By Oleksiy Sorokin
Feb 5, 2021
The free ride of Russian propaganda in Ukraine has ended, for now.
On Feb. 2, President Volodymyr Zelensky issued sanctions against pro-Russian lawmaker Taras Kozak and his three nationwide TV channels — NewsOne, Channel 112, and ZIK.
The three channels have been promoting the Kremlin’s agenda and spreading disinformationfor years. As a result of Zelensky’s decree, they immediately went off the air.
The surprise move is the heaviest blow that Zelensky’s administration has ever struck against pro-Russian forces in Ukraine — and one of the most assertive moves against the Kremlin since Russia started its war against Ukraine in 2014.
Most observers praised the sanctions but some raised concerns that this is an attack on freedom of speech.
“Imposing sanctions is a difficult decision,” Zelensky said. “Ukraine strongly supports freedom of speech but not propaganda financed by the aggressor country that undermines Ukraine on its way to the European Union and Euro-Atlantic integration.”
But the fight against Russian propaganda isn’t over.
Kozak, the owner of the channels, promised to sue to lift the sanctions. He will have formidable backing.
Kozak, who represents the 44-member Opposition Platform — For Life faction in parliament, is widely believed to only be the nominal owner of the media empire. Even the Opposition Platform party members don’t hide the fact that the channels are controlled by party leader Viktor Medvedchuk, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Zelensky’s decree to ban the pro-Russian propaganda in Ukraine is based on the sanctions law last modified in 2018.
Ukraine can introduce sanctions against Ukrainian citizens and companies in two cases: If they are under control or influence of a foreign power or if they sponsor terrorism in Ukraine or abroad.
According to several Ukrainian media, which cited sources in the government, the sanctions against Kozak were introduced because of his ties to illegal shipments of coal from occupied Donbas.
Profits from the illegal coal trade allegedly funded the three TV channels Kozak owns.
In 2016, Ukrainska Pravda news outlet published an investigation, alleging that Kozak was involved in a scheme where coal from the Donbas was sold in Ukraine as coal from South Africa. Ukrainian law says that doing business in occupied territories equates to sponsoring terrorism.
Four years later, the government decided to act.
On Feb. 2, the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine voted in favor of issuing sanctions against Kozak. The Council’s Secretary Oleksiy Danilov said that 17 out of the 18 Council members who were present supported the decision. The president signed the decree into force on the same day.
Parliament Speaker Dmytro Razumkov, elected to parliament on Zelensky’s party ticket, was the only Council member who abstained from the vote. Razumkov said he doesn’t support issuing sanctions against a Ukrainian citizen.
“Anyone who finances terrorism or cooperates with the aggressor country must be held accountable by law (not by sanctions),” said Razumkov, implying that if there’s enough evidence that Kozak sponsored terrorism he must be jailed, not sanctioned.
However, according to the Anti Corruption Action Center, going through courts to block the pro-Russian channels would have taken years. A frequent critic of Zelensky, Vitaly Shabunin, head of the Anti Corruption Action Center, welcomed the sanctions against pro-Russian channels in his comment to Channel 24.
Zelensky’s bold move was largely supported by lawmakers and foreign diplomats.
The United States Embassy in Kyiv has issued a statement “supporting Ukrainian efforts to counter Russia’s malign influence.”
“I welcome Zelensky’s bold action in tackling disinformation, which causes real harm to Ukraine,” wrote U. K. Ambassador to Ukraine Melinda Simmons on Twitter.
Even though the sanctions were based on allegations of sponsoring Russian-led terrorists, it’s no secret that the main goal of the sanctions was to stop Russian propaganda in Ukraine.
Medvedchuk, who is believed to control the three channels and denies it, has been under U.S. sanctions since 2014 for “being a threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
That’s not surprising. Since the beginning of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Medvedchuk sided with Putin, who is the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter.
Medvedchuk’s Russian-based oil businesses are registered to his wife, TV host Oksana Marchenko, while his Ukrainian media holdings were officially registered to his close friend Kozak.
Medvedchuk himself stated on NewsOne that he controls the business registered to his wife. Lawmaker Vadim Rabinovich, co-head of the Opposition Platform party, wrote that the sanctions were imposed on “Medvedchuk’s TV channels.”
“Kozak is Medvedchuk’s wallet, through which he finances projects of Russian hybrid warfare against Ukraine,” said Shabunin. “(Kozak’s channels) are not media, they are instruments of Russia’s hybrid warfare against Ukraine,” he added.
Kozak has denied that he is a nominal owner of Medvedchuk’s TV channels. So has Medvedchuk.
While Medvedchuk and his allies accused Zelensky of censorship and attacks on free speech, the three sanctioned channels had little to do with free speech.
They were actively spreading bigotry and lies, manipulating facts and justifying Russia’s war against Ukraine which has killed over 13,000 people.
“(Zelensky’s decree) puts an end to the abuse of freedom of speech,” said Otar Dovzhenko, a media observer at Detector Media, a non-profit monitoring Ukraine’s media market, who supports the president’s decision.
“As for the formal reason, there are questions. However, we are talking about the Kremlin’s tools in the information war against Ukraine, and in a war, we sometimes have to defend ourselves unconventionally,” he added.
These channels “have nothing to do with media in the classical sense, it is rather a huge production company,” Dovzhenko told the Kyiv Post. “Under the facade of ‘media’, Medvedchuk created a powerful system to create and distribute pro-Russian propaganda and disinformation,” he said.
After Kozak took over ZIK in 2019, dozens of journalists and TV managers announced their resignation from the channel. TV anchor Tetiana Danylenko said that she doesn’t want to “shoot people in the head” with lies by working under Medvedchuk.
Independent journalists in Ukraine have largely denounced Medvedchuk’s channels as propaganda networks and praised their closure.
Fight goes on
However, even though Medvedchuk’s media empire is no more, the fight isn’t over.
Experts are certain that Opposition Platform — For Life party will use its political influence and Ukraine’s corrupt courts to overturn the president’s decision.
On Feb. 4, a lawsuit was filed to the Supreme Court of Ukraine to cancel the sanctions.
“Ukrainian legislation still gives the enemies of Ukraine loopholes to challenge these decisions and they will of course do so,” Servant of the People lawmaker Mykyta Poturaev told the Kyiv Post.
There are at least two legal ways to overturn Zelensky’s decree — through the Supreme Court and through the dubious Constitutional Court, known for supporting Opposition Platform’s questionable motions in the past, such as dismantling anti-corruption agencies and canceling laws that banned unlawful enrichment.
In the Supreme Court, pro-Russian politicians can challenge the legality of Zelensky’s decree. In the Constitutional Court, they can complain about the violation of freedom of speech.
“Parliament failed to solve to problem of (the Constitutional) Court, and this court has already ruled in favor of Russian agents in the past,” said Shabunin. “The Constitutional Court is the weakest link.”
Meanwhile, Shabunin hopes that Ukraine’s foreign partners can help mount pressure on Russian agents in Ukraine.
“Our task right now is to persuade the U.S. to expand their sanctions (on Medvedchuk), to add Medvedchuk’s wife (who owns most of his assets) and Kozak,” said Shabunin.