Who will pay for free speech?

Savik Shuster pioneered media freedom in Ukraine but his non-oligarch channel is struggling to survive

Who will pay for free speech?
Savik Shuster has been a fixture on Ukrainian TV since 2005 but his efforts to gain full independence from oligarch channel owners have led to new funding challenges
Business Ukraine magazine
Thursday, 06 October 2016 17:45

Ukraine’s television industry is in many ways a mirror of the country’s patchwork political panorama. Channels come and go with a regularity that matches the rise and fall of new political parties, with everything seemingly controlled from behind the curtain by a handful of oligarch owners. In this ever-changing and turbulent environment, one of the few televisual constants of the past decade has been Savik Shuster’s weekly political debate show. Every Friday evening, millions of Ukrainians tune in to see Shuster graciously play host to the great and the good of the Ukrainian political classes as they address the key issues of the day and generally shout at one another. This ritual has survived multiple political crises, numerous changes of government, a revolution and a hybrid war, but it is now under threat. The reason is simple – money.

Exasperated by the dominant role of oligarchs in Ukraine’s mainstream media, Shuster set out last year to create a truly independent TV channel. With limited funds and a dedicated team of associates, he established channel. The project is very much in line with the post-Euromaidan public hunger for credible and independent journalism, but it has struggled to secure the kind of funding required to finance something as expensive as a national TV channel. After a decade of championing free speech on Ukrainian TV, the Lithuanian-born media icon now finds himself asking who is going to pay for this media freedom. 


Moving from channel to channel

Shuster’s longevity on Ukrainian TV is largely down to his tenacity and the brand value that his name has acquired among Ukrainian audiences. His flagship weekly political talk show has been broadcasting more or less continuously since 2005, but it has moved from one channel to another with depressing regularity. Indeed, it would probably be quicker and easier to list the channels that have not hosted his show at some point than to recite the chronology of his many arrivals and departures. Speaking to Business Ukraine magazine at his channel headquarters in Kyiv’s Syrets district, the dapper and diminutive Shuster explains the frequency of these moves as the product of Ukraine’s oligarch-controlled mainstream media. “Clashes are inevitable,” he says. “On the first show I hosted in Ukraine, I was just an employee. When that didn’t work out, my partners and I decided to set up our own production studio, but that didn’t work either. Even though we had made sure to have editorial control over the product written into the contract, we soon found that channel owners retained the power to kick us off the air.”

Given his well-documented troubles with the oligarch owners of Ukraine’s main media brands, Shuster is surprisingly philosophical about the influence they exert. However, he points out that the lack of genuine market forces and profitability in the Ukrainian media prevents journalists from doing their job properly. “Oligarchs have always played both positive and negative roles in society throughout history,” he says. “But today, all Ukrainian media runs on oligarch subsidies, so journalists are inevitably dependent on media owners.” Shuster believes the current economic hardships in Ukraine have made a bad situation worse. Ukraine’s main TV channels have traditionally struggled to generate sufficient revenues to match their multi-million dollar annual budgets. The collapse of the advertising market that accompanied the economic crash of the past two years has only served to aggravate this problem, sending rates for advertising slots plummeting and forcing channel managers to depend even more on the deep pockets of oligarch owners.  


Deteriorating media climate

A reliance on oligarch subsidies is only one part of Ukraine’s current media malaise, according to Shuster. He argues that the general level of media freedoms in country is deteriorating, and claims his channel has become a target for state agencies and other tools of intimidation more commonly associated with authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the former Soviet world.  “Ukraine will never become like Russia or Azerbaijan, but this does not exclude the fact that those in power want to control the media,” he says.

Shuster is not alone in this negative assessment. Many national and international press freedom monitors agree that the Ukrainian media climate has darkened considerably in recent months, with the car bomb murder of prominent Belarusian journalist Pavel Sheremet in central Kyiv and the firebombing of Inter TV channel serving as grim milestones on the road away from the hard-won media freedoms of Ukraine’s two post-Soviet revolutions. The Ukrainian government has been widely criticized for failing to address these two incidents with sufficient vigor. It also stands accused of doing too little to protect journalists from harassment and intimidation – dangers many had assumed were no longer issues in post-Euromaidan Ukraine. Inevitably, this apparent lack of government support for media freedoms has also served to make potential corporate sponsors of independent TV channels think twice.    

