August 1, 2018  |  Updated August 1, 2018

#PackofLies Trying to Stop the Unstoppable: Ukrainians Fight Back Against Russian Disinformation

By Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis

The attention that the Kremlin pays to Ukraine’s infosphere has reached a surprising scale. Anti-Ukrainian, anti-Western, and anti-democratic content has been widely spread since 2013. Hostile propaganda is being churned out not only on the news programmes, but also in the movies, books, and music. It is good to see that Ukraine’s civil society has mobilized to tackle this multi-layered problem immediately after it started. From the establishment of the Ministry of Information Policy to various civic initiatives aimed at fostering media literacy, the government is devoting more and more effort to minimize Russian influence. While some of these initiatives have proved to be productive, some of them appear to raise more general problematic questions.

One such example is a law adopted in 2014 that prohibits broadcasting TV channels that spread propaganda and cause tensions in Ukraine. 14 Russian channels were cancelled in the beginning (RTR-Planeta, NTV, Russia-24, Zvezda, Ren TV etc.), later the list was extended. Even the channel Dozhd, which is considered one of last remaining opposition platforms in Russia and is therefore blocked, was eventually prohibited in Ukraine because it presented Crimean peninsula as part of Russia in their news reports.

The language question has also been raised. The research has shown that the music played on Ukrainian radio stations was mostly Russian and the Ukrainian music took up only 8-12% of air time until 2014. The Kremlin used both pop music and the artists touring in Ukraine to broadcast their propaganda. That is why a quota on Ukrainian language on radio was introduced. This soundly improved the popularity and production rates of Ukrainian music.

Nevertheless, Ukrainians eventually realized that it is not only the language that can have a negative effect: the content of the news and cultural production can be even more harmful. That is why Ukrainian Rada passed a law outlawing the public display (on television or at cinema) of films, which were:

  1. Made in Russia after 2013
  2. Celebrated Russian version of history or its foreign policy, contained propagandistic elements

This legislation was passed in order to limit the dissemination of pro-Kremlin propaganda, as the 2014 research showed that Russian movies made up to 1/6 of the national television channels’ schedules. Ukraine’s channel broadcasted Russian content, which was openly or subtly spreading Kremlin’s propaganda, for 7.5 hours a day on average. Films and TV shows that glorified Russian security services and the police were a hit. For example, “Ulitsy razbityh fonarey” (Streets of Broken Lights), “Uboynaya sila” (Destructive Force), “Glukhar” (The Unexamined Case), and others.

Not only did the government’s decision to ban this kind of content reduce the broadcast time of Russian films down to 2.1 hours in 2015, but the sudden content deficit also prompted televisions to invest in Ukrainian films. This has empowered Ukrainian creators. More Turkish, American, and European films were given more air time as well.

These decisions, however, have not fully solved the problem and caused dissatisfaction for some of Ukraine’s social groups. For example, as the television channels in Ukraine have sensed a remarkable growth in expenses, some of them have started looking for ways to evade the bans in order to come back to broadcasting Russian production. One of the easiest ways to do that is to change the date of creation and/ or to get rid of Russian symbolism. Also, the procedure of regulating the quotas on radio and television is a complicated matter.

Even though these problems have not been solved yet, here are the lessons learnt:

  1. A ban is only a short-term solution. In the age of information there are no bans that solve the problem, because the information and content are easily accessible on the Internet where regulations are not as effective. Also, bans like these partially limit the possibility of a dialogue between the Ukrainian government and the Russian speaking citizens of Ukraine, especially in Eastern Ukraine. It is necessary to look for ways to reach these citizens and to provide alternative information sources in the Russian language.
  2. The dependence on the import of media content from one country has to be considered a threat to national security.
  3. It is important to ensure that the bans and regulations do not violate the freedom of speech.

The text is part of the project which is aimed at strengthening democracy and civil society as well as fostering closer ties with the EU Eastern Partnership countries (Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia) by spreading independent information with the help of contemporary solutions. The project is implemented by Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis. It is financed as part of Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs‘ Development Cooperation and Democracy Promotion Programme.

This article was originally published by the Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis.

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