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Ukraine’s President Zelensky blocks three pro-Russian channels linked with Medvedchuk

03.02.2021
Halya Coynash

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From left Kozak, Medvedchuk and the three channels blocked Collage by Liga.net

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has issued a decree effectively preventing three television channels from broadcasting.  The three channels: 112.ua; NewsOne and Zik have been identified by media monitors as responsible for over 50% of the pro-Russian propaganda and disinformation in Ukraine, however there may well be questions over the move’s legality. 

The 2 February Decree formally brought into force a decision, also dated 2 February from Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council ‘On the application of personal special economic and other restrictive measures (sanctions)’.  The sanctions are against Ukrainian MP Taras Kozak and his companies, including those linked with the three channels which he bought in 2018-19.   Kozak is a close associate of Viktor Medvedchuk, the controversial pro-Russian politician and friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is widely viewed as being the real force behind the television channels.  Medvedchuk is the leader of the parliamentary faction ‘Opposition Platform – For Life’, with Kozak one of its members.   The sanctions are imposed for five years, preventing Kozak from making use of his property and blocking any television broadcasting.  On 112.ua, Kozak has asserted that this is ‘political reprisals from Zelensky’ because his party is doing well, while public opinion polls show that the ‘Servant of the People’ party is losing popularity.

He also claims that this is the “latest act of censorship against the channel(s)”, with it near guaranteed that this line will also be taken by Russian state media.  On 112.ua, Kozak assured their viewers that the channels would continue to broadcast.

This, in fact, seems unlikely.  Mykhailo Zhernakov, Head of the Board of the DEJURE Foundation, pointed out on Tuesday evening that the District Administrative Court in Kyiv [OACK], which is notorious for revoking decisions or imposing controversial stays of proceedings, is powerless in this case.  Sanctions are introduced by presidential decree, and these fall under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.  The latter, he says, cannot suspend the sanctions until they have considered the case on its merits, since presidential decrees are not subject to stays of proceedings.

The situation here may not bel clear-cut.  Detector Media has pointed out that Ukraine’s Law on Sanctions does not appear to envisage sanctions being imposed on a Ukrainian citizen, unless they fall under the category of “individuals who engage in terrorist activities”. Back in December 2020, former President Petro Poroshenko was asked why he had not imposed sanctions against Medvedchuk and the media under his control, as had been proposed in a Verkhovna Rada Resolution, passed in October 2018. Poroshenko cited both the above-mentioned law and Ukraine’s Constitution as prohibiting the application of sanctions against Ukrainian citizens.  

Both Medvedchuk and Kozak are undoubtedly Ukrainian citizens. While in this case, concerns have long been expressed about the kind of manipulative reporting and propaganda often used on the channels targeted in Zelensky’s decree, it might be argued that the same sanctions could be used against political opponents and against media they own.

Dzerkalo Tyzhnya reported on 3 February, citing unnamed sources within the SBU [Security Service] and Office of the President, that the sanctions had been imposed because of Kozak’s alleged supplies of coal from occupied territory. There had, reportedly, been an investigation, carried out by Ukraine’s security service, which established that the methods used organize such supplies helped finance terrorism. One of two claims brought by Ukraine against Russia 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 in occupied Donbas. 

On 1 February, Ukraine’s National Broadcasting Council revoked a fine and formal warning against 112.ua, imposed on 28 January over alleged incitement to enmity and propaganda of war by people taking part in broadcasts.  They were revoked because it became clear that 112.ua representatives had previously asked for the 28 January hearing to be postponed due to the pandemic.

Certainly 112.ua and NewsOne are very often quoted in monitoring of Russian or pro-Russian propaganda and disinformation in Ukrainian media, as those by Otar Dovzhenko, journalist and media critic and Petro Burkovsky, political analyst for the Democratic Initiatives Foundation.  The first of these studies was of pro-Russian disinformation narratives during the period of the recent local elections.   22% of such disinformation or narrative that echoes Kremlin propaganda was found to have come from 112.ua; with ZIK responsible for 20% and NewsOne – 14%.  The same channels in December studiously avoided mentioning Alexei Navalny’s poisoning with the use of a prohibited nerve gas, a subject which cannot fail to point to high-level Russian involvement in the attempt to murder a political opponent. 

In answer to the question, why is there still no peace in Donbas, Burkovsky notes, an answer is given that masks and denies Russian aggression, with it claimed that “Zelensky doesn’t want to fulfil the Minsk Accord”.  Other themes that are standard both for Russian state-controlled media, and for the Medvedchuk – Kozak controlled media include Ukraine’s supposed imminent economic collapse;  explosive division within the country, claims that ‘Ukrainian nationalism’ is anti-Russian and that, for example, the requirement that shop assistants use Ukrainian and other aspects of language legislation are “forced Ukrainization’.

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