Photo by Darko Vojinovic/The Associated Press
Ukraine has a television problem.That's what the government of Petro Poroshenko is signaling after an aggressive move to fight the influence of the Kremlin on the country's airwaves in recent months.Last year, Ukraine's media regulator instructed its television stations to drop Russian programming that is overly critical of Kyiv and this winter it banned films and TV shows that glorify the Russian military. That decision, however, hasn't stopped Russian-backed rebels from pumping pro-Putin programming across the contested eastern part of the country.
Now Poroshenko's government is turning to Canada to bolster its position in the culture wars — which means that Canadian television classics like The Littlest Hobo and Anne of Green Gables better suit up.In an interview with The Canadian Press, a senior Ukrainian official in the culture department said his government was hoping to get help from Canada to upgrade its broadcasting capabilities, and to provide content to cover the gaps in Ukrainian TV caused by the departure of Russian programming."We need high-quality content, shows, dramas, movies, cultural programs," the official told The Canadian Press.But while the Ukrainian government is eyeing reruns of Degrassi, Ottawa is already beginning to help in another way.In March, Canada kicked in $50,000 to a group calling itself the All-Ukrainian Democratic Forum to, according to a brief posted to a government of Canada website, support "democratic participation of Russian language speaking Ukrainians living in the Eastern part of Ukraine by creating Russian language TV programming and media content."Canada's department of foreign affairs told VICE News that the money went to launch EspresoTV which, according a government spokesperson, is "a leading and reputable Ukrainian reform-oriented online media portal and television station, to develop and present objective Russian-language media content to Ukrainians and more specifically to those living in the eastern parts of Ukraine."
EspresoTV got its start in the early days of the Euromaidan protests, setting up livestreams of the protests and disseminating pro-reform messaging. The Canadian government says it provides "balance in a Russian language media landscape that had been dominated by pro-Kremlin media outlets."Russian propaganda has largely focused on the idea that Ukraine is being controlled by a small group of ultra-nationalists that are stamping out dissent for the sake of doing NATO's bidding. Its English-language stations, meanwhile, have taken aim at the United States and Canada as being meddling interlocutors.Much of that rhetoric stems from the very real fact that the extremist Right Sector played some role in the 2013 protests, and continues to fight against the separatists in the East.Nevertheless, the extent to which Russian contorts reality is exceptional."A generation from now," wrote one New York Times reporter who subjected himself to a week of non-stop Russian programming. "[Russian news] circa 2015 will seem as ridiculous as a Soviet documentary on grain procurement."The Canadian spokesperson added that the funding will allow the online TV network to "hire employees, purchase specific media equipment and software to develop Russian-language content and set-up regional offices in eastern Ukraine to be able to report from the ground."The money is part of a larger, multi-million dollar pot that is trying to boost democratic and media capabilities in Ukraine.
This month, Ottawa announced $3 million to fund investigative journalism in Ukraine, earmarked to reporters trying to uncover corruption and boost accountability.Canada's entry into the foray may not be enough to turn the tides. While Kyiv may have decided to try and oust pro-Russian media, which set off cries of media censorship, the Kremlin still has the upper hand in the media war.Russian-backed rebels captured the main television station in Donetsk last April, and quickly set to work ensuring that it can broadcast pro-Russian viewpoints. Meanwhile, activists told VICE News that Russian broadcasting easily carries over into the eastern part of Ukraine, meaning that some Ukrainian soldiers have little else to watch but Moscow's messaging.But access to the web has helped those in the East side-step a lot of that propaganda.Marko Suprun, a Ukrainian-Canadian currently living in Ukraine, says overly focusing on broadcast television might be a case of misplaced priorities.While the myth-making exercised by the Russian government might help strengthen the ranks of those willing to live and die for the idea of unifying eastern Ukraine with the Russian Federation, countering that idea might require some creative thinking.In the wake of the Euromaidan protests, and the eruption of fighting in the East, documentary filmmakers and independent journalists have worked to sidestep the state media and produce their own account of events on the ground in the area.
"The news is a certain form of storytelling," Suprun told VICE News. "A lot of the alternative sources tell the story where the news leaves off."Film collective Babylon 13 is one of the most notable windows into the realities of life across the country, but a host of other small radio stations, websites and newspapers have also done extensive on-the-ground reporting in the area, in both Ukrainian and Russian. Many of those outlets operate outside the simplistic dichotomy presented by Kyiv and Moscow — that Ukraine is either standing up to outside aggression, or that the fighting is the product of native Russians exercising their wish for independence.Part of the Russian narrative has been selling the idea that their language is under threat.Suprun points out that a significant amount of Ukrainian media — from broadcast news to music on the radio — is already Russian-language. Nevertheless, stations like Ukraine's Channel 5, which is owned by President Poroshenko, have expanded Russian-language broadcasting in order to try and counter the anti-Kyiv rhetoric in the East.To some extent, he says, a renewed effort to broadcast in Russian may be "playing into this notion that the Russian language is under threat."Suprun says that Canadian involvement in Ukrainian broadcast may net positive results."They're still very used to the Soviet way of management — a lack of initiative, and avoiding responsibility," he says of the Ukrainian TV stations, adding that since the collapse of the Berlin wall, a lot of news and culture studios picked up shop and moved to Moscow.And, he says, removing the importance of the Russian-based media could help with Ukraine's drastic culture shift."Film and storytelling, as much as it irks me — because I'm not a communist — [Antonio] Gramsci was right: it's culture, culture, culture."Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling