Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a five-year ban on three pro-Russian channels on February 2nd. Although the United States embassy and Ukrainian journalists welcomed this move, the ban carries greater domestic and geopolitical implications.
Zelenskyy sanctioned channels 112 Ukraine, NewsOne, and Zik TV following a decision made by the National Security and Defense Council. The Council advised the termination of broadcasting licensing for three channels legally belonging to Taras Kozak, a member of the pro-Russian Opposition Platform For Life (OPZZh) party. Kozak, who owns two houses in annexed Crimea, is linked to the alleged owner of the three channels, Viktor Medvedchuk. Medvedchuk is a Ukrainian oligarch, the head OPZZh’s political council, and has personal ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The pro-Kremlin politician denies any media ownership in Ukraine.
The Minister of Culture and Information Policy, Oleksandr Tkachenko further called on YouTube to remove the joint “Stop Censorship of 112 Ukraine, NewsOne and ZIK TV” channel. Roman Lozinsky, a member of the Holos party pushed for the exclusion of politicians, journalists, and cameramen affiliated with the banned channels.
112 Ukraine, NewsOne, and ZIK TV continue to have a large online presence, where they equate Zelenskyy’s decision to ban them with the kind of media censorship seen in North Korea. The channels accused the Ukrainian government of restricting freedom of the press and violating journalists’ constitutional rights. Russian Permanent Representative to the Council of Europe Ivan Soltanovsky criticized Ukrainians and Latvians, the latter banning five Russian channels back on February 1st, for “mass human rights violations.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the Ukrainian decision, and the West’s subsequent support, as hypocritical, and in contradiction with international norms regarding freedom of press.
European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell expressed concern for Ukraine’s abrupt termination of the channels. He noted that although Ukraine is defending its “territorial integrity and national security” against Russian “manipulation,” the act might have negative repercussions on freedom in Ukrainian media.
In a joint statement, Ukrainian civil society organizations said Ukraine did not violate press rights, citing the Office of the President of Ukraine’s information about the foreign financing of the channels. The press release accused the channels of using anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western rhetoric, supporting Russian aggression in Donbas, unlawfully firing journalists with different political views, and being a political platform for OPZZh.
Unlike the EU, the U.S. Embassy publicly backed Ukraine stating that those efforts are justified given “Russia’s malign influence” over Ukrainian media.
Starting in 2014, Ukraine has embraced a “cultural revival” trajectory as a form of national security. For example, radio stations adopted a Ukrainian-language quota, which boosted the Ukrainian music industry. In August 2014, Ukraine banned 14 Russian television channels such as Russia Today and Life News. The Russian Foreign Ministry also has issued a statement noting that the West and Ukraine blatantly support censorship. Furthermore, Ukraine terminated the broadcast of Russian opposition channel Dozhd (TV Rain) following their remarks on Russian legal possession of Crimea.
Atlantic Council Nonresident Fellow Taras Kuzio highlights that the ban of three channels was significant for Ukrainian national sovereignty as OPZZh has growing ratings. Kuzio notes that Zelenskyy’s ban came at a perfect time when the U.S. President Joe Biden began to shape his foreign policies. Appealing to the U.S. could secure more financial or military support for Ukraine.
Moldova is a prime example of why Russian channels pose a political threat in Eastern European countries. Moldova’s ex-President Igor Dodon, like Ukrainian Taras Kozak, was allegedly closely affiliated with Accent TV. The television network allowed for broadcasting Russia’s main channel, Perviy Kanal. Russian channels are preferred among 31 percent of Moldovans, which imposes foreign influence over Moldovan elections.
112 Ukraine, NewsOne, and Zik TV censor anti-Kremlin news making them not a reliable source of information. The Institute of Mass Media in Ukraine (IMI) found that alleged Medvedchuk channels refrained from covering Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s investigation into his poisoners. A similar approach was echoed by Kremlin-sponsored channels.
112 Ukraine could be potentially destabilizing for Ukrainian image in the West. The channel’s website is among the first English-language news outlets that appear when searching for “Ukraine news.” Therefore, their narratives can affect both eastern regions of Ukraine and the public abroad.
112 Ukraine online publication also has a limited number of ads and no subscriptions. Its ad-free platform may signify that the channel obtains financial support from other sources. Ukraine will have to prove that the channels received Russian funding from abroad to invalidate claims of censorship and violations of freedom of the press.
Many publications claim that the termination of the three channels in addition to Zelenskyy’s recent Axios interview, where he rhetorically asks Biden why Ukraine is still not part of NATO, signifies a bold move towards the West. His traditionally centrist position, interested in normalizing relations with Russia, has won him overwhelming support across the country. However, it is important to note that “nationalist” ex-President Petro Poroshenko did not ban these TV stations, perhaps fearing the damage to his presidential ratings. Presidential elections in 2024 may reflect what Zelensky’s recent switch in alignment might imply for his reelection.
Image Source: DW