Ukraine has shut down three domestic television channels linked to a politician close to Vladimir Putin, alleging that they pose a national security risk by spreading Kremlin disinformation at a time when the country is in its eighth year of an undeclared war with Russia.
In a presidential order announced late on Tuesday, Volodymyr Zelensky imposed the sanctions on channels 112, NewsOne and ZIK and their legal owner Taras Kozak for five years. The TV channels were blacked out overnight.
Mr Zelensky said on Wednesday: “Ukraine strongly supports freedom of speech . . . not propaganda financed by the aggressor country that undermines Ukraine on its way to EU and Euro-Atlantic integration.”
In a joint statement, the broadcasters said Mr Zelensky aimed to “destroy three opposition TV channels”.
The Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov criticised the action by Kyiv. “Restrictions and even bans on TV channels are something that does not meet international norms and standards, nor a common understanding of media freedom,” Russia’s RBK news agency quoted him as saying.
The measures taken against the channels are the latest in a series of controversial moves that Mr Zelensky’s administration says are to counter foreign and domestic national security threats.
On Monday, the president’s parliamentary group expelled MP Oleksandr Dubinsky, who was hit with sanctions last month by Washington for allegedly being “part of a Russia-linked foreign influence network” that promoted “fraudulent and unsubstantiated allegations” against US president Joe Biden when he was a candidate in the presidential elections. Mr Dubinsky has repeatedly denied the allegations.
The US Embassy in Kyiv said on Twitter on Wednesday: “The US supports Ukraine’s efforts yesterday to counter Russia’s malign influence, in line with Ukrainian law, in defence of its sovereignty and territorial integrity . . . We must all work together to prevent disinformation from being deployed as a weapon in an info war against sovereign states.”
Mr Kozak is an associate of Viktor Medvedchuk, a fellow pro-Russia MP close to Mr Putin who is godfather to his daughter. Mr Kozak called the crackdown by Mr Zelensky against his TV channels “an act of censorship”.
Mr Medvedchuk said the sanctions were a response to the president’s waning popularity amid legitimate criticism from the channels. “Zelensky’s rating is falling rapidly not because of TV channels, but because he refuses to answer important questions for Ukrainians.”
An adviser to Mr Zelensky told the Financial Times the move was not an infringement on free media. “These are well-grounded sanctions upon assets and individuals which were involved in spreading Russian disinformation.”
A flurry of controversial constitutional court rulings last year that threatened to destroy Ukraine’s anti-corruption institutions and, in turn, derail financial backing from the IMF and western nations, began after appeals by Mr Medvedchuk and other MPs in his Opposition Platform — For Life party.Prominent pro-western figures in Ukraine and some international observers praised Mr Zelensky’s decision to shut what many viewed as channels controlled by Mr Medvedchuk through a proxy.
Anders Åslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday night: “Viktor Medvedchuk appears to be the actual ultimate beneficiary owner of these three pro-Russian television channels.”
“Since he was sanctioned by the US Treasury in March 2014, YouTube should not be allowed to keep them open,” he added.
Mr Medvedchuk has repeatedly in interviews with local media and with the Financial Times in 2019 denied he owns or controls the channels, which he says are owned by Mr Kozak.
Oleh Sentsov, a film-maker from Crimea who was imprisoned by Russia after Moscow’s 2014 occupation of the peninsula, wrote on Twitter: “Closing Medvedchuk’s TV dumps is really the best decision of the authorities lately.”
Mr Zelensky’s adviser said the president’s administration looked forward to the US and EU taking similar action to “make sure that these channels are off YouTube and other platforms”.
Last week Ukraine imposed sanctions against Skyrizon and affiliated Chinese companies to prevent their long running campaign to gain ownership and control over Motor Sich, a domestic producer of aviation turbines and helicopter engines.
The US imposed sanctions on Skyrizon early last month, citing its “push to acquire and indigenise foreign military technologies”, moves that “pose a significant threat to US national security and foreign policy interests”.
The adviser to Mr Zelensky said “all three of these decisions aim to defend Ukrainian national interests”.