Shuster initially sought to get round these problems by introducing a novel form of membership scheme to help fund his venture. Prospective members can join the family by contributing a donation of at least UAH 100. In return, they receive membership status and gain a range of benefits including access to shows and the chance to participate in outside broadcasts across the country. The public response to this initiative has been moderately positive, with around 19,000 Ukrainians signing up for membership since the scheme launched in late 2015. However, this figure is dwarfed by the estimated four million memberships that would be required in order to fully finance the channel. Shuster is now looking into other options, but admits there are relatively few viable avenues open to him. Beyond advertising revenues, he identifies three key sources: non-oligarch Ukrainian investors drawn from the country’s self-made upper middle classes, foreign investors, and international donors. If a solution to the channel’s funding problems is not found by the end of the year, Shuster is unsure whether they will be able to continue broadcasting into 2017.


Free speech icon

The departure of Savik Shuster from Ukrainian television screens would be widely interpreted as a symbolic setback for freedom of speech in the country. As the leading light among the first generation of current affairs broadcasters to gain national prominence in the afterglow of the 2004 Orange Revolution, Shuster has come to embody the political pluralism that defines contemporary Ukraine’s media landscape. His shows have consistently attracted the biggest names in politics, often serving as stages for important national debates. This has made Shuster something of a national icon whose fame has reached such heights that people routinely refer to him by his first name alone. In many ways, he is the Elvis of the post-Soviet political talk show circuit.

Ukrainian television was not always like this. Prior to the Orange Revolution, Ukraine’s TV industry had been subject to the kind of unofficial but rigid government controls found in today’s Russia and other post-Soviet states. Government officials would provide TV executives with specific instructions on what to cover and who to ignore, with any deviations likely to lead to licensing problems or the application of other administrative resources. The watershed moment for Ukraine’s mainstream media came on the fourth day of the Orange Revolution in November 2004, when on-screen sign language translator Natalia Dmytruk managed to bypass the state TV censors by signing to her viewers that the official news bulletin they were watching about the presidential election was false. “Everything you have heard so far on the news was a total lie,” she told viewers using sign language. In a moment of pure poetic justice, Ukraine’s deaf community became the first viewers to hear the truth on state television. Within a few days, virtually every Ukrainian TV channel had broken with the old censorship practices and made public commitments to provide balanced coverage. This rebellion helped secure the success of the Orange Revolution. It also sparked a smaller revolution within the TV industry itself. Suddenly, everything seemed possible and formerly taboo subjects could be addressed with an abandon that was quite literally unprecedented. This was the exciting environment Shuster encountered when he first arrived in Kyiv in 2005. The timing was perfect. He did not realize it at the time, but he was about to embark on the experience of a lifetime.


From Putin’s Moscow to Orange Kyiv

Born in Soviet Lithuania, Shuster moved to Canada in his youth before returning to post-Soviet Russia in the early 1990s as a journalist with Radio Liberty. At the turn of the millennium, he took on a high-profile position hosting a political talk show on Russia’s NTV channel. However, his days on prime time Russian TV were numbered after he incurred the displeasure of the Kremlin for his show’s coverage of the 2002 Nord-Ost terrorist siege in Moscow. Soon afterward, he found himself out of a job.

This experience as a political journalist in both Putin’s Russia and post-Orange Revolution Ukraine gives Shuster considerable insight into the contrasting media climates in both countries. While he is pessimistic about the current direction of Ukraine’s media industry, he rejects any direct comparisons with the situation in today’s Russia, and identifies stark contrasts between the respective television audiences in both countries. “Ukrainians and Russians are very different in their attitudes to the media. In Russia, whenever our ratings dropped we would do a show about NATO or America and our viewing figures would jump. Russians have an imperial mindset and like to be feared. In Ukraine, the opposite is true. Geopolitical themes are not engaging and audiences respond better to themes more closely related to everyday life. Ukrainians want to know their leaders and hear what they have to say.” Despite being among the losers during Vladimir Putin’s clampdown on the Russian media during the early 2000s, Shuster continues to harbor ambitions of broadcasting to Russian audiences. He says has already earned a following among Russian Federation viewers, and hopes to build on this if the channel is able to establish stronger financial foundations.      

Shuster has experienced so many reversals during his eleven-year Ukrainian TV career that it is hard to imagine him throwing in the towel at this stage. His dream of establishing a non-oligarch channel is clearly proving far harder than he had anticipated, but his celebrity status and public prominence may yet help to rescue the project before the channel’s existing funding runs out. Despite the challenges he currently faces, Shuster remains one of the few TV presenters in Ukraine capable of attracting multi-million audiences on a regular basis. At a time when the country is striving to reduce corruption and move towards the transparency of market forces, this audience appeal has to be worth something.      

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