One of the war-time projects most treasured by the Ukrainian government is Ukraine's TV marathon – a united news programming produced by the country's biggest media outlets altogether, which broadcasts 24/7 on all major Ukrainian TV channels.
Branded as "United News," the TV marathon was launched at the very beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion to combat Russian disinformation and keep Ukraine's morale high.
"Telemarathon is a weapon. It's a united information space. It works for Ukraine and against Russia," President Volodymyr Zelensky said in January, 11 months after it was introduced.
The president and his team have made it clear they consider the TV marathon a success and have no plans of shutting it down. However, the marathon’s quality and independence have been questioned both by observers and the public.
Ratings have been decreasing, too. A study done by Ukrainian Institute for the Future in August of 2023 found that 37% of Ukrainians occasionally watch the state-led TV marathon. In November 2021, three months before the full-scale war, TV was the primary source of information for 57% of Ukrainians.
"Involuntarily, there arises an assumption that Zelensky's team simply wants to maintain control (over television) as long as possible for purely political reasons," media expert Otar Dovzhenko told the Kyiv Independent.
"If this (control) was the purpose of creating and continuing the marathon, then it is mega-successful — there are almost no other sources of news in the television space, there is no pluralism of opinions, and, accordingly, Zelensky's competitors will have no chance," said Dovzhenko, who until recently was a contributing editor at the media monitoring organization Detector Media.
How it works
The idea of a TV marathon was first brought up on Feb. 16, 2022, as Western intelligence agencies were sounding the alarm that an all-out war was coming. A few days before, U.S. President Joe Biden told allies that Feb. 16 was predicted to be the invasion day, according to Politico.
In an attempt to keep panic at bay and morale high, Zelensky officially proclaimed Feb. 16 as the "Day of Unity." In turn, Ukraine's Minister of Culture and Information Policy, Oleksandr Tkachenko, announced "an interesting telemarathon… (when) all the country's TV channels will basically stream one news program."
For seven hours a day on Feb. 16, various speakers, including government representatives, spoke "on the topic of unity."
On Feb. 24, when Russia launched its full-scale war against Ukraine, everything was set to merge all TV broadcasting into one.
Ukrainian biggest, oligarch-owned media companies – 1+1 Media Group, StarLight Media, and Inter Media Group, which run 24 TV channels altogether – came together to create "Yedyni Novyny" ("United News"), a TV marathon with multiple-hour slots for each media company to fill, streamed on all Ukraine's most watched TV channels.
As of August, the marathon includes nine TV channels – previously the biggest and most-watched ones in the country.
Eventually, Media Group Ukraine also joined the marathon. A newly created channel, We – Ukraine, joined in November. Rada TV channel, the official channel of the Ukrainian government, also contributes to the TV marathon.
Besides the TV marathon, there is a similar Russian-language initiative called "FreeDom," for which the government utilized the state-owned foreign-language TV operation.
The Russian language channel's goal is said to be battling Russian propaganda by streaming on Russia-occupied territories and inside Russia itself. There's no independent confirmation that the channel is watched in the occupied territories or Russia.
Although each channel works independently to fill its allocated six-hour time slot, there are meetings between key managers to coordinate general themes.
The main idea behind the joint broadcast was to stream a single version of the news, based on official government sources, 24-hours-a-day, to curb the spread of Russian disinformation.
In March 2022, Zelensky signed off on the decision of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, which said "the implementation of a unified information policy" was an issue of national security.
In that decision, the council called the TV marathon "a platform of strategic communications" implemented to combat Russian disinformation.
However, criticisms regarding censorship quickly arose.
Days after the decision was published, Ukrainian human rights activists and lawyers published an open letter to the government, calling the council's decision "disproportionate."
"Pluralism does not harm during the war," said the signees, including the Kharkiv Human Rights Group, the Ukrainian Helsinki Union for Human Rights, and the Center for Civil Liberties.
"It seems fundamentally important to preserve it because in peacetime, it is the basis of developed societies, and it is simply impossible to overestimate (pluralism's) benefits," the address said.
The address also asked the government "to refrain from forcing channels to broadcast the TV marathon… from significant restrictions on freedom of speech."
Soon, channels linked to former President Petro Poroshenko – 5 Channel, Priamyi, and Espresso – were excluded from the broadcast.
