Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Ukraine's Ministry of Truth -- A Flop of Epic Proportions

Samuel Ramani,
The Kyiv Post reported on July 15, 2015, that Ukraine's Cabinet of Ministers had registered draft legislation to establish Ukraine Tomorrow, a state-owned foreign broadcasting company. Ukraine Tomorrow strives to be Ukraine's answer to Russia Today: a media outlet that can resist the almost incessant influx of Russian propaganda to the conflict-ridden Donbas region. It is also the signature achievement of Petro Poroshenko's much-maligned Ministry of Information Policy. That ministry was established in December 2014 to stop the spread of "biased information about Ukraine" and "Russian information aggression."
The establishment of this state TV channel has been controversial. Since its inception, critics of Yuriy Stets (Ukraine's Minister of Information Policy) and Poroshenko have derided the information ministry as an organ of censorship or more bluntly, a real-life version of George Orwell's Ministry of Truth. While these accusations are extreme and independent media outlets like Hromadske TV have been unhindered by Stets' ministry, Ukraine Tomorrow faces a massive uphill battle if it is to be taken seriously by the Ukrainian public. There is little evidence that the Ministry's message has resonated with the public thus far.
The ministry's lack of traction can be explained by two factors. First, media market saturation and the Russian state media's massive financial resource advantage have restricted Poroshenko's ability to spread the Ministry's line. Second, the ministry's use of propaganda to fight propaganda has severely eroded its credibility among moderate Ukrainians. Russian media stations have also exploited the ministry's stated mission and rhetoric as proof that Ukraine's leaders are authoritarian extremists. WhileUkraine Tomorrow is undoubtedly a major step forward for the Ministry's development, these obstacles will likely prevent it from having the major impact that Poroshenko envisioned eight months ago.
Why Market Saturation and Russian Financial Advantages will undermine the Ukraine Tomorrow Project
One of the main obstacles the Ministry of Information faces in reaching the conflict zone in Eastern Ukraine is Russian media market saturation. Mark Rachkevych, Editor-at-large at the Kyiv Post, described this issue to me in a recent interview as follows: "Eastern Ukraine has been predominantly exposed to Russian media outlets since the 1990s. Marketing research has consistently shown that people in this region prefer Russian television. Satellite TVs are widespread and people who have these TVs choose Russian channels."
The Russian state media's overwhelming financial advantages have further restricted the spread of the Ministry of Information Policy's message. Putin raised the budget for "participation in the international information space" (code for spreading the Kremlin's official line internationally) to $250 million in late 2014. This is an extraordinary deployment of resources in a period of austerity. Paul Gregory ofForbes reported in December 2014 that Putin's army of trolls were instructed to post 100,000 news articles and tweets every day. Such extensive exposure for pro-Kremlin viewpoints makes it very difficult for Ukrainian counter-propaganda to break through.
Many Ukrainian journalists and media watchdogs have therefore expressed opposition to the Ministry of Information Policy, as its goals appear futile and redundant. Tetiana Matychak, Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of StopFake, an NGO created to counter disinformation about the Ukraine conflict explained these sentiments to me as follows: "We wonder how the state TV channel will be different from the private home TV channel, Ukraine Today established by billionaire businessman Ihor Kolomoyskyi. It cannot possible compete with Russia Today as RT has so much money. I don't think creating a state-run TV channel is a good use of Ukrainian government money, as Ukrainian businessmen can create more successful channels without government support."
Why Ukraine Tomorrow and The Ministry of Information Policy's Propaganda Will Backfire
Many Ukrainian journalists initially expressed alarm that the Ministry of Information Policy was a relic of Soviet-era suppression of the free press. On December 2, 2014, 40 journalists demonstrated outside the Ukrainian parliament, attacking the ambiguity of the Ministry's mission. The Ukrainian government and military responded to this unrest by emphasizing that Russian-backed separatists were actively trying to recruit journalists in Eastern Ukraine. Counter-propaganda and possible travel restrictions for journalists in the conflict zone were therefore necessary contingencies to combat domestic terrorism in Ukraine.
This justification was unconvincing. Protests and organized resistance to the Ministry continued, and RFERL reported that some activists described the Ministry as a Nazi-style apparatus. In light of this opposition, the Ukrainian government has been careful to ensure that the Ministry does not infringe on media freedom in Ukraine. Criticism of the ministry has now shifted towards the debate on whether countering Russian propaganda with Ukrainian propaganda is effective.
Oleg Sukhov, a journalist for the Kyiv Post, described this debate to me as follows: "The Ministry's approach of combatting propaganda with propaganda has given it a very small share of the media market in Ukraine. Ordinary people do not care about it. Most journalists oppose it and believe that propaganda should be countered with truth. There is more than enough objective evidence of the Kremlin's aggression in Ukraine and Russian war crimes in the Ukraine conflict, that we should not resort to using counter-propaganda to resist Putin's disinformation policy."
The long-standing political linkages between Stets, who was also a chief producer for Poroshenko's Channel 5 station, and the Ukrainian president sparked further concern regarding the politicization of the Ministry's project. If Ukraine Tomorrow is perceived to be a patronage project (Stets is the godfather to one of Poroshenko's children), its credibility amongst an already skeptical public could diminish further.
In addition to these controversies and credibility issues, the Ministry's counter-propaganda approach has arguably backfired and provided more ammunition for Russian propaganda outlets to use for their own purposes. Sputnik, a pro-Kremlin news agency derided by critics as an anti-Western, pro-Putin version of Buzzfeed, reported in March 2015 that the Ministry of Information was seeking to give prison sentences of up to 15 years to journalists in Donetsk and Luhansk. RT published quotations by Ukrainian journalists condemning the ministry as "Fascist" and showcased criticisms by international media watchdogs like Reporters without Borders. As Poroshenko's counter-propaganda ministry has negligible reach in Crimea and severely impaired reach in Eastern Ukraine (the regions of Ukraine most susceptible to Kremlin propaganda), these depictions could undermine Poroshenko's credibility in the conflict zone. They could also increase the pro-Russian separatist recruitment that provided the basis for last December's ATO legislation.
Ukraine Tomorrow faces a massive struggle to emerge as a viable and trusted media network in Ukraine. As Ukraine's financial resources dwindle and public opposition to the Ministry of Information Policy increases, Ukraine Tomorrow's long-term future is uncertain. Whatever the outcome, Ukraine's counter-propaganda strategy has been fraught with more criticism and controversy than President Poroshenko could ever have envisioned.

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