In Ukraine, Transformation of State Broadcaster into Public Service Broadcaster Raises Hopes for an Independent News Source

June 12, 2015

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko dissolved Parliament on August 25, 2014, paving the way for Parliamentary Elections designed to clear out the remnants of Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and enhance his government’s legitimacy. The Parliamentary Elections, on October 26, 2014, sent Ukrainians to the polls for the second time in six months.

With so little time for campaigning, Ukrainians across the country were hard pressed to know the parties, the candidates, and the platforms that were competing for their vote. First National, Ukraine’s state TV network that is in the process of becoming the nation’s first public broadcaster, showed Ukraine that it is ready to make that transition by broadcasting a series of Parliamentary Election debates featuring 27 parties to an audience of millions. These broadcasts helped Ukrainians make informed decisions on Election Day.  

The main difference between operating as a state broadcaster and operating as a public broadcaster is that the government, while it funds the public broadcaster, is now barred from exercising any kind of editorial control over its content. The state broadcaster could change its political leanings along with those of whoever happened to be in power at the time, so trust in the channel is extremely low.

The supervisory board of the Ukrainian public broadcaster will be made up of members of civil society organizations plus representatives from various political parties and relevant parliamentary committees. Civil society will always have one more member on the board than the political groups. 

Another important part of Ukraine’s establishment of a public broadcaster is that it is required for EU accession, so the signing of this law sends a message that the country is dedicated to following that path. Moreover, one of the principles of public broadcasters globally is that they should aim to build national unity and a cohesive national identity. Given the current context of the information war with Russia, this is a critical time for that kind of initiative to take root.

Several of the journalists and civil society activists who had worked for so long to see positive change in Ukraine seized the opportunity to make change from within and ran for seats in Parliament. Journalists Serhiy Leshchenko, Mustafa Nayem, Victoria Siumar and Igor Sobolev, and civil society activists such as Svitlana Zalishchuk, formed what they called a Trojan Horse; although they ran under the banner of competing parties, they vowed to work together to make reforms happen inside the Rada.

"The fact is we've been criticizing everything that's happened in the country for the last decade," Nayem said. "Now we have two choices: either we can continue criticizing or we can now try and actually change things."[1]

Once inside the Parliamentary system, the Trojan Horse went to work. Victoria Siumar, former head of Internews’ partner the Institute of Mass Information and currently Chair of the Verkhovna Rada Committee for Freedom of Speech and Information, pushed for adoption of the law to create public broadcasting in Ukraine.

“Without an unbiased broadcaster Ukrainians will not know what is going on in their country,” Siumar said. “This has been a 10-year battle for us, and it is historic – we are making history.”

On March 19, 2015, Parliament voted 230 to 5 in favor of the law. The law was adopted in April.

The creation of a public broadcaster is part of a series of constitutional, legislative and anti-corruption reforms – the Reanimation Package of Reforms – aimed at removing corruption from every aspect of Ukrainian governance.

The NGO chosen by the European Union and UNDP to lead the reform process is the Media Law Institute, a project incubated at Internews 10 years ago and still led by former Internews staffer Taras Shevchenko.

The Reforms agenda is championed by a group of more than 300 experts, activists, journalists, scientists, and human rights advocates.

Internews' work in Ukraine is funded by the US Agency for International Development.


[1] “From The Streets To The Rada: Euromaidan Activists Enter Politics,” by Tom Balmforth, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty website (http://www.rferl.org/content/ukraine-euromaidan-activists-parliament-elections/26651905.html), October 23, 2014.