The transformation of Ukraine’s public broadcaster will reinforce the nation’s media literacy and democracy. Underfunding and a desire by those in power to maintain control risks reversing progress.
Academy Robert Bosch Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House

In 2017, Suspilne, Ukraine’s public broadcaster, kick-started a transformation. Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the broadcaster and its previous incarnations had for the most part screened a combination of stale, Soviet-style content and PR for politicians. However, over the past two years, it has built on a reform roadmap developed in 2014 to revamp its structure and deliver better quality programming.

But now funding cuts threaten to derail the reforms and leave Ukraine without an essential component of building an information-savvy society and a healthier democracy.

A good start

The reforms so far have improved the quality and independence of content and reshaped Suspilne’s bloated internal structure. New formats, political satire and creative projects on history, war and culture have replaced bland programmes of the past. The broadcaster has worked to remove political influence over its editorial policy.

Its leadership and regional managers are now elected through competitions and the oversized staff has been almost halved. The new team is younger and more experienced with digitalization and social media. More changes are under way.

Suspilne’s new team has faced criticism concerning the quality of news and production, as well as poor identification of its target audience. But ambitious reforms take time.

A challenge to sustainability

Funding is necessary to make such reforms sustainable. According to current law, funding of the public broadcaster should amount to 0.2% of the country’s budget expenditure the previous year. That should mean around £50 million allocated for the broadcaster in 2019, and over £40 million in 2018.

However, Suspilne has only received half of the £40 million this year and is likely to end up with half of the funding envisaged by law in 2019. The final budget for the upcoming year has yet to be approved and can be amended. As of now, the newly-reformed public broadcaster risks ending up with a budget that will barely cover its debt from 2018 and basic needs for 2019.

Suspilne’s administration has already invoked crisis measures, such as unpaid leave for some senior staff. New productions have been halted. The crisis has stirred criticism from the media community and watchdogs in Ukraine, as well as from the European Broadcasting Union.

A new role

Ukraine’s financial constraints are real, especially as spending on defence, social benefits and healthcare reform is increasing, and elections are looming. But the shortage of funds shows that Ukraine’s political class lacks the understanding and appreciation of the role of a quality public broadcaster.

Historically, Ukrainian politicians have largely seen the public broadcaster as a platform for monologues about their work in constituencies or soft coverage of them opening new schools, for example. Such practices are now mostly gone and are being replaced with formats that still allow politicians to communicate with their voters, but with more critical feedback from journalists and the audience.

This reverses the concept of the broadcaster from a service for those in power to a service for the public. But given two upcoming election campaigns that are likely to be difficult, politicians have little motivation to back a potentially critical voice over which they would have little or no influence.

An essential investment

It is clear that Ukraine needs an independent public broadcaster equipped with the institutional and financial capacity to resist pressure from politicians or private owners. It should not be forced to chase advertising budgets but should focus instead on delivering more professional journalism; it should be accountable to the public, and it should eventually grow into a standard setter in the country’s broadcasting environment.

If the ongoing efforts to cut the funding for Suspilne lead to the replacement of the current team by one that is more susceptible to influence in its editorial independence, after which full funding resumes, that will kill reforms that have already delivered obvious results.

Support for the public broadcaster will not deliver immediate electoral advantage to those in power, but it is an essential strategic investment in the evolution of Ukrainian society.