The Maverick Media Mogul Taking On Ukraine’s Corrupt System
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s taking the fight from his days in the French Foreign Legion to the airwaves.
For someone tasked with breathing life into Ukrainian public broadcasting, Zurab Alasania has a peculiar view of service-oriented journalism. “It’s like broccoli,” the sturdy, ethnic Georgian says over coffee. “It may not taste good, but it’s nutritious.”
Then again, not much about Alasania, 52, is what you’d call ordinary. Tapped in April to lead the fledgling Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine (UA:PBC), he has built a reputation as an outspoken, fiercely independent media manager in a country trying to shake off its corrupt and authoritarian past. That he’s also an avid biker — who arrived for the interview in Kiev’s leafy center dressed in black astride a massive cruiser motorcycle — reinforces Alasania’s image as an outlier.
But he may be exactly what’s needed to turn a stodgy, bloated state broadcaster into an efficient, hard-hitting journalism machine. In the years since the 2014 Maidan revolution ousted a corrupt, pro-Russian government, the country’s leaders have come under increasing criticism for failing to produce enough meaningful reforms. Ukraine ranks a disheartening 131 out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index. While free speech is more prevalent here than in many other ex-Soviet countries, it’s far from a model for high-quality, independent journalism.
What’s more, much of Ukraine’s media landscape is dominated by shadowy, politically connected oligarchs. “Major media in this country are no longer part of the advertising and subscription cycles, but have become part of the political corruption cycle,” says Yevhen Hlibovytsky, a Ukrainian media expert and a friend of Alasania’s.
Alasania faces an uphill battle in turning UA:PBC into a fully professional outlet with the news sense of the BBC or the in-depth documentary know-how of PBS. Both local and European officials see the launch of the broadcaster as a bellwether for broader reform in Ukraine, which could get a boost from Alasania’s straight-shooting approach. “Some people are sitting out there in the East, manning the defenses,” Alasania says, referring to Ukraine’s ongoing war with Russian-backed separatists. “Here, someone has to take this particular responsibility into their hands.”
If Alasania stumbles, he risks discrediting the entire idea of public television.
Born in Soviet Georgia in the mid-1960s, Alasania moved from the Black Sea port of Sukhumi to the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv to attend university. The engineering student graduated two years before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and, like many of his peers, was thrust into a new socioeconomic reality overnight. He hopped from one job to the next, including olive-packing and construction in Greece, to make ends meet.
Those early years shaped him into something of a fighter — a notion made literal during his stint in the French Foreign Legion. The experience, he says, helped to impart a rigid management style for which he’s become known: “You always had someone telling you exactly what to do. You didn’t think; you just fulfilled your duty.” Shortly after returning to Kharkiv in 1996, he fell into journalism by chance, working for local TV stations before launching a successful news agency in 2006. Later, he helped establish an online television network based in Kiev that’s become one of the country’s leading sources of unbiased news.
Alasania joined UA:PBC shortly before it was first cobbled together from the remnants of the country’s main state-run broadcaster, the National Television Company of Ukraine, in 2015. But he quit in a fury last November after the government ordered his agency to foot a $17 million bill for the annual Eurovision Song Contest, which took place in Kiev in May at more than double the original cost. UA:PBC was officially registered in January, and civic activists rejoiced at Alasania’s return after he was elected by the company’s supervisory board in April.
His first order of business? Streamlining production by modernizing the company’s outdated technology and, by default, eliminating roughly half of the 7,000 in staff. Then comes the hard part: training UA:PBC’s journalists to chase original, meaningful stories across a country of 45 million people that go beyond the political scandals in Kiev. “They should be digging around the regions, seeing what local judges and prosecutors are up to,” he says.
Hlibovytsky believes Alasania can shake up a stagnant institution and turn it into a competitive player in Ukraine’s media market. But it won’t happen without controversy. “At a certain point, you understand that you’re dealing with someone who is not afraid of things that other people are afraid of,” he says, referring to Alasania’s determination to disrupt the old system.
Others believe his management style is bound to invite trouble, especially in a country beholden to bureaucracy and where ambitious outsiders like Alasania face enormous resistance in trying to change the rules. “I’d like for public television to be led not only by enthusiasts, but by good managers,” says Vadim Karasyov, a Kiev-based political analyst. Whether the dogged media manager can succeed in his new post remains to be seen. Karasyov adds that if Alasania stumbles, he risks discrediting the entire idea of public television.
Harder still will be convincing Ukrainians that watching public service television is worthwhile. Viewers are long accustomed to what Alasania calls low-quality content from the state broadcaster: dull, uncritical coverage of official press conferences and cheesy pop concerts. By contrast, most of the country’s top TV channels boast sleek productions and flashy stories that keep audiences entertained, but not always politically well-informed.
The political stories that generate headlines often serve the interests of the station owners, who control various influence groups in Parliament that vote on legislation affecting their business. As Alasania brings his take-no-prisoners approach to such an entrenched system, he’ll need to arm himself with more than just broccoli.