Fight for the mind: what did the government do in the sphere of culture and media since February 24th
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Fight for the mind: what did the government do in the sphere of culture and media since February 24th

Photo: ua.depositphotos.com / Aztart
19 September 2022
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VoxUkraine collects and analyses legislation that has been adopted by the Ukrainian government (in the broad sense – Parliament, President, Cabinet of Ministers) since February 24th. In this article we analyze legislative acts related to the media and cultural sphere.

Since the start of the full-scale war the government has taken steps for the protection of Ukrainian media sphere (both technical aspects and content), support of Ukrainian music and books and the preservation of Ukrainian cultural heritage (although the latter was addressed too late). The full-scale war made it clear to the majority that Ukraine has to build a mental barrier between itself and the aggressor. The first steps have been made but it’s important to complete the linguistic and cultural decolonization.

The world in our head – the system of knowledge, beliefs and habits – is no less important than the reality. In fact, sometimes it is even more important: thus, Putin “justified” Russian invasion into Ukraine by a bunch of historical myths and crazy lies distributed by Russian propaganda. While in Ukraine many people believed that culture and language were less important than paved roads or high salaries, Russian occupants have clearly shown that language and culture are the most important: in the temporarily occupied territories Russians immediately burn Ukrainian books, introduce Russian school program, replace road signs and reinstall Lenin monuments. As of August 11th, they destroyed or damaged 139 objects of cultural heritage and stole priceless collections from museums in the occupied Mariupol and Melitopol.

Russian propaganda was active for many years or even decades implanting into the heads of Ukrainians as well as other nations that “Ukraine is a failed state”, “Ukrainians and Russians are the same people”, “Ukrainians are Nazis” and many other false and often contradictory narratives. 

Until recently, the propaganda of the “Russian world” was very active in Ukraine. The only visible counteraction to it was the sanctioning and closure in early 2021 of three TV channels controlled by Victor Medvedchuk, a long-term active promoter of Russian interests in Ukraine. However, “talking heads” from those channels were soon employed by other major media, where they continued to promote the same narratives, inviting pro-Russian politicians or Russian “experts” into their talk shows keeping Ukraine in the common media space with Russia. This “common space” was actively supported by showbiz (singers, actors, sportsmen etc.) under the narrative that “arts & sports is outside of politics” (although these are the main soft power instruments very effectively used by Russia).

With the start of the full-scale invasion on February 24th Russian propaganda intensified. What did the Ukrainian government do to protect our cultural and information sphere from Russian influence? In this article we consider the respective legislative acts and provide some context.

Supporting Ukrainian culture

Russian market is much larger than Ukrainian one – simply because Russia has 145 million people vs 41 million in Ukraine. Thus, due to economies of scale, it is much cheaper to publish a book in Russian than in Ukrainian. The same concerns music, movies, TV shows etc. Therefore, Ukrainian cultural products need the support of taxpayers as well as non-monetary government support, such as TV and radio quotas. 

In spring, the parliament canceled VAT for audiobooks in Ukrainian language and adopted the law supporting printed books. The latter foresees creation of an electronic catalog that will include all editions available on the market. Only the books from this catalog will be purchased for libraries. Moreover, the state will translate into other languages and promote abroad the books of Ukrainian authors that adhere to the “European canon” (these books will be selected by the International expert council created by the Ministry of Culture).

In addition, the state will provide subsidies to bookstores to cover their rent (to be eligible for the subsidy, a store should mainly sell books in Ukrainian and languages of other indigenous people of Ukraine or the EU languages). Finally, the Ukrainian Book Institute will provide certificates for purchase of books – together with birth certificate and passport (thus, a person is entitled to two state-sponsored books). The value of a certificate is 0.3 of subsistence level (today that would be UAH 776.7).

Another important law that will come into force on October 7th 2022, prohibits publicly playing music produced by citizens of Russia, except for those citizens that submit to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) a declaration condemning Russian aggression and thus are included into the SBU list of artists allowed to perform in Ukraine. Moreover, bus and taxi drivers are prohibited from playing music in their vehicles without the consent of all the passengers. This will considerably reduce the sound pollution of Ukrainian public space.

The law defines the “national musical product” (songs, clips etc. that are produced in Ukrainian or in other languages of indigenous people of Ukraine and either by Ukrainian citizens or non-citizens who legally stay in Ukraine) and allows Ukrainian Cultural Fund to support these products with grants. It also raises the Ukrainian-language quotas on radio – from 35% to 40% for songs and from 60% to 75% for the “talking” broadcasts (news, analytics, entertainment etc). National product quotas for TV broadcasts remain unchanged at 50%. For TV broadcasters who specialize in children’s products the national product quota is 25% if they broadcast in Ukrainian. And those broadcasters that disseminate as is foreign (except for Russian) audiovisual products that do not violate Ukrainian law and the European convention on transfrontier television don’t have to observe the 50% national product quota if their broadcast is in Ukrainian. 

Crowdfunding: United24 initiative

Winning the war is the top priority today, thus the government directs its (now much smaller) revenues in the first turn to defense and then to social security. It relies on the support of volunteers and foreign governments for many other expenses.

In April the government created a specialized fund – United24 – to collect charitable contributions for the support of Ukrainian army and other Ukrainian causes (a bit later Ukraine launched the respective brand, and now the Ministry of Digital Transformation is responsible for promotion of this brand and the fund outside Ukraine). 

Initially, the fund collected money for only four causes: the Army (Ministry of Defense), restoration of ruined infrastructure and housing (Ministry of Infrastructure and Ministry of Regional Development), support of Ukrainian healthcare system (Ministry of Health) and humanitarian support (Ministry of Social Policy). However, later the list of causes and beneficiaries was extended. Now, among others, it includes the Ministry of Culture – it has a special account for the support of arts, museums, media etc. CMU allowed the Ministry to spend this money not only for maintaining cultural institutions or historical sites but also for evacuation or securing (i.e. protecting from shelling) of cultural objects, as well as for renovation of objects damaged or destroyed by Russian attacks. The Ministry of Culture is also allowed to spend this money on creation of electronic registries and software needed for the support of culture, arts and media.

In March CMU allowed to spend budget funds for international cultural events in order to raise money for protection of Ukrainian cultural heritage during the war. In June it redistributed UAH 12.8 million from financing of the public TV company (Suspilne) to the support of museums, libraries, and architectural heritage.  

Getting rid of Russian narratives and their promoters

Russia invested a lot of money and effort into keeping Ukraine and other former USSR countries in the common information space. A cornerstone of this “common space” is the “Great Patriotic War” myth that replaces World War II history in the “Russian world”. This myth presents Russia as the sole winner over the Nazi Germany and conceals the fact that World War II was launched by Hitler and Stalin together. 

Unfortunately, Russia used to have many influential political agents in Ukraine who promoted such myths and questioned the existence of the Ukrainian state. Thus, the following legal decisions are long overdue.

In June 2022 Ukraine exited the agreement with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) on commemoration of the heroism of peoples of the CIS countries in the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945). 

Ukraine continues to review its agreements with Russia and Belarus, gradually denouncing those which are no longer working anyway. 

Soon after the full-scale invasion Ukrainian parliament adopted several laws that recognize Russia a terrorist state and prohibit propaganda and glorification of Russia’s nazi totalitarian regime and symbols of its military invasion into Ukraine. These laws introduce or strengthen criminal responsibility for denying Russia’s aggression (e.g. calling it a “civil war”), defaming  the Ukrainian army or praising occupants. This is prohibited not only for media or civil society organizations but also for political parties. 

Therefore, the activity of 11 pro-Russian parties was suspended by the decision of the Security and Defense Council until the end of martial law. The faction of Opposition Bloc – for Life, the only pro-Russian party that made it to the Ukrainian parliament, had to dissolve itself (23 MPs from this party who are still in the parliament formed an MP group under a different name, 11 MPs now don’t belong to any faction, and the remaining 9 fled and/or lost their mandates).

While the anti-propaganda laws provide the ground for banning pro-Russian political parties, another piece of legislation established the algorithm for court decisions on this ban, and the Cabinet of Ministers developed the procedure for confiscation of assets of a banned party (in June Opposition Bloc – for Life was banned by the court). Hopefully this legislation will finally clear Ukraine from pro-Russian parties.

