Analysis: Ukraine bans  Kremlin-linked TV channels

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy shut down three Kremlin-linked TV channels on February 2 in a move portrayed by the Kyiv authorities as a major blow to Russia’s ongoing hybrid war against Ukraine. The decision has sparked a heated debate in Ukraine over the correct balance between national security considerations and freedom of speech.

Ukrainian TV channels ZIK, NewsOne, and 112 were forced off the air late on February 2 after the official channel owner and opposition MP Taras Kozak was hit with sanctions. All three channels are widely believed to belong to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in Ukraine, Viktor Medvedchuk, and have long been seen as platforms for Kremlin messaging in Ukraine’s information space.

Defending the dramatic step, Zelenskyy argued that it was justified by the need to “fight against the danger of Russian aggression in the information arena.” Speaking to Ukrainian TV executives on February 3, he offered reassurances that the closures were an isolated case and did not signify a change in Ukraine’s commitment to a free press. “Sanctions against the media are always a difficult decision for any government except an authoritarian one,” he commented. “This was not a spur of the moment decision, but one that has been in the works for a long time based on information from many Ukrainian government agencies. This is by no means an attack on freedom of speech. It is a well-founded decision to protect national security.”

The closures were widely acknowledged as President Zelenskyy’s boldest move against Russian aggression since his election in spring 2019. Numerous journalists and members of Ukraine’s civic society community voiced their support, arguing that the targeted channels played a key role the disinformation dimension of Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine.

Zelenskyy’s decision was also backed by many of Ukraine’s international partners including Britain and the US. “We must all work together to prevent disinformation from being deployed as a weapon in an info war against sovereign states,” read a supportive tweet from the US Embassy in Kyiv.

The EU was somewhat more guarded in its response. In a written statement, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell cautioned that Ukraine’s legitimate efforts to defend itself from disinformation campaigns “should not come at the expense of freedom of media and must be done in full respect of fundamental rights and freedoms and following international standards.”

Ukraine’s claims regarding the role of the banned channels in Russian information warfare received an unlikely and presumably inadvertent endorsement from Moscow itself. Responding to news of the sanctions, leading Kremlin propagandist Margarita Simonyan invited all the journalists from the three shuttered channels to come and work for Russian state media.

Meanwhile, alleged channel owner Viktor Medvedchuk slammed the shutdowns and accused the Ukrainian president of seeking to silence inconvenient voices. “Zelenskyy’s rating is falling rapidly not because of TV channels, but because he refuses to answer important questions for Ukrainians,” he commented.

The sanctions measures will now be contested in court. Ukrainian public opinion on the closures will likely be determined by the ability of the Ukrainian authorities to argue their case and demonstrate conclusively that the blocked channels were indeed Kremlin tools in the war against Ukraine.

The Atlantic Council invited a selection of experts to share their views on President Zelenskyy’s landmark decision and the likely implications for Ukraine.

Alyona Getmanchuk, Director, New Europe Center: The sanctioning of three pro-Russian TV channels that are believed to belong to Putin’s closest Ukrainian ally, Viktor Medvedchuk, is President Zelenskyy’s most courageous decision to date. Indeed, it may even qualify as the most significant response to Russian hybrid warfare in Ukraine’s entire history as an independent state.

Nobody should be in any doubt that these TV channels had more in common with propaganda tools than genuine media outlets. Despite being nominally Ukrainian, they posed a greater danger than direct Russian propaganda because they promoted Kremlin narratives with far more sophistication than discredited Russian TV channels.

Even if the main motivation for Zelenskyy’s decision was political, sanctions against these channels perfectly match Ukraine’s national security interests. After all, disinformation is the most important element of Russia’s hybrid war. The key question now is whether this was a one-off step. Does Zelenskyy have a clear vision for countering Russian hybrid warfare and Russian agents of influence in Ukraine? A longer term approach is crucial as Putin’s strategy towards Ukraine remains unchanged: he seeks to destabilize the country from within and discredit Ukraine internationally.

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Anders Åslund, Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council: Since February 2014, Russia has pursued an undeclared war against Ukraine. Disinformation is an important part of this war. Immediately after Russia occupied Crimea, it prohibited Ukrainian television broadcasts. Later, it did the same in occupied eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian National Council for TV and Radio Broadcasting responded by prohibiting Russian television channels that broadcast misleading information about Ukraine. In February 2015, the Ukrainian parliament adopted a further law banning the screening of Russian propaganda content on Ukrainian television.

On February 2, 2020, Ukraine’s National Defense and Security Council decided to sanction three pro-Kremlin Ukrainian TV channels belonging to MP Taras Kozak. These three “news” channels have nothing to do with journalism but represent Russian disinformation warfare. Their actual ultimate beneficiary owner is widely perceived to be Ukrainian MP Viktor Medvedchuk, Vladimir Putin’s foremost agent in Ukraine, who has been subject to US sanctions since March 2014 for promoting Russia’s annexation of Crimea. How can a proven traitor sit in the Ukrainian parliament? And how could he control three television channels? President Volodymyr Zelenskyy should be greatly praised for his decisive action.

Oleksiy Goncharenko, Ukrainian MP, European Solidarity party: Ukraine’s policies towards Russia as an aggressor state should be consistent. I and other representatives of our European Solidarity faction believe we need to fight the spread of propaganda and disinformation inside our country. The three sanctioned channels have long served as weapons in Russia’s information war against Ukraine. This more than justifies the recently imposed sanctions. At the same time, Ukraine continues to purchase electricity from Russia and Belarus. The Ukrainian authorities take appropriate measures to safeguard the country’s information security, but do not apply the same logic to energy security. Acting Energy Minister Yuriy Vitrenko has also said Ukraine should once again purchase Russian gas. This inconsistency is dangerous. Ukraine fights Russian propaganda inside the country, but allows Russia to expand its influence via energy resources.

