In the late evening of 2 February, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy put into action a decision of the National Security and Defence Council to sanction Taras Kozak, an MP from the pro-Russian Opposition Platform for Life, and his TV channels ZIK, 112, and NewsOne. Taras Kozak is an ally of Viktor Medvedchuk, another Opposition Platform for Life MP and Vladimir Putin’s number one man in Ukraine.
This means that these three channels, which are referred to as “media from Medvedchuk’s group,” have been effectively outlawed.
Kozak and his assets have been sanctioned for five years. In particular, the sanctions block his assets, restrict trade operations, place transit and transportation restrictions, prevent the withdrawal of assets from Ukraine, and annul licenses and other permissions. Kozaks’ three media channels and their regional departments have been likewise sanctioned.
Legally speaking, Ukraine can impose sanctions on a foreign state, a foreign legal entity, a legal entity under the control of a foreign legal entity or a non-resident individual, foreigners, stateless persons, as well as entities engaged in terrorist activities. So it remains to be seen what legal mechanisms have been employed to sanction Ukrainian citizen Kozak and his media.
Sanctions is a difficult decision. #Ukraine strongly supports #FreedomOfSpeech. Not propaganda financed by the aggressor country that undermines Ukraine on its way to #EU & EuroAtlantic integration.Fight for independence is fight in the information war for truth & European values
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) February 3, 2021
His spokesperson Iuliia Mendel wrote on Facebook that “there is even proof that these channels are funded from Russia.”
Based on its sources, the Ukrainian media Ukrainska Pravda elaborated that the NSDC argued for the introduction of sanctions based on information from Ukraine’s special services that the media channels were funded by companies located in the Russian proxy “Luhansk People’s Republic” (“LNR”).
Particularly, the NSDC’s justification mentioned that the “LNR”-based, Medvedchuk-curated company LLC “Trading House ‘Donskie Ugli'” sold coal procured in the “LNR” to Russia. The revenues from its activities filled up the coffers of the “LNR” and funded Medvedchuk’s channels.
Ukrainska Pravda wrote that in 2020, the company delivered 500,000 tons of coal to the Thermal Power Plant in Russia’s Novocherkassk, located not far from the border of the “LNR.” In this relation, Ukraine’s Security Service had opened criminal proceedings under article 258-5, “Funding terrorism,” Ukrainska Pravda reports. The veracity of this data was confirmed by sources of Euromaidan Press in the NSDC.
“Tools of foreign propaganda”
The activities of the three channels have vexed many patriotic Ukrainians; calls to block the channels have been heard regularly in the last years. However, as former president Petro Poroshenko stated while explaining why the channels were not blocked during his presidency, Ukrainian citizens and companies can’t be sanctioned.
Apparently, a way has now been found.
In a comment to Ukrainska Pravda, Mykhailo Podoliak, adviser to the head of the President’s Office, stated that the channels are “often openly used as tools of foreign propaganda in Ukraine” and that “ they no longer work as ordinary television broadcasters should.” He hinted that there is “strong evidence of the strange ways of this propaganda’s funding” and a murky story related to the transfer of the companies’ ownership.
“Of course, sanctions against Mr. Medvedchuk’s TV channels are not about the media at all and not about the freedom of speech. They are about effectively counterfeiting fakes and foreign propaganda.
This is something that has not been done in all the past years, when this media bubble was just growing. When, with the tacit connivance, and sometimes with the active assistance of the previous authorities, when this propaganda pool was formed, it strengthened and began to actively ‘kill’ our values.”
In a statement published on 112, the media group claims it is a victim of a “political massacre of undesirable media.”
According to the monitoring of the media watchdog Detektor Media, in autumn 2020 the three above-mentioned channels were responsible for more than half of the registered cases of pro-Russian propaganda in Ukraine.
The media watchdog informed that as of 23:00 Kyiv time, the sanctioned channels announced a special broadcast devoted to their closure. Detektor Media, referring to its readers, informed that in some cable networks the signal is disappearing. However, online broadcasting was ongoing.
Why had activists demanded to block these channels?
To understand why calls to block the channels were common in Ukraine, let’s examine how Kozak’s media assets shaped the Ukrainian media ecosystem.
