Are Oligarchs Revealing Their Election Preferences on Ukrainian Television?

December 21, 2018
An analysis of the news reveals who Ukrainian oligarchs are promoting on their TV channels in the run up to the 2019 elections.
Photo credit: Courtesy Screenshots Inter, Ukraina, Channel 5, 1+1, ICTV

"Poroshenko does not like that Shevchenko is telling the truth, and that he has decided to run for the presidency," said Oleksandr Shevchenko - the presidential candidate of Ukrop party - in news on Channel 1+1 in September 2018.

During a TV story in February, the same news channel reminded President Petro Poroshenko that his predecessor Viktor Yanukovych had been ousted during the Revolution of Dignity.

Criticism of the president is hardly uncommon for 1+1, which was the most viewed channel in November with an audience share of 12.05 percent. And it's owned by Ihor Kolomoiskyi - a Ukrainian oligarch, and the former owner of PryvatBank, which was nationalized in 2016.

Other popular TV channels are also owned by oligarchs – and these stations may have their own political preferences. Television is the main source of information for 76-97 percent of Ukrainians which gives the oligarchs a powerful tool to influence both public and politicians.

"TV cannot make people support a certain candidate during elections. But it can narrow the choice since channels are the only source that can make a person famous in Ukraine, despite the surge of social media and the Internet," said Razumkov Center sociologist Andriy Bychenko.

As a result, politicians need support of the media tycoons to run for presidency.

"Oligarchs have not yet made final decision whom to support. There is no certainty or clear favorites," says Viktor Andrusiv, executive director of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future.

He points at the lack of predominant people's support of one or few candidates.

Detector Media monitors and analyses the daily news of these top Ukrainian TV channels to watch for hidden political advertising. From the data they've provided, covering the past year through December 9, a few clear trends emerge.

Kolomoiskyi's channel, according to Detector Media, is the only one that promotes Oleksandr Shevchenko. Its news also presents political comments by Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyi and singer Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, neither of whom have yet declared whether they would run. The stations has only promoted Vakarchuk twice, but Zelenskyi has other comedy shows and TV series extensively aired on this channel.

President Poroshenko is promoted not only by Channel 5, which he owns, but by channels owned by other oligarchs too - except for Kolomoiskyi's. Despite little popular support, many believe that he may win.

"Since around September 2018, Petro Poroshenko has begun to appear more frequently in TV news in stories that actually are not news. I think he has started his media campaigning," says Zoya Krasovska, who does daily news analysis at Detector Media.

The president's team may have also influence on Priamyi and 112 TV channels. Priamyi, with a share of 0.58 percent of Ukraine's audience, often airs Yurii Boiko. Boiko is widely perceived as pro-Russian, and thus may be a convenient opponent for the president during a possible run-off.

Channel 112, which has the share of 1.79 percent, is influenced by Viktor Medvechk – an oligarch with close ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin (the godfather of his daughter). The channel seems to be loyal to Poroshenko. It has recently softened its criticism of the president, and cut off media access to the president's chief rival in 2019, Yuliia Tymoshenko, according to Detector Media.

But Tymoshenko, who is leading in the polls, gets positive coverage by Kolomoiskyi's 1+1. She also appears on Viktor Pinchuk's ICTV (share of 8.85 percent) and Inter (share of 5.31 percent), owned by Dmytro Firtash and Serhii Lovochkin, according to Detector Media.

Meanwhile, the pro-Russian media camp is also fragmented due to differing preferences among the oligarchs. On December 6, Ukraina TV (with a share of 9.29 percent), owned by Rinat Akhmetov, broadcast polls stating that the support of Yurii Boiko was decreasing while Oleksandr Vilkul was becoming more popular. Just the day before, however, Firtash and Lovochkin's Inter had reported that Boiko was in second place after Tymoshenko.

The reason for this discrepancy of "facts" is simple: Boiko cut his ties with Akhmetov and his entourage putting, casting his lot instead with Vilkul.

Boiko, however, is a favourite of Firtash and Liovochkin. He receives the most coverage by Firtash's Inter channel, according to Detector Media's data (116 stories). Meanwhile, Zoya Krasovska from Detector Media notes, Vilkul has recently disappeared from Inter.

Despite all of the coverage earned by other candidates, Ukraina still awards the most coverage to Oleh Liashko, the leader of Radical Party, with 169 reports. Ukrainian media has reported how Liashko and his party work for the business interests of Akhmetov, including his steel factories. His party has proposed to keep high export taxes for scrap metal, for example.

Firtash and Lovochkin's Inter also provides Liashko positive coverage so that he will not criticize Boiko, Medvechuk, and their opposition platform. "Last year Inter TV channel was biased towards Liashko and actively criticised him. At some point, they started to promote him, instead," says Zoya Krasovska from Detector Media.

Anatolii Hrytsenko, a pro-Western candidate with a strong security platform, is the least covered by media with only 5 appearances on ICTV channel, according to Detector Media's data.

The political parties are also preparing for parliamentary elections.

They seem to promote themselves through their potential presidential candidates, according to Zoya Krasovska from Detector Media.

Financial reports from the most popular political parties to the National Agency on Corruption Prevention indicates a big increase in spending on TV promotion by Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party compared with last year. It started in June 2018 when Tymoshenko presented her new course. During April-September 2018, the party spent UAH 74m for TV advertising, compared to just 10m UAH throughout 2017.

The main beneficiaries of all of this spending were Viktor Pinchuk's Starlight Media, Global Media Group, which is linked to Ihor Kolomoiskyi, and Inter. This reflects the appearances of Tymoshenko as reported by Detector Media.

Other parties spent less. Television occupies a big share in expenditures by the Opposition Bloc and Radical Party of Oleh Liashko. Vadym Rabinovych's party Za Zhyttia also paid a lump sum to Channel 112.

Meanwhile, the parties of Anatolii Hrytsenko and former prime minister Arsenii Yatseniuk have focused on advertising in printed media. Petro Poroshenko's and Andrii Sadovyi's parties spent the most for their own newspapers, and Poroshenko's party also spent on promotion in Facebook. Sadovyi's party, has also spent for ad buys on Novoe Vremia radio owned by Czech Tomas Fiala, which has a reputation of independent media.

"The wording in official reports of political parties to the National Agency on Corruption Prevention is often unclear. Therefore, it's hard to evaluate their spending on political advertising," says Oleksiy Koshel, the director general of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine.

For instance, spending on billboards is reported not by Poroshenko's party but by an NGO. Politicians from the former Opposition Bloc appeared on NewsOne, Ukraina,112, and Priamyi - but according to reports, they paid only to Inter. Liashko is quoted by Ukraina and Rinat Akhmetov's Segodnya newspaper, but according to reports he has only made payments to Novyny 24, 112, and Priamyi.

There are some independent media in Ukraine, but they are much less popular. They need more resources to produce a lot of content that would be competitive with expensive oligarchic media empires.

Ruslan Minich
analyst and journalist, UkraineWorld, Internews Ukraine