10. Apr 2015
Natalya Ryabinska graduated from Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences and gaind her doctoral degree in sociology from the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences. She is Visiting Professor at the Collegium Civitas in Warsaw, Poland. At the same Academy she was lecturer at the Institute of Political Sciences in 2014 (PhD Program) and from 2013 to 2014 at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology (PhD Program). She is grant holder of the Central European University in Budapest and member of the European Studies Unit at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences. Her research focuses on media systems in post-Communist Europe and Eurasia, media transformations in hybrid regimes, media and democracy, new media, political and international communication.
Ukrainians generally get their political news from television. An opinion poll conducted between 17 and 22 May, 2013, by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation showed that 90% of Ukrainians named television as their primary source of political information, by contrast with local print media, radio and the internet, which were mentioned by 37%, 29% and 21% respectively. However, when protests against the government's decision to end its pursuit of an association agreement with the EU broke out in Ukraine on 21 November, it was the Internet and various social media networks that provided the most up-to-date, detailed and comprehensive information on current domestic and international events concerning the Euromaidan rallies. This paper is a short outline of the coverage of the Euromaidan protests by Ukrainian television and the Internet. It focuses on the period from 21 November, 2013, to 22 February, 2014 - that is, from the date of the first Euromaidan demonstration to that of the Ukrainian parliament's vote to oust President Viktor Yanukovych and set new elections for 25 May, 2014.
First and foremost, the demonstrators were informed about the events on Independence Square (also known as 'Maidan') and other protest locations via their profiles in social networks. The latter have played an enormous role in providing urgent news about the ongoing protests. On the day of the first pro-European rally on 21 November the official Euromaidan Facebook page was created immediately, and garnered more than 76 000 subscribers in the first eight days, setting a new record for the Ukrainian Internet. Not surprisingly, during the first days of the demonstrations the page was among the top twenty Ukrainian Facebook pages and was one of the most 'talked about', with almost 110 000 people liking, commenting on or sharing the page's content. Other significant sources of news about Euromaidan include the Facebook accounts of well-known Ukrainian journalists and public activists as well as some opposition politicians. Demonstrators posted pictures, video and text messages directly from Kiev's Independence Square and other protest locations.
Twitter also played a significant role in informing various audiences about the Euromaidan protests. Drawing on their research on social media use during the first two weeks of the Ukrainian Euromaidan rallies, Pablo Barberá and Megan Metzger of New York University pointed out that though Twitter usage related to the protests was much lower than that of Facebook (which may be explained by the relatively low popularity of Twitter in Ukraine), many people joined Twitter in the first days of the protests in order to communicate about Euromaidan. From the very start, Euromaidan was one of the most popular topics on Twitter. For example, in the first days of December 2013, one in a thousand tweets world-wide had the hashtag 'EuroMaidan', and on 1 December, that proportion increased to one in 200. Barberá and Metzger showed that many Twitter users posting about the protests in Ukraine wrote in English. They assumed that this was because, unlike Facebook, which was used mainly for protest-related communications within Ukraine, Twitter was utilized as a tool for conveying information about the demonstrations to the rest of the world and to attract the attention of the international community.
The Ukrainian protests in late 2013 and early 2014 significantly contributed to the development and popularity of a new phenomenon on the Ukrainian Internet: online television. Live streams of the protests by several online TV channels (Spilno.tv, Hromadske.tv, Espreso.tv), which recently emerged in Ukraine, proved a significant alternative to news media on traditional television channels, which were extensively controlled by the government or by oligarchs loyal to the authorities. A particular feature of some online channels is that they gathered rather strong teams of journalists willing to work for little or no compensation. This is because many Ukrainian journalists who used to work for the country's largest television stations were forced to leave their jobs due to censorship by both the government and station owners, the powerful oligarchs, which intensified in the years of Victor Yanukovych's presidency. One of the brighter success stories of online television in Ukraine is Hromadske.tv (Public TV), which started in June 2013 and was slated to go on air in late November with one show per week. The Euromaidan protests changed these plans, and the channel instead began broadcasting on 22 November for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Professional journalists and numerous volunteers reported live from the site of the demonstrations; with the help of a few iPhones and an iPhone app they filmed the events themselves and sent the recordings directly to the studio. They also debated current Ukrainian events in the studio with invited guests, who were chosen in order to represent the different views of Ukrainian social and political groups.
All of this has made Hromadske.tv rather popular. For example, in the very first days of the protests the channel had as many as 100 000 simultaneous viewers. The average number of Hromadske.tv viewers on 24 November, when tens of thousands of Ukrainians demonstrated in Kiev, soared to 761 380. The British Academy-funded survey of Euromaidan protest participants by Olga Onuch and Tamara Martsenyuk showed that 51% of protesters received their information about the protests from Internet news sites like Spilno.tv and Hromadske.tv.
The new online television channels depicted the protests mostly in a positive light. However, especially in the case of Hromadske.tv, which from the beginning has held to strict journalistic standards, journalists have done their best to provide audiences with accurate, balanced and complete information. In an attempt to convey a range of opinions about Euromaidan, they invited to their studio not only representatives of the protesters and opposition parties, but also government officials and members of the ruling coalition.
Compared to online TV channels like Spilno.tv, Espreso.tv or Hromadske.tv, traditional television spent less time on reporting from demonstration sites and those places where political decisions concerning the Ukrainian political crisis were debated. This does not mean however, that nationwide TV channels tried to silence such reporting altogether, as happened, for example, with the Bolotnaya Square protests in Moscow in 2011. On the contrary, the first protests against the government's decision on 21 November 2013 to cease preparations for signing the association agreement with the European Union received generous coverage on all leading oligarch-owned channels - Inter, 1plus1, STB, ICTV and Ukraina. This was also the case with the larger demonstrations that took place in Kiev the following weekend, on 24 November, which were called by the quality English-language Ukrainian daily KyivPost "the biggest protest in Ukraine since the 2004 Orange Revolution". These rallies, like the initial action on 21 November, were reported at length on oligarch-owned channels. This contrasted with the behaviour of the state-owned UT-1 TV-channel, which ignored the protesters on 21 November and misrepresented the events of 24 November, claiming that the protest camps had been 'abandoned' due to rain and bad weather.
The major Ukrainian television channels also reported on the violent pacification of the Euromaidan protest by riot police on 30 November. All the oligarch-owned channels-Inter, 1+1, STB, ICTV and Ukraina,-provided extensive coverage of what happened on Independence Square that night. They broadcast footage of police brutality (which was actively and independently shared on social networks), and condemned police violence. By contrast with the period preceding the Euromaidan rallies, the most popular television channels covered political events in a balanced way, presenting the side of the protesters and oppositional parties on the one hand, and that of the authorities and ruling coalition on the other. They dared to speak about issues that would have been difficult to imagine being mentioned on nationwide television channels only a few weeks earlier; for example, they aired allegations that Interior Minister Zakharchenko was responsible for the violent police actions against the protesters. This is why the main Ukrainian watchdog Telekrytyka dubbed the Ukrainian broadcasters' behaviour an "information revolution".
A positive tendency in Ukrainian television caused by the Euromaidan protests was the general increase in airtime given to political news. This was a valuable change for the Ukrainian media space, where such news and discourse had started to disappear soon after Yanukovych's 2010 presidential victory and where the average number of information programs dropped significantly between 2010 and 2013. In November/December 2013 the reverse occurred. By December 2014 as much as 63% of Ukrainian television news involved coverage of Ukrainian politics, the highest proportion in Ukrainian media since 2004. Ihor Kolomoysky's channel 1+1, which previously had curtailed the amount of political content and switched over completely to entertainment programming, increased the amount of newscasts following 30 November and broadcast ten news programs a day starting on 3 December. A significant growth of political content was also observed on Victor Pinchuk's channel STB, which, similar to 1+1 reduced its political coverage soon after Yanukovych became President.