Since the Euromaidan revolution, Ukraine has struggled to dam the flood of Russian propaganda; the channels of Viktor Medvedchuk, who refers to Vladimir Putin as his “personal friend,” directly sabotage these attempts.
They compare the storming of the United States Capitol to the Euromaidan Revolution, promote Russia’s vaccine while disseminating fake stories about the others, and in general inject Russian narratives into the Ukrainian information field.
As Russia’s hybrid war, fueled by disinformation and propaganda, drags into its seventh year, these toxic information operations undermine Ukrainians’ trust in their country — and ramp up support for the aggressor. And Ukraine’s oligarchic-dominated, corrupt media ecosystem is their perfect enabler.
For many years, TV had defined Ukraine’s information environment. After the Orange Revolution in 2004, the country managed to get rid of its toxic pro-government censorship. Enjoying some years without it, the country soon fell into the trap of censorship’s softer version, jeansa – manipulative promoted materials that covertly lobby a political agenda. Jeansa allows keeping politicians and their agenda in the spotlight by broadcasting their comments and giving them undeserved coverage.
Pro-Viktor Medvedchuk jeansa has dominated various Ukrainian media ever since. For example, in 2011 the media watchdog Mediasapiens published an article titled “The king of Jeansa, Viktor Medvedchuk.”
TV still an important source of news for Ukrainians
However, jeansa is only one component of Ukraine’s distorted, oligarch-dependent TV ecosystem. In general, the situation in the media reflects the general situation of oligarchic control in the country. Ukrainian oligarchs Rinat Akhmetov, Ihor Kolomoyskyi, Viktor Pinchuk, Dmytro Firtash, Petro Poroshenko, and Viktor Medvedchuk are the people who control virtually all Ukrainian TV.
Previously preferring to remain in the shadows, Medvedchuk started appearing in this company about two years ago. In 2018, his ally and business partner Taras Kozak, also an MP, purchased the TV channels 112 Ukrayina and NewsOne. In summer 2019, Kozak also became an owner of the ZIK channel. After the purchase, ZIK’s director-general resigned, along with several journalists.
Apart from the three channels, Medvedchuk’s allies from the Opposition Platform for Life are occupying the air of one of the top-6 nationwide TV-channels Inter. The channel belongs to exiled oligarch Dmytro Firtash and the Opposition Platform for Life MP Serhiy Liovochkin.
Moreover, in summer 2020 Ukrainian journalists revealed that Medvedchuk listed shares in two channels of the 1+1 Media holding owned by the oligarch Kolomoyskyi in his declaration of assets for 2019. One of these channels, 1+1, is in the Ukrainian top three.
In that 52%, “Medvedchuk’s group” is relatively influential. According to a monitoring of TV ratings by Detektor Media, the three media outlets affiliated to Medvedchuk form a monolithic block in the niche of information channels, which broadcast news and political shows. They hold second, third, and fourth positions among informational channels and repeatedly broadcast almost the same messages every day. These messages spread further through the internet through similar pro-Russian online media, social media, and bloggers, eventually influencing Ukrainian public opinion.
What are these messages?
A recent example: comparing the storming of the US Capitol with Euromaidan
While most Ukrainians celebrated Christmas Eve on 6 January, supporters of Donald Trump seized the US Capitol. Despite Christmas being one of the most popular holidays in Ukraine, events in the US still received extensive coverage. Pro-Russian media used the occasion to remind viewers of its narratives.
In his media analysis, Otar Dovzhenko, the head of the Monitoring Center of the Detektor Media watchdog, provides an example of the ZIK channel which devoted a two-hour program to the situation in the United States. Its main point was an attempt to draw parallels between the seizure of the Capitol and Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan Revolution.
The narrative was based on the fact that both in Ukraine and in the US, protesters seized government buildings. Also, the US law enforcement forces were compared to the Ukrainian ones during the Euromaidan Revolution, suggesting that it is not fair to blame the Ukrainian siloviki for the deaths of 111 protesters in 2013-2014.
