If you take a look at a list of TV channels and radio broadcasters in Ukraine, you’ll find a who’s-who of wealthy oligarchs and politicians. There was a break from this tradition in 2014 following the Euromaidan revolution, when plans for an independent public broadcaster were finally legalized. It was seen as Ukraine’s chance to show the people – and the rest of the world – that it understood the need for independent and transparent media, as well as the value of freedom of speech.
But reforming the state-run regional and national broadcasters into a public broadcasting service has not been easy and resistance from influential elites has resulted in under-financing and, most recently, the sacking of its reformer CEO.
On January 31, the broadcaster’s Supervisory Board unexpectedly voted to dismiss the outspoken CEO Zurab Alasania. Ukraine’s media community reacted with outcry and concern, fearing that freedom of speech was under threat.
No official reason for the dismissal was given until late on February 6, when the meeting’s minutes were published on the website. The protocol lists issues with Alasania’s approach to management, failures in the financial management of the broadcaster and failure to make the broadcaster a “social-political channel,” citing the lack of coverage of the July church procession attended by President Poroshenko, and the depoliticization of the news in general.
According to Yevhen Hlibovytsky, a member of the public broadcaster’s Supervisory Board who was present in the meeting, the decision to dismiss Alasania was really “an attempt to stall one of the successful reforms in Ukraine.”
Hromadske sat down with a panel of media experts to discuss the recent controversy surrounding Alasania’s dismissal and what this means for the future of media freedom in Ukraine.
What Happened on January 31?
The Supervisory Board, which consists of a mix of parliamentary and civil society representatives, met for a scheduled meeting on January 31, during which one member proposed an unscheduled vote on Alasania’s dismissal. The closed-door vote passed with nine for and three against. According to the experts, this process in itself is problematic.
Media lawyer Ihor Rozkladay stated to Hromadske that he noted a number of violations in the voting procedure, this includes the failure to propose a closed vote at the start of the meeting and the fact a dismissal of this kind requires a “huge violation,” although no such reason was given to the public at the time.
Hlibovytsky, who was involved in the meeting, also expressed concerns over the “very secretive manner” in which the vote was conducted.
“Once there is a decision to sack the head of the managerial board, obviously one of the reasons has to be stated why that happened. This was neither part of the discussion as far as members of the Supervisory Board can explain, nor was it clearly told to the public,” Hlibovytsky commented, adding, “So we're basically talking about likes or dislikes.”
Who is Zurab Alasania?
Since his election as head of the public broadcasters managerial board in April 2017, Alasania has earned a reputation for being somewhat of an outspoken outsider, who all three of the panel members described as a “locomotive” of reform. And this had made him unpopular among the political old guard, according to the experts.
“Many people criticize him for being very rough in decision making and rough in management style, but he got these things done,” Hlibovytsky stated. He further comments that Alasania’s different style of managerial and political culture made him unfavorable with the political elites.
Rozkladay comments that it wasn’t just the elites that were skeptical of Alasania at first.
“He pushed and broke the wall of resistance from different [people], first of all, staff, because the first people who were against reform were all the staff,” he states.
On the other hand, advisor to EED Content Fund Roman Shutov believes that there were some legitimate criticisms against Alasania. He says that Alasania was “afraid of being biased in political reporting,” and that the public broadcaster “refused to report about politics and this is perhaps not the best solution.”
Nonetheless, the question remains as to whether this was enough to warrant Alasania’s dismissal and “enough of a reason to undermine the reform itself,” Shutov adds.
Problems Within the Public Broadcaster
While political elites may fear reform, there are many who feel that there has not been enough reform within the public broadcaster. However, as the experts point out, the sheer scale of this kind of reform needs to be taken into account, especially when political resistance against the broadcaster has resulted in two years of under-financing.
Rozkladay comments that the public broadcaster “still does not produce content like the BBC” because further investment is needed “to change the system, which is under-financed, whose equipment came from the start of the millennium.”
Under-financing is also a serious issue from Hlibovytsky’s point of view: “The public service broadcaster got less money, roughly about 45% less money, than was advised by the Council of Europe, than was actually prescribed by the law, which has been passed by the Ukrainian parliament.”
The lack of financing has resulted a number of employees leaving to work in the private sector. But Hlibovytsky is still optimistic in the public broadcaster’s progress.
“Yes, the public service broadcaster has its losses, but, at the same time, it's trying to stay on the track of development,” he says.
The experts believe that, for the public broadcaster to move on from the controversy surrounding Alasania’s dismissal, trust needs to be restored. For Rozkladay, this means improving transparency.
“The most dangerous thing that has happened is the lack of trust because some people agree with the policy of Zurab, some disagree, but if you to [fire] him then you have to be as transparent as possible,” the media lawyer comments.
Shutov notes the important role of civil society in combating government attempts to “oppress freedom of speech” and “introduce censorship.”
“I believe that civil society will finally protect the independence of the public broadcaster. We must save Zurab Alasania and we must save trust, especially now on the eve of two elections,” Shutov states.
While Shutov and Rozkladay are cautiously hopeful about the future of Ukraine’s public broadcaster, Hlibovytsky remains far more optimistic. He believes this chapter in the broadcaster’s relatively short history to be an important learning curve for Ukraine.
“I think we're going to win and I think the reform will continue,” he states, adding that “this is a long process of transformation. It will last for years, it will last for electoral terms, it will last for generations. This is just one of them. So we'll get done with this one and move to another one. That's how life works.”