With the Ukrainian media ruled by four influential oligarchs, the future of the country’s independent journalism looks bleaker than ever.

The dominance of a handful of oligarchs in the Ukrainian media has devastating effects on the country’s independent journalism, according to an upcoming report from the Center for Media, Data & Society (CMDS), a global research organization. Four large players, StarLightMedia, Inter Media Group, 1+1 Media Group and Media Group Ukraine, command around 75% of the Ukrainian media market. They own a combined 23 television channels with nationwide coverage, a spate of radio stations and countless news portals, according to the report, which is slated to be published in late January 2021.

Such high levels of ownership concentration were made possible by deficient legislation and regulations that enabled powerful businessmen to amass market power over decades. Their control of media assets, however, is not a means to earn more money but an instrument helping them to maintain a tight grip on public opinion. For example, the popular television channel 1+1, controlled by Ihor Kolomoisky, a local oligarch, gave massive support to the comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, helping him win the 2019 presidential elections. The channel broadcast Mr Zelensky in an extremely popular television series, Servant of the People, where he starred as a president. In contrast, the channel’s news coverage of Petro Poroshenko, Zelensky’s main political opponent in the election and a former president of Ukraine, was extremely critical, often relying on fake news to discredit Mr Poroshenko.

As television remains the main source of news for Ukrainians, those who control it hold the power to promote their interests and to shape public opinion. The influence of the oligarchs in the media, however, raises questions about the impartiality and professionalism of the leading news outlets.

Another gap in the Ukrainian law that has allowed the media moguls to unaccountably boost their power is the lack of provisions that would force them to make public the size and source of their funds. “There is no legal requirement for commercial media companies to publish their financial data, which is harmful for the health of competition on the Ukrainian media market as well as for society as consumers of media content know almost nothing about the companies that deliver news content to them,” according to the report.

Only a few media companies in Ukraine publish their financial results. Those that did so showed losses. Inter, a television channel with a high audience share, has drowned in the red ink throughout the last decade, incurring a loss of US$ 10m by the end of 2018, according to data from the state-run Stock Market Infrastructure Development Agency of Ukraine. That is another sign, local observers say, that the media is not a lucrative business in Ukraine, but rather an influence-peddling machine.

Despite all the doom and gloom on the media market, some bright spots remain, however. Created in 2017, the national public broadcaster UA:PBC delivers high quality content. Although it is not as popular as its commercial peers, UA:PBC has the potential to garner more audience provided that the government funds it properly. In its short history, UA:PBC has seen its government subsidy, its main source of funding, slashed every year without any reasonable justification given.

The few independent media projects serving the Ukrainian public heavily rely on advertising revenues and foreign grants. Some of them have slowly started to introduce paid subscriptions, hoping to build a business model on them. Paying for news though is an alien practice to Ukrainians. Digital versions of newspapers Novoe Vremya and Kyiv Post have put part of their content behind a paywall. Others, including the online news portals Liga.net, Hromadske.ua and Slidstvo.info launched crowdfunding programs to finance their journalism.

All these efforts to keep independent journalism alive in Ukraine are worthwhile. But with the media in the grip of the oligarchs, their success is going to be an uphill battle.

Photo: 1+1 FB page