Case Studies – Ukraine Media Support

Ukraine Media Support Case Studies

In July of 2015, the Global Peace and Development Charitable Trust (GPD Trust) identified support for media and information markets in the Donbass as the primary focus for grant making in Ukraine. Our media survey identified a deficit of news and information products specifically targeted at Russian identifying/speaking Ukrainian citizens and a lack of media infrastructure in frontline communities. Ethnically identifying Russian Ukrainians are the primary target of pro-Putin, Russian language propaganda available everywhere via satellite TV. Propaganda that is in large part effective because it stokes fears that Kyiv’s ultimate goal is the elimination of Russian cultural identity in the Donbass. Our media survey also demonstrated that Kyiv’s counter propaganda was often ineffective because it was not perceived as supporting local resistance but rather as support for an imposed agenda. As a result, we concluded that an effective media support strategy should focus on enabling local voices to talk about local issues and improving information infrastructure in front line communities.

Case study: News Agency “Vchasno”

When the Russians took over Donetsk in May of 2014, Maria Davydenko was a TV producer for a local morning show. “I knew there was going to be a war, but ordinary people just didn’t want to see it. They believed Russian TV that Putin would raise everybody’s pay and we’d all live like it was the Soviet Union. TV was the key. After the takeover, one of the first things the Russians did was to increase the power of transmitter of the Donetsk TV transmitter so they could broadcast to Ukrainian territory. That’s when I decided to start my news site, “In the Moment” (vchasnoua.com), I knew that the only way to fight was by giving people real information.”

The Donbass, despite the “Revolution of Dignity” in Kyiv, is still largely controlled by former functionaries of ex-President Yanukovic’s “Party of the Regions.” Maria said, “The thing you must understand about Ukraine, is that there is no such thing as independent mass media. All media is controlled by an oligarch and often run by the very same people who were ready to betray Ukraine. Some of the reporting is good, but in the end, they have to praise their masters. We are trying to figure out a path that keeps us independent.”

Vchasno focuses on local news that you can use. “Our mission is to help our readers understand how they can participate in local government, volunteer movements and reform. Too often, the local and regional government try to hide corruption. We have good relationships with democracy activists that are trying to change the way government works and we help them get their message out.” A recent Vchasno story about an illegal City Council procurement in the city of Liman uncovered by the activist group “Strong Regions” has sparked a Rada (national parliament) investigation and nullified the illegal actions. Reporting on corruption in the running of government owned coal mines, death threats made on coalmine union leaders and proposed coalmine closures have also triggered action by government and law enforcement authorities.

GPD Trust financial support for Vchasno is now in its second year. Professional staff has grown to 6 fulltime professional reporters and editors, and site visits have increased to over 20,000 per week. Maria’s development plan for Vchasno in 2017 includes increased video reportage, a new business/economics section and the addition of an advertising sales person. “We are very grateful to GPD Trust for their assistance. Because of their support, we have grown to be the leading news site in the Donbass and can now expand our operations and financing base with new funding expected this year from the National Endowment for Democracy, European Union and other foundations.”

Case study: Development of media infrastructure / Army FM

In summer of 2015, the morale of front line Ukrainian troops was very low. Lt. Yuri Shirin, the Press Officer for the 92nd Brigade deployed near the Dontesk airport recalls, “Most of the time, nothing is really happening and the only thing the boys can do is listen to the radio to kill time. The only radio we could listen to was Russian radio because the Ukrainian radio signals didn’t cover the front line, the enemy knew they had a captive audience and constantly planted false stories about the Army leadership.” As a result, Yuri and the Army General Staff began to develop a comprehensive action plan to improve morale and internal Army communications. A key piece of this plan was the creation of Army FM, a radio station dedicated to front line troops, modeled on the US Armed Forces Network. The problem, no budget for studio equipment or transmitters.

Upon learning about the requirement from Yuri, GPD Trust contacted the US Embassy in Kyiv to determine how best to support Army FM. Scott Harris, a US Department of Defense employee on loan to the Ukrainian Army General Staff, provided GPD Trust with a briefing on the newly adopted UAF Strategic Communications Plan. In addition to Army FM, the Strat Com plan included improved Press Officer training and equipment and the deployment of quick reaction morale support teams. Recognizing that the scope of the requirement was greater than GPD Trust capabilities, John Deblasio made the decision to create a support partnership with Spirit or America, a Los Angeles charity with an established record of financially supporting US foreign policy goals.