5 Channel and Priamyi used to be owned by Poroshenko himself until he said he transferred the rights to the channel's employees in November 2021. While Poroshenko tried to legally disassociate himself from these channels, they continued to favor the former president.
It’s unclear why the three channels were excluded from the marathon. Former minister Tkachenko told RFE/RL that "a compromise wasn't reached."
In April 2022, the three channels were disconnected from digital broadcasting, supposedly following the Defense Council's order to only allow the airing of channels that take part in the TV marathon.
The language of the council's decision was vague, only saying that the question of national security will be implemented "by unifying all national TV channels."
Many, including the excluded channels' managers, say that nothing in the decree signed by Zelensky allows disconnecting independent media outlets. Still, the three channels have continued to broadcast through satellite and online.
The content of the marathon is another issue.
"There is no censorship as such in the marathon, but there is a certain political dictate, hints, wishes from the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy and the President's Office," said Dovzhenko. "Sometimes these wishes are explained by considerations of security and defense, sometimes they are not explained by anything."
"This is by no means strict control… (but) representatives of opposition factions are given much less chance to express themselves on air during the TV marathon, and they almost never have the opportunity to debate directly with the government."
According to the Detector Media, a Ukrainian media watchdog, 70% of respondents think there is a lack of different points of view in the TV marathon, and they look for information elsewhere.
The outlet, which has been monitoring the quality of the TV marathon, says its overall quality has been declining month-to-month.
Detector Media identified over 8,000 breaches of journalism standards in the randomly analyzed marathon programs over the first quarter of 2023. Over 4,700 of those were a failure to separate facts from opinions, and more than 3,000 – a lack of reliability and accuracy of presented information.
"The marathon definitely doesn't get us closer to EU membership," lawmaker Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, who leads the parliamentary committee on EU integration, told the Kyiv Independent.
Klympush-Tsintsadze represents Poroshenko's European Solidarity party, which is typically very critical of the government.
As a member of Poroshenko’s party, she criticized the disconnection of Poroshenko-linked channels, calling it illegal. A full-scale war “can justify military censorship but not political censorship,” Klympush-Tsintsadze added.
She also referenced Detector Media's reports which showed that Zelensky's party members get more air time and receive less criticism.
For example, from January to March 2023, 31 lawmakers from Zelenky's ruling party, Servant of the People, spoke in the marathon. Only 17 lawmakers from all other parties got air time. And from Poroshenko's party, there were only two.
The Servant of the People party holds 237 seats out of 450 in parliament.
According to Detector Media, all channels are also guilty of political PR, with journalists continuously promoting Zelensky, his administration, and his party mainly through segments that are not newsworthy. Channels quote social media posts of pro-government politicians or otherwise mention them, according to the report.
The government's channel Rada has led with at least 143 such violations since October 2022.
Another criticism against the TV marathon concerns the fact that it includes journalists and hosts who used to work for TV channels that were owned by pro-Russian politicians, and some of them were the faces of Russian propaganda in Ukraine.
TV channels NewsOne, ZIK, and 112 Channel were owned by oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was charged with treason in Ukraine before being swapped in a prisoner exchange with Russia.
Ukraine shut down the three channels in early 2021, but some of the journalists who worked there resurfaced as hosts of the TV marathon in 2022.
"The information policy of these (Medvedchuk's) channels was based on the promotion of Kremlin narratives about the U.S. governing Ukraine, the 'discrimination' of the Russian language, the 'civil war' in Donbas, the legality of Russia's annexation of Crimea, and so on," said an open statement, signed by hundreds of journalists and media organizations, calling to remove these journalists from the marathon.
"For years, these journalists spread pro-Russian narratives inside Ukraine," Anastasiia Bakulina, CEO of online media Svidomi, which drafted the statement, told the Kyiv Independent.
She says these journalists, most likely, weren't driven by the pro-Russian channels’ values and just worked there for the good money they paid, but added that a better mechanism to vet anchors is needed.
The government so far ignored these concerns.
Note from the author:
Hello there, this is Anastasiia Lapatina, the author of this piece. We at the Kyiv Independent are guided by the idea that truth is the only way forward for our country, even if it's painful and uncomfortable to face. This is why we cover everything from corruption in the highest echelons of government and the military to issues of censorship in the media. Please consider supporting our reporting so we can keep holding power to account in Ukraine.