The full-scale war provided a new impetus to the discussions (and actions) on getting rid of imperial stains on the Ukrainian map – names of the streets or villages, monuments to Soviet soldiers, Russian/Soviet writers or composers etc. These decisions are made by local governments who respond to people’s demands. Thus, in August Kyiv city council renamed 95 streets of nearly 300 recommended by the expert commission and supported by popular voting.

The parliament introduced the new holiday on July 28th – the day of Ukrainian statehood. Previously this date was commemorated as the date of the Baptism of Rus, the medieval Ukrainian state (this date was chosen somewhat arbitrarily since Baptism was a process that lasted in the territory of Ukraine during IX-XI centuries). However, since it was used by Russia to promote its “historic unity” with Ukraine, this holiday was replaced.

Sanctioning Russian “kulturträgers”

Sanctions were routinely applied since 2014 to those Russian and other foreign citizens who supported Russian aggression, including visiting occupied Crimea violating Ukrainian procedures for such visits. Among other, sanctions were applied to Russian propaganda workers (e.g. in 2017 to Ernst, the director of Russia’s First Channel, and to Simonyan, the director of Russia Today, and many others).

Since February 24th the Cabinet of Ministries submitted to the Security and Defense Council (that adopts decisions on sanctions which then are enacted by President’s Decrees) proposals about sanctions on Russian propaganda workers, media managers and media companies; Russian actors, singers and other showbiz people; on people who organized concerts and sports events in Crimea in 2021, as well as on Russian “black archeologists” and individuals and organizations that destroyed archives in Crimea and in occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. At the moment of writing the Security and Defense Council has not yet applied sanctions to these people and legal entities. The list of sanctioned showbiz people is maintained by the Ministry of Culture but starting October 2022 this function will be transferred to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU).

Commemorating Ukrainian heroes

The parliament adopted the law on creation of a National Military Memorial Cemetery (the law foresees that the place for this cemetery should be defined through a social discussion, however, during the martial law it will be defined without such a discussion). 

The Cabinet of Ministers (CMU) defined measures for organizing exhibitions of captured Russian weapons as well as for heroization of Ukrainian war veterans and commemoration of those who were killed in the war. 

Reorganizing archives

The CMU added a new function to the functions of the State Archive Service – supporting the sustainable operations of state archives during the war time. In addition, the State Archive Service has to merge the Central archive of CSOs and Central archive of foreing Ukrainians into the Central archive of CSOs and Ukrainians; and also merge the Central state cinema and photo archive named after G.Pshenychnyi and Central state electronic archive into the Central state audiovisual and electronic archive. This CMU decision is titled “on optimisation of archives”. Perhaps it is aimed at reducing administrative expenses (although there can be some other aims of this decision). 

Anyway, this decision did not cause a scandal, unlike an order of the State Cinema Agency to transfer the cinema archive collection from the State Cinema Archive Dovzhenko-center to some non-operational state enterprise. After a public backlash the respective parliamentary committee advised the Cinema Agency to cancel their order.

Strengthening Ukrainian information space

On February 23rd the Parliament of Ukraine sent to foreign parliaments, governments, and international organizations a statement condemning Russia’s “recognition of independence” of occupied territories of Ukraine, calling for introduction of more sanctions on Russia and providing military support to Ukraine. These messages of Ukrainians to the international audience remain unchanged. However, both the Ukrainian and international audience needs information on the situation in the frontline. When providing this information, one has to strike a balance between informing the society and distracting the enemy.

On March 3rd the Ministry of Defense issued an order defining algorithms for its cooperation with the media. And in July the parliament obliged the media to provide journalists who go to frontlines or occupied territories with protective gear, medical kits and insurance. During martial law and 30 days after it foreign journalists accredited in Ukraine are allowed to stay longer than 3 months (the usual term for which foreigners may live in Ukraine without a special permission).

