No, Putin’s compadre shouldn’t be allowed to run propagandist TV in Ukraine

Medvedchuk-owned News One TV channel's ongoing and upcoming program names announced over color-bar pattern instead of its TV picture after President Zelenskyi enabled decision on sanctioning the channel's nominal owner. Photo: itc.ua 

Hybrid War

On 2 February 2021, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy enabled the decision of the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) to sanction an ally of “Putin’s compadre” Viktor Medvedchuk, MP Taras Kozak, and Kozak’s TV channels ZIK, 112, and NewsOne for five years.

Medvedchuk, whose daughter has Russian President Putin as a godfather, is widely considered to be the real owner of these TV stations.

Ukraine’s Presidential Office called funding the channels from the Russian Federation as one of the reasons for sanctioning them. Unnamed sources of Ukrainska Pravda and ZN.ua explained that the sanctions are, in fact, linked to illegal shipments of coal from Russian-occupied territories and the profits are used to fund the TV channels.

In a joint statement, the three TV channels promised to continue their activities and accused Zelenskyy of a “political massacre of undesirable media.” Overnight into 3 February, various broadcasters started taking the three channels off-air, and on the same day MPs from Kozak and Medvedchuk’s party, the Opposition Platform – For Life (OPFL), promised to initiate the impeachment process for Zelenskyy.

Does the situation have something in common with a crackdown on free speech or are the sanctioned channels really a threat to Ukraine’s democracy? The second option seems to be more plausible and here is why.

Anti-Ukrainian Russian propaganda narratives on sanctioned channels

Back in 2016, the Ukrainian fact-checking organization StopFake identified 18 major Ukraine-related false narratives that had persisted in the Russian press since the beginning of the Russian aggression in 2014 to this day. In October 2020, Detektor Media’s analysis of disinformation in Russian and pro-Russian media found 12 key Ukraine-related narratives that were in tune with messages of the Kremlin’s propaganda, which were basically similar to those found earlier by StopFake, yet updated in light of the changes to the political situation that occurred in the recent years.

Taras Kozak (left) and Viktor Medvedchuk (right). Source: portal.lviv.ua

According to the results of the monitoring of pro-Russian disinformation narratives conducted by Detektor Media in the fall of 2020, Medvedchuk Group’s TV channels were responsible for more than half of the recorded cases of pro-Russian propaganda in Ukraine.

As the sanctioned ZIK, 112, NewsOne channels have been owned by members of the major pro-Russian party in Ukraine, OPFL, their primary goal is to push a partisan agenda, which was literally admitted on air by media workers of the channels. For example, host Viacheslav Pikhovshek once said on NewsOne,

“I am working to ensure that the Opposition Platform – For Life achieves maximum electoral success.”

As Detektor Media’s columnist Yaroslav Zubchenko put it,

[In TV programs on those channels,] the OPFL people’s deputies could shut the “journalists” up when the latter tried to interrupt them, although most of the time the moderators were silent while the OPFL members were delivering their monologues. For instance, during [OPFL MP] Vadym Rabynovych’s ‘interview,’ the ‘journalists’ didn’t say anything for 15 minutes. And in conversations with [Putin’s ally, MP] Medvedchuk, the interviewers avoided asking even the least thorny questions.

In addition to the on-camera work, the lack of freedom of speech extended to editorial policy. For example, ZIK had been silent for more than four days about protests in Belarus. At the end of January, Medvedchuk’s channels avoided mentioning Alexei Navalny’s investigation into Putin’s palace.

Read also: Putin crony Medvedchuk gains hold of Ukrainian TV channel ZIK, causing uproar in media community (2019)

As a pro-Russian political force, the OPFL, of course, fully supports the Kremlin’s policies towards Ukraine, which includes but isn’t limited to backing Russia’s anti-Ukrainian propaganda.

MP Vadym Rabynovych

The broadcasting regulatory body — the National Council for TV and Radio Broadcasting (NCTRB) — sanctioned and fined the now-banned channels many times before.

For example, the latest unscheduled inspection of 112’s content showed that the station’s programs contained “calls to unleash an aggressive war,” war propaganda, and “incitement of national, racial, or religious enmity” voiced on-air by many channel’s pundits, among whom happened to be the leaders of the OPFL, Vadym Rabynovych and Viktor Medvedchuk.

Here are the most often used propaganda narratives identified by StopFake and Detektor Media and just several examples of how the newly-sanctioned TV channels had pushed such messages.

The Euromaidan Revolution as a “coup d’etat“

A blog by ZIK presenter Ostap Drozdov published on Channel 112’s website dated November 2014 questions the legitimacy of the post-Maidan Ukrainian government and glozes over the idea that the revolution that ousted the pro-Russian corrupt president Yanukovych could have actually been a coup.

