Ukrainian media’s pre-election coverage dominated by pre-paid political advertising

By Antonina Cherevko, IMS Programme Manager for Ukraine

Ukraine’s major political parties have each spent on average more than one million US dollars on televised political advertising prior to the elections on Sunday, 26 October, according to the Ukrainian information agency LigaBusinessInform.

As Ukraine approaches early parliamentary elections, media and civil society experts are actively debating Ukrainian media’s coverage of the parties and candidates, as well as the general conduct of the media in the run-up to the elections. One of the major developments in Ukraine media compared to the last parliamentary elections in 2012 is the relative absence of any kind of political pressure on media or the use of administrative resources to influence media coverage. This was one of the many points highlighted at a press conference on 23 October in Kyiv organised by the two media organisations Institute for Mass Information and Telekritika, in partnership with the civic activists network Opora which was titled “Post-Maidan elections: Jeansa, media owners’ interests and voters’ right to information”.

The practice of “jeansa”

The new freedom from political pressure has not translated into ethical, unbiased and comprehensive election coverage, however. Rather it became a question of “equal corruption opportunity” in media, when every party and/or candidate could buy as much media space for political advertising as their finances permitted. Thus, election media coverage has been heavily dominated by “jeansa”. “Jeansa” is the special term invented by Ukrainian media experts to describe paid-for PR or advertising materials in media which is “masked” or hidden in news, editorials or other journalistic articles. In fact, such materials constitute illegal, hidden advertising (mostly political, but also in certain instances commercial when it serves certain commercial or private interests). “Jeansa” can be paid for, but can also be unpaid in the sense that the political views and political forces promoted is in line with the interests of the media owners.

The practice of “jeansa” in media can be explained by the difficult economic situation facing media houses struggling to survive and the decrease in commercial advertising. Many media outlets are desperately struggling to earn some money under the harsh economic conditions.

According to the Ukrainian information agency LigaBusinessInform, major political parties have spent on average more than one million USD each on televised political advertising alone prior to the elections. This amounts to spectacularly big sums for a country suffering under an on-going military conflict.

In general, the most “generous” “jeansa” buyers were the political actors associated with the old Yanukovych regime such as Serhiy Tyhipko’s “Strong Ukraine” and the former ruling party, Party of Regions, now renamed the “Opposition Block”. It is interesting to note that almost 90 per cent of “jeansa” coming from the pro-Yanukovych political actors was placed in media in the eastern and southern regions of the country where these parties’ electorate used to reside. Meanwhile, other political forces focused more on the Western and Central Ukraine or had their “coverage” all over of the country like the President’s “Block of Petro Poroshenko” party. Geographically, the biggest quantity of paid masked political advertising materials in media was recorded in Zaporizhia, Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson and Kharkiv regions, while the least amount of prepaid masked political advertising was recorded in the Lviv region. Read more here.

The new political actors and parties on the political scene, featuring some of the “young and fresh faces” in Ukrainian politics, were the most infrequent “buyers” of political advertising space and airtime. This is no surprise, as these political forces with various degrees of success have generally come across as making an effort to adhere to the international standards tied to electoral processes.

The worst tendency documented by the experts has been a rather high level of what is called “black PR” – up to 5% of all the materials. The key targets of the black technologies have been the pro-presidential block and the political party headed by the Prime-Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

One of the major reasons for all these unethical developments is de facto absence of the transparency of financing of political parties in Ukraine since the obligatory financial reporting of the political parties, prescribed by the law, is not implemented in practice. There is a general belief that improvement of the legal election framework is needed.

One of the conclusions that can be drawn from this is that a large number of Ukrainian media outlets failed to provide voters with comprehensive and truthful information about the parties and candidates, their political programmes and values, thus not giving the voters the chance to make informed decisions on the basis of reliable, objective election coverage. The competitive angle of political parties became more about who had the most funds rather than on policies.

This does not mean, however, that voters will easily buy into political advertising. In fact, former election experience demonstrated that paying extensively for political advertising brings with it almost no results, but instead becomes a waste of money.

The “Revolution of Dignity”, also known as EuroMaidan, is believed to have profoundly changed the Ukrainian public However, not so much the media and politicians, an opinion voiced by the participants of the press conference on 23 October with a clear sense of disappointment. There is still a lot to be done to bring the Ukrainian political scene and media practices in line with the European values for which more than 100 Ukrainians lost their lives during the EuroMaidan protests.

Useful note for international journalists deployed to cover Ukrainian Parliamentary elections: a media centre for journalists has opened in central Kyiv in Khreshchatyk St. 27a, 2nd floor. It offers journalists access to Wi-Fi and communication means such as phone and fax. The centre is open from 9.00 until 20.00 and 24 hours on Election Day.

More about the Centre here: