How Ukraine’s Hromadskie TV challenges stereotypes about media in post-Soviet countries
SBIO director and media expert, Yuliya Slutskaya, talks to the founders, journalists, and volunteers at Hromadskie TV – an independent Ukrainian TV station in Kiev that has been broadcasting since the start of the events in Ukraine.
They started broadcasting on the anniversary of the Orange Revolution, and in as few as three days Hromadskie TV turned into the most popular TV channel in Ukraine. Their daily audience makes up about 2 million people.
A group of professional journalists that left different TV channels, gathered together to lay the foundation for public television. Today, during the Maidan times, they work as volunteers. This is their civic stance. They have an ordinary cheap studio which is not screened off from the news room. Videos from Maidan and other places are streamed using mobile phones. Hromadskie TV provides a full review of daily news. During these days of revolution Ukrainians have donated more than 200,000 dollars to support the activity of the channel. More than 100 volunteers are engaged in the project, helping to check information and organize the complex TV process during the times that are so hard for Ukraine. The key ideas of their mission are responsibility and honour. A pretty challenge to TV monsters with multi-million budgets.
How It All Began
Sergei Andrushko, journalist:
--It happened that many journalists of major Ukrainian information channels were left behind for various reasons. And we had this idea that we need to create a public thing. All of us liked the idea of public television. That’s because we’ve got a state channel that is financed by taxes collected from us, but its aim is to promote the government’s propaganda. We started considering this in April. In May, an opposition channel that showed news from various perspectives and employed opposition members among others was illegally taken over. And many journalists left it. It was the last straw for us. We realised that we shouldn’t back off, we need to create our own thing.
In June we presented the Hromadskie TV project as an idea. We started working on its mission, looking for funds. By “we” I mean a team of leading journalists-investigators and reporters. At first there were 8 of us, then 16. All of us were successful journalists. But we had never worked together before. We tried to get to know each other and understand together what product we should create, why it should be called public television in the first place. At the initial stage we did not trust each other as each of us had his or her own sad experience of working for mass media. This is why we take all important decisions together. Here everything is public, including the reports on the funds allocated and gathered as well as what they were spent on. We came up with ideas for numerous author’s programmes - investigations, for instance. We planned to start on November 22, the Orange Revolution day. But then it all started and everything happened not like we had planned...
Today these guys work at an ordinary cheap studio, with fairly basic cameras and leased light equipment. The studio does not have a typical TV layout – it adjoins the news room where journalists, operators and cutters work. Those who don’t manage to find a seat have to take their computer and find a place against the wall or in the corridor. Hosts and guests go on air without makeup and on the whole, the atmosphere in the studio is more than informal. Just in front of me, the host, being on air, turns around to the news room and asks for a cup of coffee. And there are no pretentious and impersonal lines like “Good evening, we are starting our TV program…” They are on air from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Still they broadcast stream video from the Maidan and other trouble spots practically round the clock. With the help of cameras the audience can see what is happening in real-time.
This TV channel is a phenomenon. During the times of the Orange Revolution the Internet was not as well-developed as today, there were no such technologies and professional journalists who mastered these technologies and could develop them.
These guys live stream video from the Maidan via mobile phones, communicating with people and getting this on air immediately. They accept text messages with information, checking it immediately with their iPads. They spend just 100 dollars on Wi-Fi and this is enough for them to work online and make live stand-ups from various spots in Kyiv and Ukraine.
In January plastic helmets were replaced by military ones, and orange “Press” jackets – by body armour.
Liudmila Yankina, volunteer manager:
I spent the whole night on Maidan, and at 8 a.m. I got a call and learned that Hromadskie TV needs help, as there so many inquiries, such a large audience, so much work to do that they just can’t manage all that. What did we do? We created a network of 100+ volunteers – those are highly qualified specialists with higher education, with MBA degrees, general managers, etc.
We decided to work in shifts, we organised our activities in order to ensure that Hromadskie TV would function well. We helped them to develop the line-up, work on the existing guest line-up, to decide who should go on air... To find helmets for journalists, find and bring food, to pick up a guest – all this is done by volunteers.
We’ve got an entire team of volunteers engaged in checking and verifying information, presently we have arranged all the hashtags that we check, all links that we monitor, moreover, if we receive any information, we always call the press service. We check all news without exceptions. Practice shows we are doing the right thing. When everyone was saying that tanks were approaching Kyiv, our volunteers went to key places, to the railway, talked to specialists and denied all these rumours. Thanks to our dear volunteers, our activity is almost unlimited. People believe in us, and we should live up to their expectations. This is very important for us. When we took a decision to call the channel Hromadskie TV, we took great responsibility. There they are – volunteers – because they trust us. They understand our ideas and share them with us. This is why they want to make their own contribution. At the moment there are not 100+, but already 200+ volunteers.’
