By Alessandra Prentice and Natalia Zinets
AVDIYIVKA, Ukraine/KIEV (Reuters) – For Ukrainian pensioner Olga Shazhkova, channel-surfing in the front line town of Avdiyivka is a monotonous business.
With the face of Vladimir Putin looming large on her TV screen, she flicks over to the next station with a sigh, only to land on the Russian army’s official channel.
Ukrainian government forces control the ground in Avdiyivka, but pro-Moscow rebels just across the front line of a two-year separatist conflict dominate the airways, along with stations beamed in from Russia to the east.
The result is that people on the Kiev-controlled side can end up flooded – whether they like it or not – by news telling Russia’s side of the story, through TV channels that demonize the Ukrainian government and its cause.
“Before the war started, we had all the channels,” Shazhkova said in her living room, which she is scared to leave after 5 pm because of daily shelling in the late afternoon and evening.
“Now it’s just Russian and separatist ones,” said Shazhkova, who remains sympathetic to the Kiev cause. “If you’re called a pig for ten years, you begin to believe it, so we need some (other) information.”
Avdiyivka lies at the heart of the conflict in eastern Ukraine which has killed over 9,500 people since early 2014, and just 15 km (nine miles) north of the rebels’ stronghold in the city of Donetsk.
Much of eastern Ukraine’s broadcasting infrastructure is controlled by the rebels or has been destroyed by the fighting. This has left Ukraine, whose own media typically characterizes separatists as ‘Russia-sponsored terrorists’, outgunned in an information war that has played a central role in the crisis.
In its fight for hearts and minds, Kiev is redoubling efforts to improve access to Ukrainian television and radio for the majority in the region who rely on roof-top aerials.
It is a particularly important weapon at a time when a much-violated ceasefire deal is under threat after the deadliest fighting in a year and a fresh political spat between Ukraine and Russia.
Shazhkova said she goes to her neighbor’s house to watch Ukrainian news via satellite, where the signal is uninterrupted but which remains a luxury that few can afford.
The power of TV to sway opinion – and Kiev’s struggle to win favor in separatist areas – was illustrated by a 2015 Ukrainian opinion poll partly funded by the British embassy in Kiev.
It showed 89 percent of respondents said they relied on television for their news. Over 52 percent in Kiev-held areas of eastern Ukraine were found to believe partly or entirely what the survey called ‘Russian propaganda’.
WATCHING THEM, NOT US
Such views might help to explain instances when Ukrainians living on the Kiev-controlled side have proved unsympathetic to the Ukrainian cause. In July, for example, around 100 residents of the Kiev-held town of Toretsk blocked a road to prevent the Ukrainian army from moving equipment, according to local police.
“When you go around Avdiyivka, around 70 percent of residents’ aerials are turned toward Donetsk,” Ukrainian soldier Masi Nayyem said, standing in cratered no-man’s land as gunfire crackled in the background.
“They’re watching them, not us. I think this is the main reason why there is a negative attitude toward Ukrainians and especially the army,” he said. “There’s a lot of misinformation.”
Scrolling through radio stations in Avdiyivka, Reuters got the clearest signal from a Donetsk-based station called Kometa. This was airing a satirical news segment about alleged police brutality in Kiev and corruption in the Ukrainian army.
Kiev set up a Ministry of Information Policy in late 2014 to strengthen Ukrainian media strategy.
Continued fighting despite the ceasefire deal struck early last year and signs of escalation in July make it vital for Ukraine to win over war-weary citizens in the east, Deputy Minister for Information Policy Tatiana Popova told Reuters.
The ministry hopes to restore coverage to much of Kiev-controlled northern Donetsk region by October with the reconstruction of a TV tower that fighting reduced to a heap of metal in 2014.
Western backers, including the United States, have donated broadcasting equipment worth 60 million hryvnias ($2.4 million) for this and other projects, but the cash-strapped government in Kiev cannot afford all the construction costs.
“The biggest problem in terms of restoring broadcasting is the financing,” said Popova, adding that the Finance Ministry has repeatedly turned down requests for money to build a new tower to reach rebel-held Donetsk.
Popova and other officials told Reuters that separatists had also been deliberately jamming Ukrainian broadcasts and shooting down smaller antennae rigged up in the districts of Luhansk region that border rebel-controlled territory.
“Of course they will jam us, shoot at our antennae and transmitters, but if we do nothing at all, then we’ll simply lose these people from an ideological perspective as well as the region,” Popova said.
One local official in Luhansk region has taken matters into his own hands, putting up tannoy systems on the outside of administrative buildings. These are blasting out a Ukrainian radio signal received via satellite in several villages where coverage is limited.
Novoaidar district chief Viktor Sergiyenko got his inspiration from World War Two, when the then Soviet Union fought Nazi German invaders. “There are no issues that cannot be resolved and I remembered how this problem was dealt with in 20th century wars. The solution was, if everything else is down, use loudspeakers,” he said.
Luhansk region’s TV station (LOT) is also determined to fight for hearts and minds in separatist territory after its headquarters were seized by rebels in 2014, forcing 50 of its 250 staff to move to a Kiev-held town.
LOT broadcasts news as well as information programs with which it hopes to interest citizens on both sides. Subjects include how to complete the paperwork needed to cross the front line.
It also airs a competition program where viewers, including those watching via satellite from separatist-held territory, can phone in to win prizes or cell phone credit if they answer a question on Ukrainian language or culture.
(Additional reporting by Alexei Kalmykov; editing by Matthias Williams and David Stamp)