The 'information revolution' did not last long, however. Already by mid-December 2013 analysts from the media watchdog Telekrytyka expressed alarm that oligarch-owned television channels were returning to their regular practice of manipulating information. In particular, the silencing of newsworthy events and issues on television increased this month by comparison with late November, especially those related to Maidan. What the oligarchs preferred to keep silent about were, firstly, the commentaries, critique and propositions made by European and world leaders on how to settle the political crisis in Ukraine. For example, after police clashes with the protesters on the night of 11 December, when internal troops and the Berkut (Ukrainian riot police force) attempted to dismantle barricades around Independence Square and to clear the Maidan, none of the major televisions channels aired critical reactions to the events from Western politicians, such as the critique expressed by Lithuanian President Daive Gribauskajte. Likewise, several TV channels never mentioned the appeals to Ukraine's authorities and the propositions for settling the crisis made by EU politicians José Manuel Barroso, Štefan Füle and Jan Tombiński. In cases when journalists did mention these statements, they either tried to downplay their objections and/or even misinterpreted them.
One more issue that the oligarch-owned channels tended to silence was the activity of Ukrainian opposition parties and the repressive measures taken by the government against them and the Maidan protesters. When police began summoning opposition leaders to the Chief Prosecutor's Office during the first fortnight in December, none of the channels reported it. The voice of the opposition was significantly underrepresented in the media. This is evidenced by the results of a quantitative content analysis of television news undertaken by the Academy of Ukrainian Press. These results show in particular that in December 2013 the share of airtime granted in news programs to members of the ruling coalition was 3.1 times greater than that afforded the opposition. The main newsmakers on television during that month were the Ukrainian President and the Prime Minister. The broadcasters avoided reporting the opposition's most important and critical statements. For example, when during the first round table on 13 December opposition leaders blamed the Prime Minister and the President for the police violence against protesters and for the political and economic crisis rocking Ukraine, hardly any nationwide television channels transmitted their statements.
Furthermore there was considerable manipulation of reporting about the activity of Maidan itself. The major TV channels were reluctant to air Maidan's political demands, which appeared soon after the violent beating of protesters on 30 November, in particular their demands that the Government be dismissed and that those office holders who triggered bloodshed on 29-30 November be held accountable for their crimes, not to mention their call for the impeachment of President Yanukovych. Additionally, they insisted on freedom for the detained protesters, whose numbers were growing daily. Almost every day, Maidan organised separate protest actions in support of the above demands; but their actions did not necessarily reach viewers of oligarch-owned TV channels. What the broadcasters concentrated on instead were the social aspects of Maidan, the living conditions of the protesters, who lived in tents on Independence Square, as well as some other minor issues, such as cultural events organised in conjunction with Maidan. For example, Inter described Maidan in a weekly news roundup on 15 December as follows: "Now Kiev's centre calls to mind not so much a political meeting but mass festivities. Even flash mobs are being organised here, for example a free hug action." It should be pointed out here that this news program was a weekly summary of political events for 9 to 15 December, a week remarkable for the dramatic night of 11 December mentioned earlier in this paper.
The change in coverage of the Maidan protests on oligarch-owned television may have been caused by pressure that the Ukrainian authorities exerted on media owners and the television channels themselves. Indeed, on 6 December Ukrainian Prime Minister Azarov made a critical statement on his Facebook page about the country's media and the way they were covering current affairs. He stressed that "a single point of view" predominated "everywhere [in the media]," and that this point of view favoured those responsible for "blocking government buildings." Azarov suggested that there was a "disproportionate bias in news coverage" in Ukrainian mass-media. On the same day Victoria Siumar, a well-known Ukrainian journalist and former head of the Institute of the Mass Media think tank, reported that then-head of the Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council Andriy Klyuyev had met with the editors-in-chief of television channels and instructed them either to prohibit journalists from covering the Maidan protests or at the very least to reduce significantly the amount of time they spent on the topic.
