ECMI Minorities Blog. National Minority Media and Work of Minority Journalists in the Time of the War of Aggression against Ukraine
*** This entry is part of the special section of the ECMI Minorities Blog on National Minorities and the War in Ukraine. ***
Author: Kateryna Haertel | https://doi.org/10.53779/KJKJ7575
* Kateryna Haertel is a political analyst in the fields of conflict prevention, civil society empowerment, and democracy promotion. She has worked on minority and human rights issues with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Her research interests relate to specifics of minority politics and diversity management in the post-Soviet region. She is currently affiliated with a Berlin-based NGO DRA e.V. where she leads the advocacy portfolio of the international civil society platform CivilMPlus.
In this piece, the author aims at providing an overview of the situation of minority media in Ukraine during the first six months of the full-scale war. The entry discusses the most noticeable changes for minority media: the immediate impacts of the war on the work of minority journalists, the content produced, and the share of content in minority languages. In addition, various technical and logistical factors that affect, mostly in a negative way, the work of minority media are presented. The text is based on the findings from the author’s interviews with eight editors and reporters (in some instances, one interviewee fulfils both roles) affiliated with different Ukrainian minority media outlets. The latter are traditionally oriented at a minority viewer or reader by covering developments within minority communities (or wider regions that a minority group may affiliate with) or with direct relevance to them, and regularly disseminate materials in a minority language. Considering that compact settlements of these ethnic minorities are often located in Ukraine’s regions, the media outlets under scrutiny represent the regional branches of the national public broadcaster, printed media with regional outreach, or digital media outlets. It is important to mention that having well-established and well-functioning minority media in Ukraine, as a country undergoing external aggression, is beneficial for both the minorities and wider society. Through such media, persons belonging to minority communities are informed about the up-to-date political situation. Moreover, minority media can play a unique role when it comes to exposing fake news and propaganda spread in minority languages by the aggressor. Therefore, minority media should remain operational and additional measures should be introduced to support the work of minority journalists in wartime. The key observation in the framework of this research indicates the contrary tendency: the war has challenged the work of minority journalists and led to the narrowing of the operational space for minority media in Ukraine.
Minority journalists: impacts of the war and efforts of countering propaganda
Minority media would not exist if it were not for minority journalists. It is important to note that those informants consulted by the author were based in the capital Kyiv, as well as central, western, and south-western regions of the country. In terms of their security, none reported working ‘under direct fire’, but admitted that regular activation of the security alarms was one of the main reasons for the accumulation of psychological pressure and tiredness. One minority editor from the public broadcaster formulated it in the following way: “we feel psychological pressure from the activation of sirens, which mean the threat of rocket fire, and from the awareness of a full-scale war in the country.”
In terms of the availability of minority journalists, cases of the minority reporters’ displacement abroad, often to kin-states, have been reported by the editors of several minority media outlets. Surprisingly, such displacement of staff does not seem to hinder the outlets’ immediate work: the majority of reporters continue producing coverage remotely. At the same time, there is a reasonable apprehension on the side of the editors that losing their displaced staff sooner or later is very likely. This fear is justified by the significant decrease in advertising revenues faced by private media outlets since the beginning of the war. “The sale of the trans-border advertisement used to be our main income source. Many of such offers originated from customers from the neighbouring states willing to invest in the region,” explains the founder of a digital minority outlet from Chernivtsi. The same interlocutor adds that the majority of the ads circulated by his media in the last months is of social significance and is thus placed on a pro bono basis.
In terms of the minority reporters’ contribution to countering war-related propaganda, many of those consulted produce political coverage that is further disseminated beyond Ukraine. Just to give one example, a journalist delivering daily news at one of the regional radio channels in the Romanian language confirmed that the recordings are re-broadcasted by five Romanian-speaking radio stations in two neighbouring countries (four in Romania and one in Hungary). Some reporters informed they were engaged into extra-media projects, mostly funded by international donors, that specifically aimed at exposing war-connected fakes disseminated in minority languages. Hence, it is clear minority reporters are valuable assets not only for media in Ukraine, but also when it comes to exposing disinformation in foreign media spaces. The added value of minority journalists in contributing to counteracting the information warfare is obvious: they can operate in languages usually not spoken by a mainstream Ukrainian reporter. Thus, the stronger the encouragement provided to minority journalists to maintain their work in wartime, the higher the chances that the results of their work will help to resist information warfare internationally.
Scarcer reporting about ethnic communities’ lives
It goes without saying that the war has changed the political and societal agendas in the country. By examining coverage in minority media of the last several months, noticeable content-related differences can be observed. The key finding is that the share of reporting about Ukraine-wide developments (i.e. updates from the frontline, political news from the capital, or foreign policy issues with reference to the situation in Ukraine) features more prominently and, in some cases, dominates the regional news. Subsequently, this leads to a decrease in coverage about life in the ethnic communities. The tendency is true for all scrutinized media outlets; the exact ratios can differ, though. For example, the chief editor of the digital media outlet producing content in the Romanian language describes the new ratio as 80% for all-Ukrainian news and 20% for regional (before the war, the proportions were vice versa). In the case of several printed newspapers operating in the same language, a similar tendency but different ratios were reported: 50% for the national news, as compared to 20% before, and 50% for regional news, as compared to 70-80% earlier. The scarcer content on minorities is also interlinked with the long-standing approach of reporting about minorities through the cultural lens. For the obvious reasons, many cultural associations representing minorities have re-profiled into humanitarian hubs (you can read more about this here). As a result, there are fewer cultural events and minority journalists seem to be uncertain about the new spectrum of relevant topics. In addition, reaching minority settlements has become more complex. There is a nationwide shortage of fuel caused by the war, which affects the journalists’ operational abilities. To sum up, reporting about minorities has become scarcer due to both content-specific and technical factors. Overcoming the issue of logistics may be partially achieved by sub-contracting some assignments to community-based assistants. It may be more challenging, though, to identify a new thematic angle of reporting.