Michael Bociurkiw, global affairs analyst: It has long been known that most media outlets in Ukraine survive entirely on the backing of super-wealthy oligarchs. Many of these owners hide in the shadows by using surrogates or shell companies, and many are aligned with the Kremlin. That, in turn, has led to a dire lack of investment in propping up their media properties, including the upgrading of journalistic skills. They have no interest in independent journalism, let alone investigative reporting, unless it serves to harm the interests of their detractors.

The Ukrainian media sector was long in need of a fix but successive governments have neglected to introduce a regulatory framework suited for the needs of today. That is why the sledgehammer approach used by the Zelenskyy administration deserves scrutiny. The authorities have not yet fully explained the key question: why now? The public also needs reassurances that a dangerous precedent for the closure of other opposition channels will be avoided. The healthiest democracies have a free, fair, and vibrant media sector.

What about the journalists impacted by these draconian measures? As much as I regret their abrupt loss of livelihood, especially in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, I wish they had banded together far earlier to oppose the unsavory editorial policies imposed by their media proprietors.

With the closure of these TV stations, it behooves Ukraine’s allies to further target and strengthen technical assistance to Ukraine’s ailing media sector, particularly those who are committed to the craft of independent journalism. This should apply not only to established entities but to promising media startups as well.

Adrian Karatnycky, Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council: Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s decision to sanction Russia’s fifth column media in Ukraine represents a landmark moment in his presidency and deserves international support. This decisive step signals that President Zelenskyy has concluded that Ukraine, as a country under attack from Russian military forces and under partial occupation by its hostile neighbor, does not have the luxury to permit the broadcasting of hostile propaganda that is coordinated with the Kremlin and which frequently features Ukrainian state traitors now residing in Moscow. It is, therefore, not an attack on press freedoms and civil liberties. Significantly, the decision to sanction channels ZIK, 112, and NewsOne appears to have been taken because the owner of these media outlets is alleged to have engaged in economic activity that helped finance terrorist operations in the Donbas. As a result, this step was made in accordance with Ukrainian law, which gives extraordinary powers to the state in such cases to impose far-reaching sanctions.

Vladislav Davidzon, Nonresident Fellow, Atlantic Council: President Zelenskyy’s decision to sanction three pro-Russian Ukrainian TV channels is radical and in many ways quite unexpected. Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that it took the Ukrainian authorities so long to take this action. It is particularly noteworthy that the man believed to be behind the three blocked channels, Putin’s closest Ukrainian ally Viktor Medvedchuk, was able to make himself so useful to the system as an intermediary that his influence was allowed to go unchallenged for as long as it did. By this point in Zelenskyy’s presidency, many observers had come to the conclusion that he simply had no stomach to take on Medvedchuk, who has long been one of the bigger players in Ukrainian politics. Those assumptions have now been proven to be premature.

There are clearly concerns about the manner in which these measures have been implemented. The questionable legal pretext of the fight against terrorism may not stand up in court. In a more mature democracy, there would ideally be transparent procedures and an appellation process to govern such radical steps. Yet whatever the final legality of this action according to the Ukrainian courts, it certainly demonstrates a welcome impulse toward a systematic recharge by the Zelenskyy administration and a willingness to change strategies if something is not working. The political timing likely could not have been better.

Volodymyr Dubovyk, Associate Professor, Odesa Mechnikov National University: President Zelenskyy’s decision to sanction three pro-Russian TV channels raises several questions. These include the timing and legality of the measures, along with how they will be perceived by the international community.

That these channels have been generating a lot of outrage is without any doubt. Not only have they been peddling a pro-Russian and anti-Western line, but they were also subversively anti-Ukrainian. This problem is not new and talk of doing something about it has been ongoing for some time, but the Ukrainian authorities had previously refused to take action. And yet it was President Zelenskyy, who is often seen as soft on Russia, who finally imposed sanctions. What drove him to this decision? Was he motivated by domestic political considerations? Was it an attempt to appear hard on Russia?

We can now expect a rambling legal process involving various court cases. The most important thing for the Ukrainian authorities is to focus on an effective communications strategy and clearly explain the factors that led to this decision. Can the sanctioned channels be regarded as sources of legitimate journalism, or are they closer to outlets like the Kremlin’s RT? Putting this debate in the international context might prove helpful.

Volodymyr Yermolenko, Chief Editor, Ukraine’s experience since 2014 is proof that disinformation is used by the Kremlin as a destructive tool. A key theme of Kremlin propaganda is the idea that Ukraine does not exist as an independent state, or that it does not have the right to exist. Viktor Medvedchuk, Vladimir Putin’s main ally in Ukraine who has family bonds with the Russian president, is a key promoter of this message. The three Ukrainian TV channels linked to Medvedchuk have been relentlessly transmitting this message to Ukrainian audiences for some time. You can guess where the money comes from. The decision to block these channels is a direct response to political actors who abuse freedom of speech and turn it against democracy. It is a reminder that democracies must learn how to defend themselves or risk being destroyed by those who exploit democratic principles in order to achieve undemocratic goals.

Peter Dickinson is Editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert Service.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

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Image: Kremlin-linked Ukrainian TV channels ZIK, NewsOne, and 112 were forced off the air by sanctions on February 2. President Zelenskyy said the move was justified by the need to "fight against the danger of Russian aggression in the information arena." (Photo by Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/Sipa USA via REUTERS)