Why you should care
Because sometimes TV is your only connection to reality.
For four years, Ukrainian troops have stood up to Russian-backed separatists, the two sides aiming heavy weaponry at one another in the country’s battle-scared east. Behind the frontlines though, nonlethal equipment has placed Russia at an advantage in keeping the bloody, 4-year-old conflict slowly churning by bombarding Ukrainians with its claims. Now, Ukraine is fighting back in this shadow war.
Standing tall on the sleepy outskirts of Donetsk, the rebel stronghold, is a 1,200-foot television tower — one of the largest in Ukraine — beaming Russian and separatist propaganda across both rebel-held territory and nearby Ukrainian-controlled land, where the government’s hold on local hearts and minds is already tenuous. Bombarding the tower isn’t an option, since civilians live nearby and such an attack would violate the shaky, Western-brokered cease-fire.
So a group of officials and activists are doing the next best thing: With fighting long settled into a slow simmer, they’re stepping up efforts to broadcast Ukrainian news and information throughout the region as a counterweight. Key to their campaign is the ongoing construction of strategic TV towers they hope will deliver content that keeps Ukrainians on their side of the line loyal, and breaks the propaganda stranglehold over their compatriots in what the government calls “occupied territory.”
If we’re going to be playing chess without understanding that they’re boxing, then chances are we won’t last to see the end of the match.
Andriy Shapovalov, head of the regional public broadcaster in Ukraine-controlled Luhansk
Central to the plan is the construction over the coming year or so of two new television towers close to enemy lines that Ukraine’s National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting (NCTRB) hopes will allow Kiev to deliver content to major cities in rebel-held territories, including the regional capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk. This will be the next step in a strategy Ukraine has adopted as a priority, to broadcast into territory it controls but where Russian propaganda was reaching through TV towers, says Serhiy Kostinsky, of the National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting. Two new television towers were built — including one near the border of Crimea, which Russia seized in March 2014 — and another refurbished. Kostinsky’s team also streamlined the licensing process for acquiring FM radio frequencies. Today, more than 40 TV channels and radio stations broadcast on 98 frequencies, beaming Ukrainian content to more than one-third of the local population. The government-held part of the Donetsk region now hosts more radio stations than any other Ukrainian region. The vast majority are local stations and public broadcasting channels.
Plenty of obstacles remain, in reaching behind enemy lines. But experts warn that failing to adequately fight this information war could ultimately mean losing the real one.
“If we’re going to be playing chess without understanding that they’re boxing,” says Andriy Shapovalov, who heads the regional public broadcaster in the Ukrainian-controlled part of the Luhansk region, “then chances are we won’t last to see the end of the match.”
Russia’s powerful propaganda machine has played a central part in the conflict, which has left more than 10,000 dead. Casting the government in Kiev as fascists with a bloodlust for eastern Ukraine’s Russian speakers, Kremlin-friendly media fanned the flames of a revolt in 2014 that quickly grew into a full-scale war, fueled with men and weapons shipped from Russia.
Now that it has established client states on chunks of territory torn from Donetsk and Luhansk, “Russia is doing everything it can to cut those people off,” says Dmytro Tkachenko, an adviser at Ukraine’s Ministry of Information Policy. Controlling TV towers in the two regions allows the separatists to broadcast their propaganda, playing up Ukraine’s failures and glorifying their own rigid rule both at home and beyond.
Ukraine’s fightback isn’t only about counterpropaganda. The goal, Kostinsky says, is to forge a diverse media environment that contrasts sharply with the Soviet-style propaganda of the separatist territories. “If a person listens to two different radio stations or watches two different television channels, they’ll have a much better understanding of what’s happening in their region and in their country,” he says. “For us, this is more important than simply hammering into people’s heads that everything is wonderful, and will get even better.”
Strategic control is a key priority that could make or break the Ukrainian effort. “Theoretically,” says Tetiana Popova, a media expert and former deputy information minister, “securing these cities means securing the entire region.” But she adds that simply beaming in content won’t help unless it’s high-quality information. The Ukrainian government has already caught flak itself for mishandling criticism, sanitizing history, and promoting a controversial brand of patriotism.
That’s why activists like Tkachenko, the ministry adviser who also heads a media-focused NGO in Kiev, are mulling ways to provide both accurate and relevant information that resonates with local viewers. Currently his organization produces short features — already picked up by dozens of local channels on Ukrainian-controlled territory, he says — focusing on stories of civic resistance to Russia’s incursion, as well as documentaries highlighting the region’s historical connection to Ukraine. Whether that qualifies as propaganda is up in the air. But Tkachenko believes it’s important to tap into regional sentiments. “Once we have this broadcasting capacity,” he says, “we’ll need to create a wave of content that’s tailored to the audience.”
Either way, breaching the propaganda wall won’t be easy. For one, building infrastructure costs money — and in Ukraine, corruption and political mismanagement often hold plans back. “To understand what the government supports these days, you only need to look at which agencies get the most funding,” says Popova, the media expert. “And two that have received less are the National Anticorruption Bureau and the National Public Broadcasting Company.” Shapovalov, of the Luhansk regional broadcaster, is similarly critical of the government’s apparent failure to understand the urgency of the information war. Leaving it up to several officials, media executives and activists, he says, just doesn’t cut it.
Still, those leading the campaign are working with what they’ve got, striking deals with businesses and local networks to make sure broadcasting to the region, which isn’t even commercially feasible, remains stable. “The war has shown us that in Ukraine, the state, civil society and businesses can compromise, work together and effectively divide up their responsibilities,” Kostinsky says. As the war grinds on, those responsibilities will only become greater — and Ukraine’s eastern citizens will be watching.