Mykola Azarov, Yanukovych-times prime minister (2010-2014) hiding in Russia from Ukrainian justice since 2014, in his interview with Channel 112, aired on 16 February 2019. Screenshot: Youtube/112 Україна

In February 2019, the NCTRB was going to inspect Channel 112 over giving its air time to Yanukovych-times fugitive PM Mykola Azarov, who’s been wanted in Ukraine while hiding in Russia since 2014. In one of his statements, Azarov hit two narratives at once, “the Maidan as a coup” and “Nazis rule Ukraine,”

“But remember, the basis of the conflict is a coup d’etat. Would there be no coup d’etat, there would have been early elections – there would be Crimea in Ukraine, and there would be Donbas in Ukraine, there would be peace, harmony and stability. This clearly showed the nationalist neo-Nazi nature of the authorities that came to power,” said Azarov on 112.

In November 2020 on NewsOne, Yanukovych’s former party colleague and Azarov’s minister Olena Lukash depicted 2013-2014 protests in Ukraine as a coup, alleging that there was an armed seizure of state power.

On the 2020 anniversary of the beginning of the Euromaidan Revolution, some Iryna Palamar, a frequent commentator in various TV shows of all the three channels, stated on NewsOne that Euromaidan was a coup d’etat aimed at the seizure of resources, including financial, and population.

Ukraine as a “fascist state“

In his 2020 VE Day interview on 112, MP Vadym Rabynovych implied that Nazis have been influential in Ukraine, saying,

“Yes, we are losing the battle to fascism today. But I want all the Nazis to be reminded: they were winning in the Second World War at its beginning, but it ended with the Nuremberg Trials. And when the Soviet army entered Germany, there were no accomplices of the Nazis – everyone was the regime’s victim,” was his threat to the imaginary enemy.

Medvedchuk’s media equated the Ukrainian view of history with Nazism and, on Zik, Renat Kuzmin even called the establishment of the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church “an element of the Nazi ideology.”

Ukraine as a “failed state“ governed from abroad

Among the “Ukraine failed state” narratives regularly promoted on the sanctioned channels, the most prominent subject is presenting Ukraine as an externally governed country.

For example, in early 2019, politician and TV host Yevhen Chervonenko claimed on 112 that Ukraine was governed by the interests of other forces, Russian, American, and European, which has been part of the pro-Kremlin narrative that Ukraine had allegedly lost its sovereignty and was governed from the EU and the US.

Viktor Medvedchuk in his February 2019 interview on 112 stated that the US and the EU “installed the external governance in my country.”

Later that year, the idea resurfaced in Medvedchuk’s interview with NewOne, when he reiterated that Ukraine has ostensibly been under external control from the US.

Read also: Viktor Medvedchuk: Crimea is Russia and Ukraine is a colony of the West

In late 2020 in his speech at some protest action streamed live on NewsOne, OPFL MP Vadym Rabynovych claimed that

“…conquerors came to us, those who, under the guise of aid, killed the Ukrainian economy [i.e. the US and the EU]… The International Monetary Fund needs us like a cash cow – to take the land, destroy the industry, it needs cheaply developed slaves.”

In November 2020 on Zik, fugitive PM Azarov claimed live by a video connection that Ukraine was under complete external control, with all appointments regulated and decided outside Ukraine.

In December 2020, all three now sanctioned stations — 112, NewsOne, Zik — supported the Kremlin marketing efforts for the unapproved Russian anti-COVID-19 vaccine Sputnik-V and speculated in segments of their shows that the US tasked Ukrainian Health Minister Maksym Stepanov with discrediting the Russian vaccine.

Infographic by uacrisis.org

“Russia is not a part of the occupation/war in Ukraine, there is a civil war“

In the 2019 interview with fugitive PM Azarov on Channel 112, he alleged that the “current regime in Kyiv” (i.e. post-Maidan authorities) brought conflict to Ukraine which led to war, the loss of Crimea, shootings at Maidan, economic collapse, impoverishment of the people.

In his abovementioned 2019 interview with 112, Viktor Medvedchuk speculated,

“When they [Russians] say that “they are not there [i.e. Russian soldiers don’t fight in the Donbas],” but in our country they say, “No, they are there, we know it,” then why the OSCE SMM and other international organizations do not know this? I have doubts: maybe they really are not there?”

Anchor Ruslan Kotsaba stated in 2019 on NewsOne that “the attempt was to subdue the insurgent Donbas with the help of tanks […] It was the Kyiv conspirators and, let’s call them so, traitors who illegally proclaimed an anti-terrorist operation there on 14 April [2014].”

Meanwhile, the operation actually was Ukraine’s response to the armed assault on two Ukrainian cities in Donetsk Oblast, when the Russian-trained well-armed group by Russian GRU officer Igor Girkin took control of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.

The channels glorified Russian-controlled militia formations in occupied Donbas and attempted to treat them as a side to the conflict instead of Russia, the real puppet master behind them, says columnist Yaroslav Zubchenko, further providing a few examples:

Olena Lukash on NewsOne called those terrorist group “the Donbas that didn’t surrender [to Ukraine].” And she claimed that Russia helps Donbas in the same way that the United States or the EU helps us [Ukraine].

