Has Ukraine’s News Telethon Impacted Media Freedom?


Since the start of the war, TV stations have combined forces to produce a single informational resource.


In the first days of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the largest Ukrainian channels launched a unified United News broadcast. Since then, it has broadcast a single source of TV news, 24 hours a day.

But while the implementation of a unified information policy was a priority for national security, some journalists and experts have expressed concerns over its impact on media freedom.

"Officials have stressed that broadcasts are completely free of government intervention."

Not all broadcasters were included, and there are concerns that the set-up has encouraged self-censorship, and has future implications for post-conflict media landscape.

According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information Policy (MCIP), the telethon was created to ensure the flow of reliable and high-quality information during wartime, as well as to support national unity and resistance.

"Broadcasting should be carried out on a single information platform of strategic communication — around-the-clock information marathon "United News #UАtogether", — President Volodymyr Zelensky made clear in a March 19, 2022 presidential decree.

This implemented the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine (NSDC) decision regarding unified information policy under martial law.

Officials have stressed that broadcasts are completely free of government intervention. A MCIP spokesperson said that the ministry did not interfere in any way with the activities of the telethon, noting that such actions were expressly prohibited by Article 4 of the media law of Ukraine.

Yaroslav Pakholchuk, CEO of 1+1 media, the largest TV channel in Ukraine and a participant in the telethon, agreed that United News was genuinely free from political or state influence.

All information provided within the marathon was objective and from reliable sources, he said, adding that he "absolutely” did not see any censorship involved in the project.

“There is common sense, there is a large volume of work that involves interaction with various state structures,” Pakholchuk continued. “The main goal is to do no harm. But this is not about prohibitions. There are general rules that concern global security, which we follow - we do not disclose photos/videos of the movement of equipment, military, we do not show roadblocks and the front line, we do not make public information about victims… until it is made public by authorised speakers.”

"The one who allows the broadcast controls the content in a certain way.”

Ihor Kulyas, an Ukrainian media expert who carries out daily analysis of the United News telethon, agreed that there was no direct or immediate censorship in the TV newsrooms involved.

However, he said that one could assume that there was self-censorship, particularly given the long history of Ukrainian channels that once belonged to oligarchs.

"Everyone in the editorial office knew which persons could be called on air and which could be not, and which topics were better not to touch on,” Kulyas continued. “This is the approach that works in the conditions of a telethon, and all this is currently combined into a unified channel.”

While the idea of broadcasting unified coverage amid a full-scale war was positive, Kulyas argued that the process of involving channels had been opaque and based on unknown criteria.

"The one who allows the broadcast controls the content in a certain way,” he said. “There are many socially important topics, inconvenient for the authorities, which pass the marathon by.”

Initially, the telethon included five TV channels - the state-owned Rada outlet, the Suspilne Broadcasting Company - Ukraine’s largest media group - and three commercial ones - ICTV/STB, 1+1, Inter and Ukraine 24.

This last, which belonged to Ukraine’s richest man Rinat Akhmetov, closed on July 11. In November 2022, the slot was given to the new TV channel My-Ukraine, which was created by former employees of Ukraine 24.

Each participant was given a six hour slot to ensure a 24-hour broadcast, while the Ukrainian channels that did not join the telethon began broadcasting it in part or in full.

Channel 5 and Priamyi, which belong to former president Petro Poroshenko, did not make it to the telethon, nor did the Espresso TV channel.

In April 2022, Channel 5, Priamyi and Espresso were switched off completely from the digital airwaves. The State Service for Special Communications and Information Protection called this move the "implementation of the decision of the National Security Council” regarding a unified information policy under martial law conditions.

It nonetheless gave assurances that all television channels of any ownership had and still had access to the United News information marathon, including Espresso, Priamyi and Channel 5.

"Whether or not to participate in it depends on the decision of the management bodies of these TV channels," the State Communications Service emphasised.

However, Espresso TV editor-in-chief Anastasia Ravva told IWPR that since the digital switch off she had received no offers to join the United News telethon.

She stressed that she viewed the channel’s disconnection, which took place without explanation, to be illegal and said it was not justified by the NSDC decision of March 18.

"In this decision, there is not one word about disconnecting our channel,” Ravva continued. “Until now, none of the representatives of the authorities, the responsible bodies, have taken responsibility for our disconnection and have not explained when we will be returned to the air.”

The Espresso editor-in-chief said that since the digital disconnection they had developed their presence on cable networks both in Ukraine and abroad, as well as strengthening their YouTube and social network platforms.

Espresso still broadcasts the telethon from midnight to 7am on its own initiative; the rest of the time they show their own content.

A MCIP representative told IWPR that according to the information available to them, Channel 5, Priamyi and Espresso were offered to join the United News' information marathon, but refused the proposed terms of cooperation.

Kulyas said that this situation had an inevitable knock-on effect on freedom of expression.

“The mechanism is approximately as follows: the central power decides who works in the marathon and who does not,” he continued. “The newsrooms that are allowed to air do not want to conflict with the central power and avoid topics that are inconvenient for the authorities and represent its position as much as possible.

“The president's office holds the telethon exclusively to promote its own political interests. If it hadn't happened, Channel 5 and Channel 24 would have been participants in the telethon, but they weren't allowed. Why? There are no answers."

Kulyas noted the lack of in depth coverage of issues such as the ruling faction's draft law on urban planning, or the suspension of Chernihiv major Vladyslav Atroshchenko on allegations of corruption.

“There's positive promotion only,” he continued. “Also, the ruling Servant of the People party is maximally represented in the telethon, and their biggest opponents - European Solidarity - are almost not represented.”

It is widely understood that the telethon will continue at least until the end of the war, although Kulyas argued that canceling the telethon would not harm national security, especially given that Zelensky had already shut down pro-Kremlin channels in 2021, before the full-scale invasion.

"If all the channels were working now, viewers would have the opportunity to choose according to the quality of the content,” he said. “However, even after victory, those in power will be very tempted to continue the telethon, primarily from a political point of view.”