With GPD Trust financial support, Spirit of America was able to procure and deliver a complete digital radio production studio and three mobile transmitters within 4 months. Army FM began transmitting in from the front line in March of 2016 a high quality mix of entertainment, music, news and morale programming tailored specifically for the interests of young Ukrainian war fighters. The programming has proven to be very successful, attracting a significant civilian audience in addition to the primary military market. Joann Wagner, US Embassy aid coordinator, noted that the GPD Trust / Spirit of America partnership had provided critical and timely assistance to “a real success story in a very tough environment.” Army FM’s success was subsequently featured in a front page Wall Street Journal article in July of 2016.

Since then, Army FM broadcast capabilities have continued to develop with the purchase and deployment of additional transmitters, now financed directly by the Ministry of Defense. Alexey Makukhin, Director of Army FM, reports that the signal now reaches approximately 80% of the conflict zone and nationwide transmissions from UAF training bases will begin in 2017. GPD Trust financial support for Army FM is an excellent example of how timely, private financial support can be a catalyst for the development of strategic communications infrastructure necessary to resist Russian information operations.

Case study: Enabling Citizen Journalism

The collapse of Ukraine’s advertising market has dramatically increased oligarch and government control over information flows. Before the advertising collapse, mass media platforms had some discretion in covering news events. Today, however, the reportage of virtually all established mass media platforms are dictated by oligarch or political sponsors in return for financial support. An example is the frontline city of Mariupol, where all three local TV channels, controlled by the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, report on the Donbass conflict through a prism of protecting his substantial investments in occupied territory.

A natural response to the skewed, traditional news environment is a dramatic increase in the use of Facebook groups as primary sources for Ukrainian news. However, the quality and reliability of Facebook posts vary tremendously. Also, view counts are often limited by the absence of good quality audio, photo and video content. In support of the development of alternative news sources, GDP Trust has teamed with the Democracy Council to empower Citizen Journalists with educational and content creation tools and resources. The strategic impact of the program is to help civil society to enhance journalism in the frontline and occupied territories, to increase journalist activity, better inform the population, and counter Russian propaganda.

“Empowering Citizen Journalists” program activities will focus on organizing, training and promoting citizen journalists’ posts. Organization and recruitment of citizen journalists is carried out by the NGO “Democracy Development Initiative,” established by Ksenia Kosheleva. Ksenia remained in occupied Donetsk and led the relief efforts of “People In Need” until January of 2016, when she was forced to flee under threat of arrest. “Many people who were forced to leave occupied territories have strong and informed opinions about what is happening today, both in occupied territories and in the rest of Ukraine. They are looking for a way to express themselves and we are trying to give them the training and tools to do so more effectively. As our program development phase has ended, I’m looking forward to working full time on recruiting Citizen Journalists and making partnerships with independent news sites and popular Facebook groups.”

Training in basic journalism skills, including basic story writing technics, ethics, and the proper use of cameras and recording equipment, is provided online via an Electronic Learning Management System (ELMS). The ELMS includes six sequential Russian language modules developed by Democracy Council and modified for Ukraine by the Journalism Department of the Odessa Juridical Academy. The avaialbity of online training dramatically reduces the cost of training Citizen Journalists and also supports a national programming scope, even including activists in occupied territories.

To support of content creation, GPD Trust has funded the adaptation for Ukraine of StoryMaker 2, an Android Smartphone App. StoryMaker 2 provides Citizen Journalists with a powerful tool that includes news story templates, (i.e. how to cover a city council meeting, a protest, or sporting event), content capture tools, in-app editing, and upload support, all integrated into a single, easy to use app. As Elena Kotava, a StoryMaker user from Mariupol said, “I became tired of the lies being told by the mass media. StoryMaker gave me the opportunity to show people what is really going on around me. I don’t have an education in journalism, but now I feel like I can tell people my thoughts and ideas, and do it well.”

Content created by Citizen Journalists with the StoryMaker app will be available on www.uastroymaker.com, a dedicated site managed by the Democracy Development Initiative beginning March 1, 2017. The content will be freely available for use and reposting by news agencies and site visitors. Future development plans for “Empowering Citizen Journalists” include further adapting the ELMS and StoryMaker app to support citizen election monitors and integrating program activities with the curricula of university Journalism Departments.

Global Peace and Development Charitable Trust / Ukraine contact: jmontgomery@gpdcharitabletrust.org