In the past 30 years, Ukraine’s society has gone through many internal changes which have affected its media landscape. What’s the situation today and how do Ukrainian journalism students see their future in Ukraine?
Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square of Kyiv. Only four years ago, several people were killed by the last government while they were demonstrating in the square. Even though the weather is partly cloudy and rainy, the atmosphere around the square is festive. It’s May 9th and it is an important public holiday for Ukrainians because they are celebrating Victory Day, when Nazi Germany was defeated in the Second World War. The day is also known as the memorial day of the Great Patriotic War.
All around the square you can see Ukrainian and European Union flags waving in the wind. The whole main street is closed off from traffic and there are several white tents where families are building kites. Outside, an intensive badminton game is going on and teams are shouting cheers to each other.
The only thing which really pops to your eyes is the amount of soldiers and tanks in the square. The reason for this is the Euro Village which is the central meeting point during the Eurovision Song Contest which is taking place in Kyiv this week.
It seems that Ukraine wants to give a positive impression to the tourists, but it is hard to sweep the news headlines about the ongoing war in the Eastern parts of Ukraine and the conflict in Crimea between Russia from the past few years under the rug. If we look at the report about the media and journalism in Ukraine which was published by Reporters Without Borders in 2016, the career of a journalist might not be the easiest one. Lack of independent media companies is one of the biggest issues which has a impact on press freedom. Tragic news such as murder of the Ukrainian journalist Pavel Sherement who was killed by a car bomb in the center of Kyiv year ago, doesn’t make the situation any better.
Oleksandr Yaroshchuk and Galya Rudik are both studying journalism at Mohyla School of Journalism in Kyiv. They have a few years working experience which has taught them the positive and negative parts of the job.
“Actually, I didn’t plan to study journalism.” Oleksandr Yaroshchuk reminisces when he was working in the Information and Analytics center in Kyiv. Previously he studied international law for his Bachelor degree. Three years of practical experience made him apply to the Master’s program in Mohyla.
“In Ukraine, many news outlets do not pay enough attention to media ethics.”
Oleksandr says that the problem for the media is that they end up choosing a side, even though the media should be objective. During his studies, Oleksandr works as a freelance journalist, mostly writing about energy policy, human rights and economics. One of his stories was about the people from Eastern-Ukraine after they had escaped the war to Odessa. They have problems with health care and children’s education.
At this moment, he would not risk his life by going to these conflict districts even if his editor in chief asks him to go. Over all Oleksandr thinks it is safe to work in Ukraine but at the same time he is also concerned about the safety of Ukrainian investigative journalists.
“When you start to dig into issues like corruption or when you try to find some business connections. Then you need to have some protection from your company or police.”
It seems like the current government really wants to get rid of corruption in Ukraine. Even in the airport you can see the yellow posters where they are campaigning to “Stop corruption.”
Oleksandr gives a tour around the school building. Some of the media classes such as the TV studio are located downstairs which is like a bunker. Oleksandr sits down in front of his computer for a moment. Two students share the same computer. Usually the other student is from the last year and the other is a beginner. Oleksandr is very close to graduating so he does not use the computer frequently.
When the conversation topic changes to Russia and the conflict in eastern part of Ukraine, Oleksandr, who has been answering very analytically and carefully, admits straight away his feelings.
“To be honest, me, personally, I do not mention the other side of reporting about the conflict in the East. Because we can’t talk with representatives of Surkov DNR/LRN or with the representatives of Russia.”
“Of course I am not objective on this point. But it is a national issue – a national security issue.”
Oleksandr explains that what Ukraine needs now is a more transparent media which is not controlled by the government or any other oligarch. In 1991, Ukraine departed from the Soviet Union but the media landscape still remained the same as it was back then. Today, a public TV would be one step forward but everything depends on the political willingness and economical situation, Oleksandr analyses.
“Even though we have some problems, we have some advantages. Ukraine has lots of good journalists, videographers, camera men, producers who do a great job and who can be an example for some foreign journalists and foreign media organizations.”
Future plans are still open for him but Oleksandr reveals that one his dreams is to move to the US to develop his journalism skills. As usual, Oleksandr considers that everything depends on the financial situation. On the other hand, there is one thing which interests him to stay in Ukraine.
“In Ukraine, I really want to join some investigative (journalist) team. There are lots of issues I can work on.”
The Higlight of the Ukrainian media landscape
Yevhen Fedchenko, the director of the school has an office on the third floor.
At first, Fedchenko started in the political science and international relations department of Mohyla which took him to the world of media and working in television and newspapers. Afterwards hecame back to Mohyla and became the director of the journalism program in 2007.
The School of Journalism was founded in 2001. Today, it is considered as one of the
highlights of the Ukrainian media landscape worldwide, because the curriculum is designed to correspond with what the media industry needed at the time and in the future.
