Pro-Russian lawmakers protest ban of TV channels while West welcomes it
Members of Ukraine’s 44-seat pro-Russian parliament faction Opposition Platform — For Life vowed to impeach President Volodymyr Zelensky over his decision to impose harsh sanctions on three pro-Russian TV channels, which effectively terminated their broadcasting.
The party accused Zelensky of censorship and called him a “fascist devil” over the ban of their propaganda channels.
In a bold move, president Zelensky late on Feb. 2 introduced five-year financial sanctions on Opposition Platform lawmaker Taras Kozak, who owns three TV news channels: 112 Ukraine, NewsOne and ZIK. The channels have been spreading disinformation and pushing a pro-Kremlin and anti-Western agenda.
Ukrainian media and politicians allege that Kozak is just the formal owner of the channels, which are really controlled by Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian oligarch and friend of President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Both Kozak and Medvedchuk deny it.
As of Feb. 3 afternoon, the TV channels were available only via online streaming on YouTube.
The decision to block the three notoriously pro-Russian channels drew praise from many in Ukraine, including Zelensky’s critics among activists and observers.
To those who criticize it as an attack on freedom of speech, Zelensky said the move was part of the information war that Ukraine has to fight.
“Ukraine strongly supports freedom of speech but not propaganda financed by the aggressor country (Russia) that undermines Ukraine on its way to European Union and Euro-Atlantic integration,” Zelensky said in a statement on Feb. 3. “The fight for independence is a fight in the information war for truth and European values.”
The U.S. embassy in Kyiv endorsed the ban.
“The United States supports Ukraine’s efforts yesterday to counter Russia’s malign influence, in line with Ukrainian law, in defense of its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the embassy said on Feb. 3. “We must all work together to prevent disinformation from being deployed as a weapon in an information war against sovereign states.”
The penalties were also reportedly backed by the European Union, according to Mykola Tochytskiy, the head of Ukraine’s mission in Brussels. Although there has been no official statement yet, Tochytskiy said that “the European Commission and European External Action Service offered a very approving reaction” to the sanctions against pro-Russian channels.
Unsurprisingly, the Kremlin decried the sanctions, with Putin’s spokesman Dmitriy Peskov saying that they “don’t meet the international standards or the general understanding of media freedom.” Russia has a notoriously hostile environment for media. It ranks 149th on the World Press Freedom Index, which lists 180 countries.
Nature of sanctions
While the sanctions were imposed following a closed-door vote by the country’s National Security and Defense Council, Ukrainian media reported some details of the meeting.
Ukrainska Pravda, citing their sources among the members of the council, reported that the formal reason for sanctioning Kozak and his companies was his involvement in illicit coal supplies from Russian-occupied Donbas, investigated by Ukrainian secret services.
This was legally interpreted as sponsorship of terrorism and used as the reason to impose sweeping sanctions on Kozak. The three TV channels were allegedly funded by the money coming from the illicit coal supplies.
Apart from that, the council clipped the wings of Medvedchuk and Kozak, sanctioning two airline companies — Moldova-based JET4U S.R.L and Portuguese ET4U LDA — that own private jets which the two lawmakers have used, including for frequent travels to Russia.
Zelensky and the National Security and Defense Council showed their willingness to get tough on Jan. 29, when they sanctioned Chinese company Skyrizon, which has been trying to acquire Ukrainian aircraft engine manufacturer Motor Sich. In spite of Skyrizon’s $3.5 billion arbitration claim against Ukraine for freezing the deal, Zelensky vowed that he will not let foreigners buy a controlling stake in Motor Sich.