Mikhail, director of an international digital agency:
Misha came to Hromadskie TV on his own initiative and made a specific offer to the channel. He told us very quickly what he could do and said what he needed from the channel. In several days the web pages and resources required to get help were ready, Misha and his company help extend the website and monetise traffic – it is necessary in order to extend and develop the channel.
-- Misha, being a company director, why are you doing it?
-- Because I can do it, and who else should do it? It should be done by professionals. I do it every day for money, so why not spend a couple of hours and do it once for free.
-- Misha, aren’t you afraid that the authorities may have concerns about what you are doing, for instance, if everything goes not as you wish to, anything can happen.
-- Well, if you won’t publish my portrait… No, I’m not doing anything illegal.
Olena, an employee of an advertising agency
Olena also came on her own and offered help. Among other things, she does paper work, giving the journalists an opportunity to think about more important things. Olena does it all after work and for free.
-- My name is Olena Lisitskaya, at work I am engaged in developing a new business for a major advertising holding. I came here because I have a great desire to help all people in Ukraine. As today it’s important to provide people with reliable information, besides financial aid and food. I work as a manager, helping organise the process. I even was a driver once.
-- May I take a photo of you?
-- Yes, of course!
Misha, head of a company:
-- I’m a volunteer too, here I am responsible for providing support to guests, I do it 3 times a day. I like it.
-- How did you know that you should do it?
-- In fact I had an idea that I should do some things that are important to the public. In fact, many people of middle age need to do something like this. But during the time of peace it’s not so easy to do it, as many things that now seem important and meaningful to us, look silly during the time of peace, although now you understand that this is snobbish, you need to cut off unnecessary things and do something useful.
Frankly speaking, I didn’t care what to do – the main thing was to help. If they asked me to make coffee, I would.
-- You mean that you, a company head, now are ready to make coffee?
Tough Money Issues
Earlier no one believed that people in Ukraine could support any project with money. But it turns out that so far Ukrainians have gathered more funds for Hromadskie TV project than various funds have yet provided.
Roman Skrypin, editor-in –chief, Hromadskie TV
-- We’ve been always told stories about Western society that supports various worthy causes. We listened to them and said: “Here it’s just impossible!” At first we introduced a “Help the Project” button to the website. We hadn’t even started going on air, but in 2 months we had 65 thousand hryvnias transferred to us. We were so cautious about this money. This is society, after all! This is public money, and it’s a great responsibility. We didn’t spend it. We began spending it when the issue of premises and furniture came up. We bought furniture with this money, we leased premises.
Soon we are going to post a public report on this money, we are preparing it now. And everyone will be able to see the pay that the journalists get. Our system is public – no one hides how much money we have. On air we say how much money the Ukrainian citizens have donated for our existence. I am free to say how much they donated on air.
-- And how much did they donate, can you give us a specific figure?
-- Just a moment, I need to get my phone, the bank sends me a text message as soon as funds are transferred to the account…. Right now it’s about 1 million 750 thousand hryvnias, it’s more than 200 thousand dollars. Starting from the day we started going on air, from November 22. Currently it’s much more than what Western funds have given us.
-- And what is the average amount of these transfers?
-- According to our calculations, 200 hryvnias per transfer on average. Although there are transfers of 10 hryvnias and of 20, 50, 100 thousand hryvnias. It depends on one’s income.
-- Do people in Ukraine need to provide their name, surname, passport details in order to make a transfer?
-- No passport details, but the name and surname are required for the transfer, as it’s made via a bank. Sometimes there are funny stories about these transfers. I get a call from a billing payment system person and he says: “Roma, there’s a transfer from some Mickey Mouse, what should I do?” I say: “Return it”. We have to return payments from those Mickey Mouses.
When we were getting ready for the launch, we wrote a business plan. But now we have to rewrite it. It’s great that we have a business plan, but it all didn’t go as we had planned. We planned a long period of getting started, but due to the events of those days we had an unexpectedly quick start.
GOGOLFEST and Dukat companies organised an auction to support Hromadskie TV on December 27. Ukrainian artists provided their works to us for free. During one evening 24 lots were sold for the total amount of 199,900 hryvnias. After the auction only 2 works for the amount of 7,500 hryvnias were left. The total amount is 207, 400 hryvnias (about 25 thousand dollars).
In January Hromadskie TV tried one more instrument of gathering public funds – a Ukrainian website entitled Spilnokosht, which means ‘common money’ or something like that. The guys set an ambitious task for themselves – to gather one million hryvnias (about 120, 000 dollars) in 100 days. There is a rule on this website: if the declared amount is not gathered, the funds are returned to the people. At the moment when there were 70 days left, more than 650, 000 hryvnias had already been transferred. These funds are targeted, we need them for technical support of channel’s stable operation in 2014.
-- Roma, are you the editor-in-chief?
-- Not only that, I’m the head of a public organisation as well.