People rely on mass media to determine how they form their opinions and views. If there is not a healthy variety of media ownership, there cannot be any well rounded opinions in social and political conversations as free thinking is limited by the dominance of controlled, privatized media.

In official world rankings, the Ukraine ranks 102nd out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index conducted by RWB. In an effort to make the Ukraine more democratic, authorities have adopted a number of reforms, including media ownership transparency and access to state-held information. Under these reforms, the government is obligated to regulate media and ensure fair practice but in practice, it rarely takes action. The government and local authorities are unwilling to forfeit the control and money that came with having privatized media ownership by oligarchs while the news outlets are apprehensive of being punished if they attempt to go against the grain.

There is a need for independent media outlets, however as a country with a poor population and a congested media space, there lie many hardships in competing with the oligarch-subsidized competition. Therefore, it is easy for the elite to continue to exert their influence through media. Though Ukraine is considered to be a maturing democracy, if no changes arise that facilitate free thought, can it truly escape from its previous oppressive state and current political and economic pressures?

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