Facing increasing domestic pressure, Volodymyr Zelensky issued a decree on Tuesday that sets in motion a series of “special economic and other restrictive sanctions” aimed at a total of eight news organizations. It was signed off by the country’s National Security and Defense Council. In addition, the measures apply to opposition parliamentarian Taras Kozak, who owns the media empire in question, which, in recent days has led mounting criticism of the government over corruption, troubled constitutional reforms and the absence of a national Covid-19 vaccine program.
As a result of the ban, three of the channels were taken off air almost immediately, with viewers reportedly seeing only a black screen or a colored grid when they tried to tune in. In addition, the media agencies are subject to a range of measures including the blocking of their assets, restrictions trading and an order not to move money out of Ukraine. The group’s holdings will now be subject to similar prohibitions as Russian news and social media platforms, which are already barred in the country.
Kiev links the decision to target the media outfit with its proximity to politician Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of the Opposition Platform – For Life (OPZZh) grouping in the national parliament. Kozak, who is an elected deputy and a member of the party, is described as Medvedchuk’s ‘right-hand man’ by local media. OPZZh is the largest opposition party in Kiev’s legislative assembly, and has consistently called for closer links with Russia. Medvedchuk himself is considered to be a close ally of President Vladimir Putin.
Almost all news outlets in Ukraine are bankrolled by wealthy individuals, and Zelensky himself came to power with support from the 1+1 Media Group, which operates eight channels in the country. The conglomerate is owned by Igor Kolomoisky, a billionaire oligarch and former regional governor.
In a furious statement published on Wednesday morning, Medvedchuk wrote that the move to suppress opposition-leaning media was “absolutely illegal” and amounted to the use of “violence, bullying and coercion against dissent.” “Zelensky dreams of clearing the information field,” he argued, “so that the dialogue between the president and the Ukrainian people takes place at the intellectual level of a kindergarten.”
The politician added that the decision came in the wake of falling approval ratings for the ruling administration. However, he argued that the threat to Zelensky’s popularity came not from television channels, but “the fact that every day ordinary people are picking up bills for utilities, receiving no help in preventing coronavirus, sitting at home because of a senseless lockdown, [and] deprived of the right to speak freely in their native language.”
A poll by the Kiev International institute of Sociology in January found that fewer than one in five Ukrainians support the current president, with his support plummeting since coming to power with over 73 per cent of the vote in 2019. As well as a battle with the country’s constitutional court over anti-corruption measures, Zelensky has faced staunch criticism over his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite barriers to accessing foreign-made coronavirus vaccines, he has refused to accept offers of the Moscow-made Sputnik V jab. Medvedchuk has called the decision “criminal,” accusing Kiev of being “politically motivated on issues where it is necessary to think of the life and health of the Ukrainian people.”
On Wednesday, OPZZh announced that they would move forward with a proposed impeachment of Zelensky. Vadim Rabinovich, co-chairman of the bloc, told the plenary session of the country’s parliament, “We are initiating the impeachment procedure for the president.”
The ruling party and local media have denied that the ban on news outlets is intended to stifle criticism, branding them sources of “pro-Russian propaganda.” Speaking to the Ukrainian Babel news outlet, Mikhail Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, defended the move. “It’s clear that sanctions on Mr. Medvedchuk’s TV channels are not about the media and not about freedom of speech,” he argued. “It’s just about effectively counterfeiting fakes and foreign propaganda.” Without action, he argued, the opposition media would “kill our values.”
The move to shut off pro-opposition news has also been met with criticism from outside the country, including among those usually more supportive of Kiev’s stance against Russia. One commenter wrote on Twitter that “for US folks, this would be more or less the equivalent of Biden sanctioning Fox News, OAN, and Newsmax.”
Ukraine already has among the most restrictive measures against media it considers to be harmful. Since the 2014 maidan, it has put in place blanket bans on more than a dozen Russian outlets, including RT’s news channels. The Interior Ministry has accused networks of spreading “propaganda” about the conflict in the east of the country. “Ukraine should protect its media space from Russian aggression,” a spokesman said at the time.
In addition, a number of artists, as well as Russian films have been blacklisted. However, the measures have not been universally popular. A poll in December found that over 50 per cent of Ukrainians felt the cultural clampdown was the wrong decision and only 42 per cent backed Kiev’s ban on Russian news.
Around one in three people living in the country describes themselves as a native Russian speaker, and entire cities in the east and south east of the country conduct daily life in the language. The areas are also strongholds for much of the OPZZh party’s political support, with many Russian speakers supportive of closer ties with Moscow. The television channels now banned by Zelensky would, until now, have been a source of news and current affairs for many.
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