Owen Bonnici – (Minister for the National Heritage, the Arts, and the Local Government.)
This week I attended, along with my colleagues in the EU family, a formal Culture Council in Brussels.
This Council meeting was one with a difference, as we were joined by the Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko, during a public session of the same Council.
Our hearts broke as Oleksandr, in a clear and firm voice, told us what Ukraine and its culture and media sector are passing through.
He explained that, despite the war, our Ukrainian colleagues are trying to keep the cultural sector alive. Oleksandr showed us pictures, for instance, of a concert which was organised in the National Bandurist Chapel on the 23rd of November. The concert was performed in total black out, as the venue does not have electricity any more, due to the ongoing war. Members of the audience and on stage lit on their mobile phone torches to create some light.
Similarly, shivers went down our spines as Oleksandr told us what he felt when he visited, on the 19th November, the Kherson Fine Arts Museum after the Russian de-occupation. Again, the pictures exhibited told a thousand words. Following the attacks by the Russian regime, the Kherson Museum was stripped of the historical artefacts, and the historical heritage was lost.
He also reminded us that this Christmas, Ukrainians will be without heaters in their homes, without electricity in their rooms, and will be living Christmas in fear.
Oleksandr gave us some numbers to explain better the Ukranian cultural sector. Previous to the war, there were 200,000 people working in the cultural sphere and more than another 350,000 people working in the creative industries. Since 2018 the numbers recorded healthy increases in both visits of cultural institutions (+15%) and funding for culture by the state or the municipality (+22%).
Fastforward to the situation obtaining after the Russian aggression on Ukraine. 1,000 buildings of cultural infrastructure were severly damaged or totally destroyed. The number goes up to 40% of all the cultural infrastructure in the East/South regions. 270 religious buildings have been either damaged or destroyed. 90% of the cultural institutions experienced a 20% cut in state or local funding, with the cut being expected to shoot up to 40%. Also, there was a total reduction in government support to the independent cultural institutions as resources were placed elsewhere.
The media sector in Ukraine tells a similar story. In an era which is completely determined by who has the loudest voice, 200 media outlets in Ukraine closed down due to the Russian invasion, 16 TV towers were shelled and 40% of the staff were dismissed. TV advertising suffered huge losses to the tune of a 90% decrease and another decrease of 80% in non-TV advertising.
In all, Oleskandr informed us, the total exected losses in media revenue amount to a strong EUR 1.4 Billion annually.
What is more, Oleksandr alerted us as to the respective media budgets obtaining in Ukrain and in Russia. While Ukraine can afford a EUR 2.5 million budget per month of the United News Marathon (which essentially brought together the biggest private and public tv broadcasters in Ukraine), Russia spends EUR 195 million in the single month of March for the support of state channels and information agencies, for a total investment of an astounding EUR 1.8 billion for the whole of 2022.
Ukraine has also a Russian-language TV news channel which has the aim of debunking fake news and disinformation distributed by the Russian Federation. In other words, it has the primary task to tell the Russian-speaking population of the world the truth about the war and the crimes being committed in Ukraine. This Russian-language TV news channel, called Freedom, operates with another budget of EUR 25-30 million per year.
Yet the total investment in United News Marathan and Freedom is nowhere near the Russian budget for media support.
Oleksandr also mentioned some of the key overall challenges that need to be addressed, such as “winterisation” (as he called it) of cultural institutions, massive outflow of talents, loss of audiences and income and loss of skilled personnel. Linguicide and cultural and media isolation on occupied territories is also a key challenge.
All the Ministers assembled at the table showered words of support to Olesandr and the whole of Ukraine, as did the European Commission.
I focused my intervention on the impact of the war on the cultural sector and heritage in Ukraine and how, as a European block, we can make a difference.
Undoubtedly the year will be forever etched in our minds as the year characterised by Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine. This war has inflicted substantial material and moral damage upon the people of this country, including its cultural sector.
I stressed that as a European block, we must support and assist the continent’s cultural diversity and therefore we must support Ukranian culture and Ukranian heritage.
Malta has provided and will keep providing humanitarian support and services for Ukraine. Still, as the war rages on, we must keep looking for ways to support Ukraine and maintain humanitarian assistance for the cultural sector.
We believe that the European approach is best suited to directly address the issues at hand in the shortest time possible and we definately support the fantastic work which is being done by the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC).
I also mentioned other means to assist the cultural sphere of Ukraine. Co-operation can be extended to artists through enhanced contacts between European Capitals of Culture and Ukrainian cities and the swift development of joint digitalisation programmes in the sector. This can help to offer a more secure environment, which is crucial for creatives and artsits.
It is important to develop long-term remedies as we move forward together in keeping this support at the heart of the European Union.
Indeed, the continuous war and aggression prevents the development of long-term remedies. Yet, helping Ukranian culture and Ukranian heritage is a strategic move because by keeping Ukrainian culture alive we are also protecting the cultural diversity of this continent.
If culture is the soul of a whole nation, preserving the culture of Ukraine is also preserving Ukraine's future.