“If two or three, everybody, or five years ago, were talking about infographics we were into infographics. If ten years ago, it was about transition from traditional journalism to digital journalism – we started the whole program of digital journalism.”
Now the hot topic is fact-checking. The school established Stop Fake – a project which investigates fake news in the media and opens those cases for the audience.
One of the reasons why Stop Fake was organized in 2014 was that Russian propaganda was extremely strong when the conflict in Crimea began.
“We started to use fact-checking tools to verify information and if we found it not to be true, we explained in our stories why they’re not true.”
All the fake stories are gathered on the StopFake.org web page where people can read them. What is notable is that the stories are translated in 10 different languages; Spanish, German and English.
“We’re also trying to explain how harmful it (propaganda) can be. What the impact of propaganda can have on different fields of life.”
He sees the people behind the project as important actors who increase media criticism and audience’s awareness of media consumption. Educating people will help them to become conscious about propaganda’s existence and this way prevents its harmful consequences.
“Our project was to answer this kind of challenge about what we are doing if we see our country has been invaded by propaganda and fake news.”
Every year, around 20 to 25 masters students graduate from the school. A bachelor’s degree is not possible so Fedchenko states that they are trying to select students from various study fields.
When it comes to the World Press Freedom Index, which is an annual ranking conducted by Reporters Without Borders – Ukraine was ranked 102nd while Russia was 148th. This clarifies how freely media and journalists can work in the country. Fedchenko follows the international reports about Ukraine, and agrees that there are issues to deal with and the Ukraine’s media landscape is developing but he doubts some study results because of their methodology.
“They are quite often taking into consideration human rights (violations) which happens in those parts of Ukraine, which are not under governmental control, like Donetsk and Crimea.”
Fedchenko was involved in the creation of the first non-governmental TV news program called VIKNA on STB TV channel in 1999. He describes it as a unique experience when only the sky was limit for the journalists. But when the government realized how harmful it can put them in the spotlight and harm their reputation, little by little, the pressure was back. The censorship was mostly coming from the government but the times have changed since those days.
“There are non-governmental actors, like media owners and oligarchs, who own the media channels and who are mostly influencing, and journalistic self-censorship which was created during the time of censorship coming from outside of the profession. So journalism became much more contrasted in what they can do or what they’ll not do.”
In Ukraine, TV plays a role as the major medium and the four biggest media groups which belongs to oligarchs, control the markets. Even though the ownerships are well known among the audience, in autumn of 2015, President Poroschenko signed a law which insisted the TV companies reveal their ownerships as part of media transparency. So far, only a few companies have followed this law because the sanctions are not that significant.
A big box full of topics
Galya Rudikov is waiting in the school yard. She is a second year student but she is already working in Hromadske International which is the English speaking part of Hromadske, an independent TV station based in Kyiv. The funding comes from non-profit organisations and public donations. Galya is about to take me to the studio where they are preparing for Sunday’s show.
She has the day off from the studio, but going there in her free time isn’t a problem for her. We quickly stop for lunch. Galya tells that she did not have time for breakfast and it is already afternoon. While she is waiting for her lunch, Galya gets text messages from her mother. The look on her face does not promise any good.
“She says that I forgot to do something at home.”
Galya apologizes me and answers quickly to her mom.
“Because of my work, I left home really early this morning and I come really late. You are doing strange things. She doesn’t understand what journalism means to me. She loved my previous job but not this one.”
Galya seems to have the same problem as many other students – combining work, studies and personal life is not the easiest thing to do.
When we are walking to the bus stop, you can see elderly people sitting on the little chairs selling flowers, eggs – even crabs on the streets. This is the concrete example of what Oleksandr was meaning by the poor economic situation. People have had to figure out other ways to earn extra pennies for living. In 2015, an average working person earned 6732 UAH, approximately 228€ a month in Kyiv.
Galya tells me that she sometimes does buy a bunch of flowers from an old woman. It is a small gesture to help someone who needs that small amount of money to buy a bottle of milk or a bread. Galya is aware that she is in a good position, she has a permanent job, steady income – she earns even more than her mother who is working as a doctor. Galya’s father works in the military so the tuition fee is free for her.
Before she started to work in Hromasdke International, she was working for a private media channel. Even though she was working for them for two years, Galya did not feel herself as a part of the team, which had worked together for many years.
While she shows her working room which is shared by a few other colleagues, the temperature in the room is sticky, but still people are focusing on their work. Compared to her friends, who think that life is better outside Ukraine, Galya wants to stay in. Ukraine presents to her like a big box full of topics which need to be talked about like police corruption and health care.
She is looking out from the studio’s window where you can see the city of Kyiv bathing in the sunset.
“ I really do have my dreams in this country.”