KYIV – As the clock struck midnight on February 3, three television channels known for their pro-Russian bias and spreading disinformation, ceased broadcasting. What appeared on TV screens were the rainbow-colored stripes of the tuning signal.
It was the outcome of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s presidential order from the previous day that approved a National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) decision to close the TV stations as part of a larger package of sanctions.
The five-year restrictive measures were imposed on Taras Kozak, a lawmaker from the pro-Kremlin Opposition Platform-For Life (OPFL) party, who is the nominal owner of the channels NewsOne, ZIK and 112.
OPFL co-chairman Viktor Medvedchuk is widely considered the real owner of the channels. The wealthy and powerful lawmaker has been sanctioned by the U.S. since 2014 for his role in Russia’s illegal seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
While saying Ukraine “strongly supports freedom of speech,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in a tweet announcing the decision, Kyiv doesn’t condone “propaganda financed by the aggressor country that undermines Ukraine on its way to the EU and Euro-Atlantic integration.”
His spokeswoman, Iuliaa Mendel, took to Facebook to call the cancelled channels a “pool affiliated with Viktor Medvedchuk.” She said they “have long forgotten what it means to practice journalistic standards, verify facts or present two sides of a story.”
Ms. Mendel furthermore said the channels have “transformed into an instrument of propaganda” and that “it’s been already confirmed these channels receive financing from Russia.”
Ukraine is in its eighth year of an undeclared war with Russia that Moscow instigated in 2014 and which has killed more than 14,000 people and internally displaced over 1 million in Europe’s only ongoing bloody conflict. As of February 4, four Ukrainian soldiers have been killed this year despite a fragile cease-fire that has never taken hold.
In a joint statement, the three TV channels said they were a victim of a “political massacre of undesirable media” and they called the measures an “act of censorship.”
Mr. Kozak appeared on Russian media denying he was “a Russian agent” and Mr. Medvedchuk said the sanctions were politically motivated due to the president’s diminishing approval ratings.
“[Mr.] Zelenskyy’s rating is falling rapidly not because of TV channels, but because he refuses to answer important questions for Ukrainians,” Mr. Medvedchuk said.
Recent polls have shown dipping ratings for the pro-presidential Servant of the People party.
According to a survey conducted on January 27-February 1 by the respected Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, Mr. Zelenskyy’s party had 22.1 percent support, as opposed to 17.5 percent for OPFL.
The two lawmakers, along with other key members of OPFL, blocked the rostrum in parliament on February 3 to denounce the sanctions. Those sanctions prevent Mr. Kozak from using his property and they block his assets, restrict trade and impose transportation restrictions. The sanctions also block Mr. Kozak’s ability to receive licenses and permits.
Speaking at the podium, OPFL party co-chairman Vadym Rabinovych called the legislature and the president “fascist devils.” They then sang a Soviet World War II-era song.
As of February 4, the three TV channels are still accessible through livestream platforms on their websites and respective YouTube channels. Culture and Information Policy Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko has asked the video streaming company to cut them off. NSDC Secretary Oleksiy Danilov said at a briefing that regional TV stations will be monitored for pro-Russian content.
A study by watchdog Detektor Media found in autumn last year that the three sanctioned TV channels were responsible for more than half of the registered cases of “pro-Russian propaganda and disinformation” in Ukraine, according to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection group (KHPG).
Messrs. Medvedchuk and Kozak have been documented by Skhemy, an investigative journalism project of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, of making more than a dozen roundtrip flights to Moscow since 2018 despite bans in place for direct flights to the Russian capital. They have enjoyed privileged permission for the trips that have involved meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin leader is the godfather to one of Mr. Medvedchuk’s daughters.
Watchdog Anticorruption Action Center also alleged that Mr. Kozak has since 2014 been involved in the supply of coal from occupied territory in Donbas. That territory is controlled by two Russian proxy political entities that Kyiv deems terrorist organizations.
One of Ukraine’s two claims against Moscow at the UN’s International Court of Justice is that “Russia is in breach of the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, by arming and financing the Russian pseudo-republics,” KHPG stated.
Mr. Kozak has denied the allegations, including “cooperation” with any aggressor states.
Mr. Rabinovych spent nine years in prison for theft of state assets during the late Soviet era. An Israeli passport holder, Mr. Rabinovych had been banned from entering the country in 1999 by the SBU, Ukraine’s security service, “for damage to the Ukrainian economy” and being “a threat to national security.”
He added that a congress of the 44 party members would be held to determine further action and that impeachment proceedings will commence in parliament.
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov said the decision to black out the channels “does not correspond to either international norms and standards, or the general understanding of freedom of the media.”
Meanwhile, the U.S., Canada and Britain backed the move, whereas the European Union’s reaction was lukewarm.
The U.S. embassy tweeted that it supported the efforts “to counter Russia’s malign influence in line with law, in defense of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
On Facebook, the Canadian embassy said it “recognizes the challenges Ukraine faces in the hybrid war being waged against it” and voiced its support for “Ukraine’s use of lawful mechanisms to preserve its sovereignty, while also preserving media freedom.”
Britain’s ambassador to Ukraine, Melinda Simmons, tweeted that she welcomed the “bold action in tackling disinformation, which causes real harm to Ukraine.”
The EU questioned Mr. Zelenskyy’s move.
A spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote in a statement that “while Ukraine’s effort to protect its…national security, as well as to defend itself from information manipulation are legitimate…this 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.”
A joint statement by 10 prominent Ukrainian civil society organizations, including disinformation watchdog Stop Fake, supported the measures.
They said the alleged Russian Trojan Horse channels “constitute tools of foreign influence operations, and therefore [are] a systemic threat to the information security of Ukraine.”
They concluded by saying the channels “cannot be considered genuine media intending to provide objective and unbiased information for the good of the public.”
The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists called the move “an extra-judicial and politically motivated ban and a blatant attack on press freedom that must be urgently reversed.”