Reduced broadcasting in minority languages via the public broadcaster
(on the example of the situation in the Zakarpattia region)
The public institution’s guidelines for minority broadcasting were developed several years ago, in consultations with minority activists and experts. This strategy document declares the public broadcaster’s commitment to maintaining broadcasting in minority languages at the regional level. In Zakarpattia, limited airtime for broadcasting in the Romanian, Hungarian, Rusyn, Slovak, German, and Roma languages had been in place on a weekly basis. The content produced has usually included news and updates about the community life. Since the beginning of the war, broadcasting in the minority languages has been put ‘on pause’. The latter does not mean, though, that minority reporters have stopped working: they continue releasing coverage, but re-oriented towards content in the state language. There is no one clear explanation for this change. Moreover, at the time of writing, no official document or guideline revealing the conceptual approach sealed in the public broadcaster’s minority broadcasting strategy has been identified.
Though, in private conversations with the author, minority reporters share the assumptions that disseminating coverage in minority languages may not be viewed (by their management) as a task of the highest priority due to the current security situation. In addition, journalists report that, since February 2022, the public broadcaster had undergone some change in the broadcasting schedule. At the very beginning of the war, the public media outlet had streamed a non-stop nation-wide news marathon, a media collaboration of several TV channels. Later, the outlet launched its own inter-regional news marathon. The latter broadcasts in the state language and relies on the contributions of minority reporters too.
It is not yet clear what exactly has hindered the pre-war production of content in minority languages or its integration into the ongoing marathon. As in the case of the TV journal “Ethno Vision”, released before the war in several minority languages, there is only a brief reference provided: “after 24th February 2022, temporarily not broadcasted”. Overall, minority reporters expressed pessimism as per the likelihood of the resumption of the pre-war amount of broadcasting in minority languages. This is due to the political and security context they operate in. At the same time, the author’s interlocutors report that short daily slots in two (Hungarian and Romanian) out of the six mentioned minority languages have been introduced via the regional radio channel of the public broadcaster. The choice of languages may be connected to the two selected minorities being the most numerous in the region. Such a prioritization can also be viewed as an attempt to balance the situation with the existing media coverage in minority languages accessed on the regional level. The majority of such content is produced by media of the kin-states and does not always spread war-connected narratives that reflect the official position of the state of Ukraine. Therefore, there should be an understanding on the institutional side of the importance of maintaining information outreach to at least some minority communities. Additional formats for broadcasting in minority languages are to be identified. One of the ways would be to continue this work on a personal level: to produce and spread footage in minority languages through reporters’ social media channels or those of the cultural associations representing minorities. This, of course, cannot be a long-term solution.
Other technical and logistical factors hindering work of minority media
As mentioned above, the lack of fuel in the country has seriously affected the ability of minority journalists, who represent different types of media, to collect information and record footage in the compact minority settlement areas. Additionally, as reported by those working for print media, maintaining the pre-war number of readers has become more difficult. The latter is connected to the higher production costs and, consequently, the increase of the subscription fees for the printed issues. The chief editors of several regional minority newspapers indicated that subscriptions had gone down by 20-25% when comparing the figures of the first and second halves of the year. Poor delivery services by the national post service “Ukrposhta” were also mentioned among the factors discouraging readers to continue their subscriptions. Delivery delays or losses of newspapers have been reported as more frequent in the last several months. In this regard, several interlocutors representing print media spoke about the urgency of diversifying their distribution channels. One of the ways to achieve a wider outreach would be via the digitalization of their issues. Due to significant loss in advertising revenues by all of the consulted private media outlets, maintaining premises and remunerating work of journalists has become more challenging too. In some cases, minority reporters continue working on a pro bono basis, but have to diversify their sources of income, including beyond the media sphere. This certainly creates a fear of losing staff once they find better job offers. It was also brought to the attention of the author that relying on funding from the kin-states had become riskier: supporting humanitarian projects is considered of a higher priority by donors from kin-states than the media ones.
The obstacles faced by minority media are diverse, from the content-specific to the logistical and technical. The situation of minority reporters has also become more vulnerable – some have fled the war abroad and have been forced to look for additional sources of income. Hopefully, the ‘pause’ in minority broadcasting will not lead to the end of minority broadcasting in Ukraine. Functionable informational channels in minority languages are instrumental in preserving minorities’ collective identities. To maintain the normal modus operandi of minority media and minority journalists is essential for keeping spirits within the communities up during wartime. Producing media coverage in minority languages is also important for strengthening the informational resilience of the diverse regions, as the ongoing war takes place in the media space too. To mitigate negative effects of the war on minority media and those enabling it, there needs to be more encouragement and support coming from the Ukrainian state, local authorities, and international donors. There is also an urgent need for supporting the digitalization of minority media.
This blog post was prepared by the author in their personal capacity. The views expressed in this blog post are the sole responsibility of the author concerned and do not reflect the view of the European Centre for Minority Issues.