By Oleksiy Sorokin.

Feb. 3, 2021

Kyiv Post

President Volodymyr Zelensky, on Feb. 2, signed a decree issuing personal sanctions against pro-Russian lawmaker Taras Kozak and his three nationwide TV channels – NewsOne, Channel 112, and ZIK. As a result of Zelensky’s decree, the channels have been immediately shut down.

Zelensky’s decree enforced the sanctions drawn on by the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine earlier the same day.

The sanctions mean a five-year restriction on financial operations, freezing of assets, the nullification of all permits and licenses issued to Kozak and to companies he officially owns.

According to Ukrainian media, Kozak, representing the 44-member Opposition Platform – For Life faction in parliament, is only the nominal owner of the lucrative media empire, while the real owner is the party leader Viktor Medvedchuk, a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Both Medvedchuk and Kozak denied it.

The three blocked channels accused the president of censorship and continued streaming on YouTube.

Pro-Western lawmakers, media, and even the president have long alleged that the media empire is financed by Russia.

“We can assume that the National Security and Defense Council have gathered enough evidence to confirm what the Ukrainian media have been alleging,” lawmaker Mykyta Poturaev, representing Zelensky’s 245-member Servant of the People party, told the Kyiv Post.

Poturaev says that it’s too early to call a victory against Russian propaganda.

“Ukrainian legislation still gives the enemies of Ukraine loopholes to challenge these decisions and they of course will do so,” says Poturaev. “I wouldn’t celebrate just yet, this decision will still need to be defended and its implementation needs to be protected.”

Presidential sanctions

The pro-Russian media empire has been on the president’s radar since he took office in 2019.

In July 2019, lawmaker Poturaev, then advisor to Zelensky, said that the president wanted to launch an investigation into the channels concerning possible funding from the Kremlin.

“The channels of Putin’s (friend) Viktor Medvedchuk are unprofitable, their monthly maintenance costs $1.5 million,” said Poturayev. “The president wants to know if they’re funded by the aggressor state (Russia).”

Now, 1.5 years later, the president ordered to ban the channels.

On Feb. 2, the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine held a vote on issuing personal sanctions against Kozak.

According to the Council’s Secretary Oleksiy Danilov, 17 out of the 19 Council members supported the decision.

Now all assets officially owned by Kozak are under sanctions, their licenses, including TV licenses, are recalled, and Ukrainian companies are banned from doing business with them. Media companies owned by Kozak have been sanctioned separately, meaning that if they switch ownership, they’ll still be under sanctions.

In June 2019, channels owned by Kozak and connected to Medvedchuk had 5% of Ukrainian TV viewership. They have also been among the most-watched news channels in Ukraine.

According to the 2018 law on sanctions, Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council can issue sectoral or personal sanctions against foreign citizens, companies, and countries promoting terrorist activities, leading to the occupation of territory, violating rights and freedoms of citizens, creating obstacles to Ukraine’s economic development and more.

According to the law, sanctions against Ukrainian citizens can be issued only if they act in the name of foreign citizens or foreign governments.

Both Kozak and Medvedchuk are Ukrainian lawmakers, who officially can own only one passport – a Ukrainian one.

“These TV channels are quite actively and often openly used as tools of foreign propaganda in Ukraine,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, advisor to Zelensky’s Chief of Staff, in a comment to the Ukrainian media outlet Ukrainska Pravda.

“Moreover, there is strong evidence of strange ways to finance this propaganda,” he added. “Sanctions against Medvedchuk’s TV channels is about effectively counterfeiting fakes and foreign propaganda.”

Media empire

According to Kozak’s 2019 official asset declaration, he is a multimillionaire with assets in low-profile banks and dividends from Cyprus-based offshore companies. Kozak has brushed off allegations of being a shell owner for multimillionaire Medvedchuk. However, according to Kozak’s 2017 asset declaration, a year before acquiring three TV channels he had just $500,000 in cash, two houses and a land plot in Crimea.

He purchased Channel 112 for Hr 73 million and NewsOne for Hr 42 million, about $4.4 million USD combined.

In 2019, political expert Volodymyr Fesenko told the Kyiv Post that the National Commission for Television and Radio Broadcasting should investigate where Kozak got the money to buy yet another television channel.

After Kozak took over ZIK in 2019, dozens of journalists and TV managers announced their resignation from the ZIK channel. TV anchor Tetiana Danylenko said that she doesn’t want to “shoot people in the head” with lies by working under Medvedchuk.

Medvedchuk’s spokesperson has denied that he owns these television channels.

The channels have been actively echoing Russian propaganda, depicting Russian aggression against Ukraine as a civil war, attacking Ukraine’s language law, and promoting the pro-Russian Opposition Platform – For Life party.

After the presidential decree, Channel 112 has issued an official statement accusing Zelensky of censorship.

“Acting on the direct orders from the president, the National Security and Defense Council banned TV channels of the Novosti media holding on a contrived pretext. We regard this decision of the Council and Zelensky as a political reprisal against opposition media,” the statement reads.