[OPFL MP] Renat Kuzmin reasoned on 112, “If the creation of the LDNR was a desperate attempt to protect these territories from the state criminals who seized power in Kyiv […] Then these people acted in a state of necessary defense. They defended themselves. ”

On NewsOne, [OPFL politician] Oleksandr Kachnyi praised the occupied territories, saying that they live there “in those Ukraine, which still had a language, which still had the same faith, which had peace, in which no one forced anything. They don’t have street renamings, they haven’t demolished monuments yet, they don’t have decommunization.”

Discrediting the military

The website of Channel 112 was among those Ukrainian and Russian media who promoted in 2019 a story based on a fake blog post supposedly written by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Tracy, the United States Army commander of the Joint Multinational Training Group–Ukraine. The blog post claimed that Ukrainian soldiers were “lazy and reluctant to work,” did “not care about learning English,” and all drank “dangerously high levels of alcohol.” The narrative was in line with the recurring Russian disinformation campaign aimed at denigrating the Ukrainian armed forces.

Territorial disintegration of Ukraine

NewsOne stated that if Ukraine is being built only for the Ukrainian nation, the state will have to be reduced to five oblasts.

“And it should be clear that, although Medvedchuk’s channels are trying to hide behind the argument ‘this is the opinion of the guests, not the position of the channel,’ the guests’ policy is actually the position of a channel. Nothing prevents NewsOne, 112, and ZIK from stopping the invitations of the people who lie about the ‘civil war [in Ukraine].’ But instead, these media invite those most often,” argues Yaroslav Zubchenko

Reactions to the sanctions: support, condemnation, lawsuits

The Ministry of Culture and Information Policy is going to ask YouTube to shut down the 112 Ukraine, NewsOne, and Zik channels, according to the ministry’s head Oleksandr Tkachenko.
NSDC Secretary Oleksiy Danilov stated that Ukraine has many anti-Ukrainian TV channels and the National Security and Defense Council is going impose sanctions on such stations as far as it would receive the relevant documents that confirm the accusations. Meanwhile, the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine Arsen Avakov claims that that in the case of NewsOne, Zik, and 112, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) provided “quite sufficient and exhaustive” materials to form the basis for the NSDC decision on sanctions.

NCTRB head Olha Herasymyuk said that Ukraine must stop the activities of 112 Ukraine, NewsOne, and Zik,

“All these channels had a large number of sanctions imposed by the National [TV and Radio] Council. For what? For hate speech, a denial of the fact of Russian aggression, for the propaganda of supremacy, for nationality-based insults – with a shameful case involving anti-Semitic statements – for the popularization of the [authoritative] bodies of the aggressor country,” she explained.

The President’s Council for Freedom of Speech and Protection of Journalists met online to discuss the situation and decided that it doesn’t see sanctions as a threat to freedom of speech, however, called on the SBU to immediately publish the justification for the established facts of terrorist activity, if possible.

The sanctioned channels “constitute tools of foreign influence operations, and therefore a systemic threat to information security of Ukraine,” reads the joint statement of Ukrainian NGOs countering disinformation that was published by Kyiv-based Ukrainian Crisis Media Center. The signatories stress that the sanctioned against MP Taras Kozak and legal entities linked to him “do not constitute an attack on the freedom of speech.”

Charge d’Affaires of the US Mission to the OSCE Courtney Austrian said at a meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna on 4 February, that the US supports “Ukraine’s decision to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity by countering Russia’s blatant and malign influence” and the “media outlets shut down by Ukraine are well-known tools of Russian propaganda aimed at destabilizing Ukraine.”

Commenting on G7 Ambassadors meeting with President Zelenskyy on 4 February, the G7 Ambassadors’ Support Group in Kyiv reported,

“The ambassadors agreed that there is a need to combat disinformation within the framework of freedom and pluralism of the media,” translates the Ukrainian-language tweet published on the group’s official account.

Meanwhile, the International and European Federation of Journalists (IFJ and EFJ) condemned what they called “an extra-judicial and politically motivated ban and a blatant attack on press freedom that must be urgently reversed.” In this regard, NSDC head Danilov reminded the Federation that the war had been going on in Ukraine for seven years now and advised them to carefully study the content of 112 Ukraine, ZIK, and NewsOne TV channels.

As for the sanctioned MP, Taras Kozak who owns the three sanctioned stations called the NSDC actions illegal, its decision on sanctions an act of censorship, and promised to appeal it in Ukrainian and European courts. And on 4 February, Ukraine’s Supreme Court reported in their press release that private citizens had filed two lawsuits to the Administrative Court of Cassation which is part of the Supreme Court to appeal the President’s decree.

Ironically, on 3 February, MPs Viktor Medvedchuk and Taras Kozak didn’t find a better platform than a live program aired on the Russian state-funded TV channel Rossiya 24 for complaining about the NSDC sanctions for suspected Russian funding of their TV channels. The pro-Russian Ukrainian legislators accused the authorities of “attacking freedom of speech” and of “dictatorship.”

Further reading:

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