‘Death to the enemy’: Ukraine’s news channels unite to cover war

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Bernat Armangué/AP</span>
Photograph: Bernat Armangué/AP

In an age of social media and satellite television, the singular wartime news bulletin evokes images of families tuning in to the radio during the second world war. But in Ukraine, the state-backed broadcast has remerged, albeit with a 21st-century spin.

Shortly after Russia invaded, the country’s main TV channels started broadcasting the same content 24 hours a day, nicknamed the United News telemarathon. Each channel has a daily slot on the broadcast, which is shown simultaneously on all the channels.

United News was initially aired by five channels owned by various Ukrainian oligarchs as well as the publicly owned channels. It has since been signed into law and now includes all Ukrainian channels that used to show news.

The head of Ukraine’s parliamentary broadcasting committee said he believed the arrangement should continue until the war ends.

While some say there are critical strategic justifications for the telemarathon, others argue that it amounts to a monopoly of the information space by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s team and could be exploited for political purposes.

“The telemarathon is the information war equivalent of our anti-aircraft systems and I think it’s the most optimal option for Ukraine right now,” said Svitlana Ostapa, the deputy head of Detector Media, a media monitoring organisation that tracks propaganda, disinformation and political interference in Ukraine. “It helps protect Ukrainians from Russian fakes and prevents panic among the population.

In 2014, Russian propagandists and their allies released a barrage of disinformation about the Maidan revolution, Crimea and events in eastern Ukraine that experts said worked to destabilise the country.

There are also more practical reasons for the channels working together. “Most of the journalists left Kyiv and the channels simply could not cope individually,” Ostapa said. “The top ministers and officials do not have the time to comment to more than half a dozen channels, and this format means they are communicating with the population once a day and not being seen to favour one channel.”

The language used by Ukraine’s TV presenters has changed dramatically, reflecting usage among the wider population. Russian soldiers are often called “occupiers”, “terrorists”, “orcs” and “Rashists” – a combination of the words Russian and fascist.

Guests are welcomed with the greeting “Glory to Ukraine!”, to which they answer “Glory to the heroes!”. The famous words of a Ukrainian soldier tasked with defending Snake Island in the Black Sea, who was recorded over the military radio saying “Russian ship go fuck yourself”, are mentioned without the swearword being censored, and the presenters regularly end their segments with “Death to the enemy!”, a historic Ukrainian wartime slogan.

The 24-hour wartime news focuses on the Ukrainian military’s victories, its defence of Ukraine’s frontlines and Russia’s war crimes. The abrupt collapse of Ukraine’s economy in February means there is almost no advertising. Commercial breaks advertise hotlines for finding missing loved ones and reporting war crimes, as well as videos produced by normal Ukrainians, the Ukrainian army press service and the presidential office about the resistance of Ukrainian soldiers and citizens.

Ostapa said the language and messaging were discussed in editorial meetings between all the channels involved, the culture ministry and the national broadcasting council, and there was now a move to ban slogans containing swearwords. The overarching editorial message of the telemarathon is Ukrainian resistance in the face of Russian brutality, Ostapa wrote in one her analysis pieces.

The TV channel heads have rejected accusations that the authorities dictate the content, saying dialogue with officials includes things such as censoring information that reveals Ukrainian military positions. And since May, Ukrainians looking for an alternative to news can tune in to other channels that show films and cartoons about good winning out against evil.

But some see the unified TV coverage as propagandistic and point to the fact that airtime is now almost exclusively given to people close to the president, including regular comedy sketches by the president’s former comic colleagues.

“The telemarathon is an attempt by the presidential office to gain even greater control over the information space,” said Aksenyia Kurina, a journalist and campaigner who has spent her career focusing on censorship in Ukraine. “We may soon find ourselves in a heavily censored information space.”

Zelenskiy won the 2019 Ukrainian presidential election with more than 70% of the vote, thanks in large part, said Kurina, to his innovative digital campaign. Zelenskiy’s party also controls Ukraine’s parliament.

Though Ukraine’s media have celebrated a marked change in their president since the invasion, Zelenskiy was on terse terms with some journalists before the war. He was known to publicly display disdain towards journalists who asked critical questions, and his press service ostracised some reporters for critical coverage.

“The telemarathon does not reflect reality, it forms a picture that the authorities would like to see. This is dangerous, because at some point the authorities may begin to believe in their own propaganda,” said Kurina. “I understand that many journalists are not able to cope with their emotions at the moment, for many this is a personal traumatic experience, but it is important to remember professional ethics and not to allow hate speech.”

Notably, three channels owned by Ukraine’s former president Petro Poroshenko and that are close to his associates have not been given slots and therefore do not contribute to the telemarathon’s content or editorial meetings. Poroshenko was charged with treason after Zelenskiy came to power, a case that the former president says is politically motivated.

At first, Poroshenko’s channels split their coverage 50-50 between the telemarathon and their own content. But since in mid-March all channels – except for those dedicated to light entertainment – are obliged to stream the telemarathon.

The head of one of Poroshenko’s channels has said that despite their appeals to be included, they are still waiting to hear from the authorities.

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