Among the other topics of the ZIK’s talk show about the Capitol events, Dovzhenko names the following:
- Don’t let the Americans preach democracy to the world,
- The US fell into the same trap it was preparing for other countries, supporting color revolutions.
- There is a significant split in the US, the West won’t help Ukraine.
The expert stresses that discrediting the memory of the Euromaidan Revolution and disseminating anti-western messages has become common in the Ukrainian informational field.
Propaganda for the Russian vaccine
Sputnik V, the undertested Russian vaccine against coronavirus, became a significant aspect of the information war in Ukraine’s pro-Russian media. When Medvedchuk had a personal meeting with Vladimir Putin in October 2020, pro-Russian channels in Ukraine explained that the Ukrainian MP asked Russia’s president to consider supplying the Russian vaccine Sputnik V to Ukraine. As was covered, Medvedchuk tested the vaccine on himself. Detektor Media monitoring clarifies that neither Mevedchuk nor the journalists elaborated that if the vaccine was supplied without a certificate by the Healthcare Ministry of Ukraine, it would be considered smuggling.
Intense coverage of the Russian vaccine in the Ukrainian media was observed before the New Year. One more message was added to the topic: discrediting “western vaccines.”
“’Western vaccines’ have not yet passed the final third clinical trial. Viktor Medvedchuk, the head of the political council of the Opposition Platform for Life stated. All of them will complete this procedure in at least a year or two, while the Russian vaccine will pass this stage next year,” a program at 112 Ukrayina explained at the time when three western vaccines had already passed the third stage of trials. Medvedchuk was the only source of the information.
The trend continued in 2021. Starting from 5 January, different pro-Russian media in Ukraine ramped up social tensions by promoting the narrative of “VIP vaccination,” asserting that rich people can secretly vaccinate themselves with contraband vaccines. The story started from two online media with dubious reputations, Obozrevatel, and strana.ua, and soon became popular at other pro-Russian media, including in the ones affiliated with Medvedchuk. The news has also been disseminated in Russia.
As Detektor Media analyzes, the main leitmotif of the whole campaign is that the Russian vaccine Sputnik V is Ukraine’s only chance to survive. While criticizing the Ukrainian government’s poor efforts to combat the virus, pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine take every opportunity to promote the Russian vaccine.
Blaming the hand of Soros
As with Russian propaganda, George Soros is one of the chief targets of pro-Russian elements in Ukraine. The most recent scandal related to the philanthropic billionaire occurred at the end of 2020. On 13 November, Medvedchuk’s ZIK channel held a TV marathon that was initially titled “Revenge of the Sorosiatnya,” during which Soros was accused of establishing control over Ukraine through the hands of his alleged minions — civic activists receiving grants from his foundation.
Following the marathon, the Independent Media Council (IMC), a public monitoring and advisory body, established that the program had violated the law, the Code of Ethics of Ukrainian Journalists and the channel editorial statute, as well as incited xenophobia and antisemitism.
This marathon wasn’t the first one; at the beginning of 2020, a similar event already took place on ZIK. And back in May, the Independent Media Council had also found signs of hate speech, antisemitism, violation of journalistic standards, legal requirements, and the editorial statute of the channel itself.
Dovzhenko suggests that people working for this propaganda media cannot be considered ordinary journalists.
“The majority of their publications is aimed for one single aim – the deconstruction of the current government. Recognition of them as journalists whose opinion differs [from other media] has led us too far.”
Indeed, while immediately after the Euromaidan Revolution and the outbreak of Russia’s war in 2014, Ukrainian society was resistant to Russia’s narratives. But as time passed, Russia’s long-term investments in the information war started bearing fruit. Drop by drop, society is becoming accustomed to the poisonous messages which eventually contribute to undermining Ukraine’s pro-western choice made in 2014.
- Putin’s best buddy in Ukraine ramps up anti-Soros smear campaign
- Turns out Putin’s man in Ukraine co-owns country’s most popular TV channel
- Putin’s Number One man in Ukraine sues media to hide Soviet past
- Scandalous teleconference with Russian TV canceled, but gaps in Ukraine’s media regulation remain
- Putin crony Medvedchuk gains hold of Ukrainian TV channel ZIK, causing uproar in media community