Kiev, Ukraine - There is a war being waged in Ukraine, but this one is not being fought from trenches in the east. It is being played out on television sets and in the minds of viewers on an informational frontline where oligarchs and politicians fight for influence.
On this battlefield, the media serves as a weapon with which owners can exert political leverage, attack opponents or foment specific public sentiments.
Oligarchs, through their control of and influence on the media, play a critical role in shaping the discourse around and public consciousness of unfolding events. And this, says former investigative journalist and current member of parliament Sergey Leshchenko, poses a danger to democracy.
"TV stations are used for achieving political goals," he says.
Some of Ukraine's wealthiest oligarchs, including the country's president, Petro Poroshenko, Igor Kolomoisky, Dmytro Firtash, Victor Pinchuk and Rinat Akhmetov, own media groups. While only Poroshenko is actually in government, Kolomoisky, Firtash, Pinchuk and Akhmetov are all involved in supporting and promoting political parties or policies.
Ukraine ranked 129th out of 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders.
While the media market in Ukraine is large, the country's 10 most popular television channels are all owned by businessmen whose primary business is not media. And though the government is, in fact, obligated to regulate media and ensure fair practice through the National Council for TV and Radio Broadcasting, it rarely interferes.
"Government is nothing for them," says Roman Golovenko, the head of the legal department at Ukraine's Institute of Mass Information, a media monitoring group.
Golovenko believes that one of the reasons why the government does not regulate against unfair media practices is because Poroshenko fears starting a "war with the [television] channels" in which he might be a casualty.
"The oligarchs, they are saying what to do … [media] is not a business for them. Sometimes it's a shield for these oligarchs; sometimes it's just a weapon," says Zurab Alasania, the director-general of the state-owned Ukrainian National Public Broadcasting Company.
"In all the Ukraine, in every town, all the journalists belong to someone. That's a serious problem. There is no free journalism in Ukraine."
'Tasteless but influential'
Yuri Makarov, one of Ukraine's most highly regarded TV presenters, was involved in the television channel 1+1 from its creation. He watched it evolve from an independent one-room operation into one of Ukraine's largest and most influential media groups.
Makarov says that first under government censorship, then under pressure from its current owner, Igor Kolomoisky, 1+1 lost much of its journalistic independence, becoming "something tasteless but influential".
1+1 and its many subsidiary organisations operate at a loss, having failed to make a profit for almost a decade, said Oleksandr Tkachenko, the current CEO of 1+1 Media Group. The media group is "important for [Kolomoisky] because of its influence," he said.
Kolomoisky, Ukraine's second-richest man, has various business interests, including banking, finance, airlines, factories, and petroleum. He has also been involved in politics. Between March 2014 and March 2015, Kolomoisky was governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, and though he was dismissed by Poroshenko, he continues to influence the political establishment.
"[1+1] is a tool," for Kolomoisky, says Makarov, and frequently shows programming that attacks his opponents, promotes political parties affiliated with him, or shows their activities in a positive light.
Mikhail Saakashvili, the current governor of the Odessa region, who was appointed to replace Igor Palitsa, one of Kolomoisky's close associates, has criticised Kolomoisky and accused him of being involved in smuggling and corruption.
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Kolomoisky has denied Saakashvili's accusations. For its part, 1+1 has aired programmes and commentary that lambasted Saakashvili and was consequently criticised by media experts for being biased.
The channel has also supported Kolomoisky's long-time ally and former chief-of-staff in Dnipropetrovsk, Gennady Korban, during his run for parliament, and criticised Oleg Lyashko's Radical Party, among others.
For a time, says Golovenko, Dmytro Firtash's "Inter channel was in a war with 1+1", with Kolomoisky and Firtash using their channels to attack each other.
"[Kolomoisky] uses his own media resource to [promote] his political interests," says Roman Shutov, the programme director at Telekritika, which monitors media and is part of Kolomoisky's 1+1 Group.
1+1's CEO Tkachenko defends the use of media groups as tools to promote the political interests of their owners because "viewers, they can see different points of view on different channels".
'Don't tell anything bad about Russia'
In some places, though, private media has become so monopolised that looking to other channels for alternative political perspectives is very difficult.
The media in Mariupol, a city less than 25km from the frontline, is often far from pro-Ukrainian.
After being briefly held by pro-Russian separatists at the beginning of the war in 2014, it was later taken back by Ukrainian forces. The counter-revolutionary and pro-Russian ideological influence, though, was never eliminated, and media and politics here demonstrate the pervasive influence of the regional oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man.
In the quiet corner of a bar from which he helped to organise the Orange Revolution in 2004, Dmytro Potekhin, a political analyst and adviser, described his experience working on Sergey Zakharov's mayoral campaign.
Before an appearance on Akhmetov's Mariupol TV channel, he says they were warned by a member of staff, to not "tell anything bad about Russia.
"[There is] censorship, but it's not pro-Ukrainian censorship," says Potekhin.
Maxim Borodin, an opposition candidate in the recent mayoral election, says he also felt the effects of the media in his own failed election campaign. "We got virtually no media representation at all," he claims. "Almost all the newspapers and TV in the region are owned by Akhmetov and receive direct orders on what to post and which direction to go."
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Vadim Boychenko, who won the mayoral election, was a former director at Akhmetov's mining and steel firm, Metinvest. Some of those close to the candidate even suggest that he was forced to run for mayor.
In the run-up to the election, Boychenko worked from an office in Mariupol TV, and Akhmetov-owned media throughout the city - from the steelworkers' factory radio station to the TV channel - featured Boychenko prominently at the expense of other candidates.
"The media coverage of elections was very one-sided," says Borodin.
Influence of media
According to Golovenko, from the Institute of Mass Information, 85 percent of Ukrainians get their news from television, and the medium is crucial for shaping public opinion.
With a receptive audience and little competition from independent media, especially on television, these large media groups and their owners are extremely influential - particularly in the run-up to elections.
Journalists, working under editors, management and an owner with a political agenda, are expected to report the news in a certain way.
Independent media have found it difficult to compete with their large, oligarch-subsidised competition, some of which, according to Makarov, lose tens of millions of dollars every year - and all of which are perennially loss-making.
A relatively poor population and a media space that is overcrowded make it difficult for media groups to be independent and economically viable in Ukraine, leaving the political and economic elite, with their ability to subsidise loss-making institutions, to exert influence over the media.
Korrespondent was once one of Ukraine's most independent and important magazines. But after an exposé highlighting the wealth and corruption of former President Viktor Yanukovych, it was purchased by Sergey Kurchenko, who maintained a close connection with Yanukovych, and became a very different publication, according to Maxim Butchenko, a journalist who worked for the magazine both before and after its sale to Kurchenko.
Under KP Media Group, owned by an American, Jed Sanden, and later by a Pakistani, Mohammad Zahoor, Korrespondent was celebrated for its critical independence. Butchenko, who worked under editors appointed by Kurchenko, claimed that "we had to write false articles about how good our government is and how bad the opposition is".
He has since left the magazine, but while at Korrespondent, Butchenko says he watched as "they created a special censor department. These people checked the whole publication. And everything bad about the government they just deleted".
The manipulation of public media
Since November 24, 2015, the state has been prevented from owning printed media, although the law specifically allows the state to continue to own internet, radio and television media.
Although the state can no longer own printed media, this law doesn't necessarily mean that the state has completely disengaged itself from using public media as a tool of propaganda. "For [the political establishment], they need influence … they want propaganda," argues Alasania, of the Ukrainian National Public Broadcasting Company.
Alasania wants to create a channel that "will be absolutely free from all these parts - not belong to the [political] powers, not belong to the oligarchs".
Government officials have allowed Alasania the opportunity to reform an anachronistic organisation, but he says they have also attempted to cripple that process.
Officially, public funding for public media is supposed to be 0.2 percent of Ukraine's gross domestic product. Next year, though, Alasania says he will be allocated around half this amount. His actual figure of approximately 0.1 percent of GDP funding compares to 0.25 percent of GDP allocated to public media in France and 0.36 percent in the UK, both of which also support their public media with subscription fees.
A viable public media, say experts, could be a catalyst for changing the industry, providing an unbiased counter-narrative to oligarchic media and forcing them to evolve.
Although the state budget has been stretched by the war, Alasania speculates that the unofficial 50 percent cut in funding is "a way to kill us, kill public broadcasting".
While the government has minimised its support for public media, individuals within the government have not lost interest in involving themselves in it privately. Alasania claims that he was approached by people who presented themselves as representing the offices of President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, offering to subsidise programmes on his channel so that they could exert their own political influence. "If I took this money [from the president and the prime minister], it will be finished; they will always say to me what to do on this show - so, all about the guests, all about the politics. That's why I didn't take the money from them."
The president's office said it possessed no information on this issue, while the prime minister's office did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment.
On a local level, government officials can also assert control of public media, using it to influence politics. In Kryvyi Rih, a city of just over 600,000 people in Ukraine's Dnipropetrovsk region, the local municipal broadcasting channel was founded by the city council in 1993 as public media.
The region's incumbent mayor, Yuri Vilkul, recently won an election that the parliament commission recognised as fraudulent.
According to Sofia Skyba, a journalist at the channel, "the current mayor and his cronies are constantly dictating what journalists can say, what they cannot, whom to shoot, whom [to] not … News reports are sent for review to the city executive committee. [Its] press service sends changes."
The channel works, Skyba says, "as in the best times of the Soviet Union", with some reports containing discreet political promotions and news broadcasts shaped to show the mayor in a favourable light, especially during the recent elections.
The channel has more than a million potential viewers in Kryvyi Rih and its surrounding towns. And with the recent election decided by only 752 votes, it is possible that Vilkul's influence over the media played a decisive role in his contested victory.
Media is a threat to Ukraine's fledgling democracy. Because oligarchic media "deprived [the public] of the possibility to receive balanced and true information about what's going on," says Telekritika's Roman Shutov, "it changes their behaviour, the political behaviour and the electoral behaviour." The use of the media in the political and economic war in which the various factions of the Ukrainian establishment are engaged is disruptive for democracy.
"As oligarchs manipulate and divide the public," Shutov argues, they create "a threat to internal stability" and pose "a challenge to democracy".
Democracy and the freedom of the press have been appropriated by the elite to create a factionalised plutocracy in the guise of a democratic state. The media, Yuri Makarov argues, looks "like a reflection in a broken mirror".
Source: Al Jazeera