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How Radio Svoboda’s Election Coverage Became The Best Show In Town

Radio Svoboda election live-blog graphic for October 2, 2012
Radio Svoboda election live-blog graphic for October 2, 2012
Recent parliamentary elections in Ukraine shone a spotlight not just on country that has squandered much of the promise of the 2004 Orange Revolution, but also on RFE/RL’s intrepid Ukraine Service, Radio Svoboda, which provides independent, innovative and necessary news in a media environment that Freedom House characterizes as only "partly free."

Maryana Drach, Managing Editor of Radio Svoboda, describes journalists’ challenges this way: "The media environment in Ukraine opened up right after the Orange Revolution. Experts agree that the situation got worse in 2010 when President Yanukovych came into power. Definitely, there is less freedom now than in 2005."

Drach observes that media restrictions underscore the need for balanced, professional and probing journalism. Moreover, the current political and economic realities mean that most influential Ukrainian outlets, even if not state-run, are owned by oligarchs with political agendas. Additionally, most commercial media pay scant attention to human rights issues.

This is where Radio Svoboda’s impact is apparent.

Live Blogs and Live Streams

The service has been providing news to audiences in Ukraine since 1954, originally on shortwave, adding FM broadcasts in the 1990s, and evolving in dynamic ways online and with social media today.

With the October 28 election, Radio Svoboda’s coverage set a new standard for comprehensive, multi-platform news reporting, allowing audiences direct access to events on a national scale. Audiences responded, increasing website traffic three-fold throughout the extended election process.

Through live blogging, Radio Svoboda kicked-off real-time coverage beginning at 11:00 am when the polls opened and continued until the next morning. When polls closed that evening, it launched five-plus hours of live-streaming of early election returns. Over a dozen guests, including political party representatives, pollsters, domestic election monitors, and the head of the European Parliament's election observation mission, contributed to the coverage from Svoboda’s Kyiv studio and via video links in Moscow and Brussels.

Regional coverage was fed by correspondents in Simferopol, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Lviv and Cherkasy by telephone and Skype, as an interactive map highlighted correspondents’ locations and Twitter accounts.
Radio Svoboda’s live-streaming from contested electoral district No.223 in Kyiv was snapped up by major news sites in the country.
Radio Svoboda’s live-streaming from contested electoral district No.223 in Kyiv was snapped up by major news sites in the country.

As controversy arose over results in Kyiv's single-mandate electoral district No.223, Radio Svoboda stayed with the story with live coverage of events on its website for an additional eight days, well into November. The first announcement of the broadcast received 449 comments and nearly 1,000 likes on Facebook, leading one fan to pronounce, “The best show in recent days)) Online round-the clock))"

Twitter praise followed: "@anton_yt: I am sincerely grateful for the broadcast from #223. This broadcast really replaced all the webcams installed at the polling stations!”

On November 12, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced a criminal investigation into election rigging in District 223. Yehor Sobolev, head of the Kyiv-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (“Svidomo”), acknowledged Radio Svoboda’s influence in its coverage. "Most important is that such a large number of people witnessed the cynicism of the fraud. Non-stop, live, we saw it." Sobolev commented. "A big honor to people who invented this, and even greater honor to those who stood behind camera!"

Interacting With Important Stories

Drach is careful to cite the challenges of covering the elections, as well as the triumphs, and refers to a report by the Institute of Mass Information, a Ukrainian NGO, associating a steep increase in violations of journalists’ rights with the elections.

But the innovation doesn’t stop at breaking news. Radio Svoboda has launched a repertoire of new interactive programs. "We Together" (My Razom), which debuted in September, shifts the focus from the capital to the regions, and from anchors to the audience, facilitating discussion among audience members and guests. "Youth Plus" (Molod’ Plyus) gives a weekly platform to Ukraine’s younger generation, while "Europe Connect" (Evropa na zvjazku), addresses viewers' interest in European integration. One recent segment compared a bill introduced by Ukrainian legislators to criminalize defamation – a common means of suppressing free speech - with best practices in Europe.

Characterizing the new initiatives, which rely heavily on social media, Drach says, "We focus on stories that we believe are important for our mission and have a connection with our audience going forward."