The misrepresentation/underrepresentation of the Maidan protests in the mainstream media became critical after 19 January 2014. On this day, soon after the Ukrainian authorities adopted a set of new laws banning almost all forms of anti-government protests, violent clashes between riot police and demonstrators broke out on Hrushevskoho Street in Kiev. For one month, until 17 February, the stand-off on Hrushevskoho and other streets around the city's main square oscillated between calm and violence, and ended finally with the bloodiest fighting yet on 18 and especially 20 February, when more than 50 protesters were shot by uniformed snipers. The principal terms by which oligarch-owned television (with the exception of 1+1 and Channel 5) framed these events were 'radicalism' and 'chaos'. The Maidan protesters were presented as 'radicals', and the Maidan movement and its participants were depicted as uncontrollable rabble. Inter and Ukraina even issued news stories presenting Ukrainian riot policemen as victims. Such stories included, for example, a piece about a policeman who had reportedly been caught and beaten by the 'radicals', or another about a Berkut officer whose family members had been threatened anonymously. As a rule, these news stories contained no evidence supporting the accusations against the protesters and violated journalistic standards of accuracy and balance. The news frame of 'chaos and anarchy' was represented, among other things, by television stories about the alleged disorder and devastation in Kiev's centre and the outrage and protests by Kiev residents this devastation reportedly caused (importantly, oppositional media reported that these protests were staged by pro-government activists).
Importantly, in its coverage of Euromaidan, Inter for example relied on information provided by the press services of the Ministry of the Interior, the Prosecutor General and other state officials. Journalists neglected to verify this information and did not balance statements from these bodies with commentaries from opposition leaders and/or representatives of Maidan. Examples of such unverified statements (which were later proved false) include an allegation that the kidnapping and torture of the Maidan activist Dmytro Bulatov were staged by the protesters, and a claim that the torching of private cars in Kiev had been the work of Maidan protesters.
Following the events of 19 January it became clear that the various oligarch-owned television channels were no longer uniform or consistent, but increasingly divergent in their coverage of the Maidan protests. Whereas Inter, and in many cases Ukraina, too, were in line with pro-government propaganda and consequently created the picture of a 'radical' and 'out-of-control' Maidan, thus justifying the government's actions, 1+1 was sympathetic toward the protesters, and its journalists even took a critical approach to the statements and actions of the police and the high-ranking officials. 1+1 overtly glorified Maidan and continued to devote considerable airtime to the events on Independence Square and at other protest sites until the end of the Hrushevskoho Street riots on 21 February; whereas pro-government television channels tended to treat the protests as a secondary issue, especially during the 2014 Winter Olympics (7-23 February). Together with Poroshenko's 5 Channel, 1+1 became the primary television channel for those Ukrainian viewers who supported Maidan and identified with it emotionally.
Pinchuk's ICTV differed in its coverage of the Ukrainian protests from both the pro-government channel Inter and the pro-Maidan 1+1, oscillating between the two lines. The channel's fair reports from Euromaidan in late November and early December stand in striking contrast to its coverage of the 19 January events, when in a heavily biased report it depicted the start of the violent stand-off between the police and the protesters as resulting from the irresponsible behaviour of opposition leaders, who had reportedly provoked the people with 'radical slogans'.
Ukrainian television viewers witnessed one more basic shift in television reporting of the Maidan protests, which occurred around this time at pro-government TV channels, primarily Inter and the state-owned UT-1. On 21 and 22 February, directly following the violent crackdown on Maidan protesters from 18 to 20 February, Parliament finally formed a new majority and voted to oust President Viktor Yanukovych, to re-establish a parliamentary-presidential republic and to grant interim presidential authority to Oleksandr Turchynov, a leader of the opposition. Inter reacted to this power shift by immediately changing its presentation of Maidan. For weeks the channel had been plying the public with images of 'radically minded protesters' and 'extremists'; but from 21 February it began speaking about the protesters with compassion, referring to them as 'people', 'citizens' and 'Ukrainians'. The airtime accorded by Inter to opposition leaders, Maidan representatives and public figures who supported the protests grew exponentially; while the former President, Prime Minister and other powers-that-were were now subject to sharp criticism and blame.