The Security and Defense Council decided on March 18 that the priority task for the national defense is uniting all the countrywide news channels into one information marathon “United news”. Simultaneously the Council brought the provider of digital television Zeonbud under government control (under the state-owned enterprise RRT, an operator of TV, radio and satellite connection) to ensure broadcasting of this united marathon.

The united marathon was launched in the morning of February 24th and still runs today. The marathon is produced by one public, one state-owned and three private TV companies (before July 21st there were four private companies but on July 11th Rinat Akhmetov transferred his media licenses to the state citing adherence to the anti-oligarch law).

This united marathon is not flawless. It employs many “talking heads” from Medvedchuk channels who for years proliferated hostile to Ukraine narratives. However strange it may sound, these people have the support of the Minister of culture and information policy. 

On April 4th RRT excluded three channels related to Petro Poroshenko from its digital network, although they broadcasted the United marathon for 12 hours a day. No clear explanation for this decision was provided.

Reaching out to Russian speakers

In March 2022 the government transferred the TV channel Dom created for broadcasting to the occupied territories from the Ministry of Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories (to which it was transferred in January 2021) back to the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy. Perhaps the Ministry of Culture is a more natural candidate for managing this media asset. The Ministry of Reintegration is running the Re-Inform agency created in January 2022. In May TV channel Dom received UAH 165 mln from the state budget for the Russian-language project (channel) FREEDOM (content for it is produced by the same three oligarch channels). In July CMU provided UAH 80 million to the Ministry of Culture for creation and promotion of media content related to protection of the national information sphere and counteracting Russian aggression. 

Recently the parliament adopted in the first reading the new draft law “On media” that should replace a number of outdated laws and embed some of the EU legislation. The details of this law are discussed in a separate article.

Tightening control over providers of telecom services

To strengthen its control over communication networks, the government defined the Service of Special Connection and Information Protection as the central government agency responsible for electronic communications during the martial law and 6 months afterwards. After that these functions will return to the Ministry of Digital Transformation. The CMU also obliged the suppliers of electronic networks or services (e.g. internet providers) to implement the orders of the National Centre for Operational and Technical Management of Electronic Communication Networks of Ukraine during the martial law (except for networks used by TV and radio broadcasters that are subordinate to the National TV and Radio Council). If they fail to obey, their licenses will be recalled for no less than a year.

At the same time, CMU canceled payments for services of the National Telecommunications Network during the martial law and 3 months afterwards (previously only specific users, such as the government, could use this network free of charge).

The parliament suspended enacting of the law “On electronic communications” for one year – until July 1st 2023 (when enacted, this law will simplify licensing for telecom operators, strengthen the regulator and consumer protection). And the Cabinet of Ministers introduced a number of changes to the use of radio-frequencies.

Miscellaneous

CMU agreed to create a natural park in the former Yanukovych residence “Mezhyhirya” transferring its land to the state (for years there were court proceedings related to the status of this residence). 

The parliament strengthened protection of children from sexual abuse: it added creation and sharing of a child’s image in a sexualized or erotic setting to other prohibited actions.

All the procedures related to intellectual property rights (such as obtaining patents) are frozen during the martial law; their consideration will be renewed after the martial law is lifted. If patents or intellectual rights expire during the martial law, they are automatically prolonged until the end of the martial law.

Conclusions

The full-scale Russian aggression underlined the importance of language and culture as key features of the national identity. Thus, the Ukrainian government started to take long-awaited steps for their protection. Supporting Ukrainian music, books, prohibition of pro-Russian political parties are all big steps away from the “Russian world”. 

Unfortunately, this cannot be said about the United TV marathon that continues to feature people who for years proliferated Russian narratives in Ukraine. Monopolization of TV by the government is worrying – although one can justify it by the war time, the attempts to do this were observed well before the full-scale invasion. Given the general weakness of Ukrainian institutions, independent media, together with civil society organizations, have played an important role in the system of checks and balances, and thus should not be undermined.  

So far, Ukraine has been sluggish in applying sanctions to Russian media, opinion leaders and showbiz people, although these are very active promoters of the “Russian world”. If Ukraine wants other countries to limit Russian cultural expansion, it should take the lead – enacting the sanction lists already prepared by the Cabinet of Ministers as the first step.

Authors

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The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations