‘The information war for truth’ Ukraine’s National Security Council is blocking popular (pro-Russian) news outlets. What does this mean for freedom of speech?
Since early 2021, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has regularly resorted to sanctioning his domestic opponents. By law, both Ukraine’s president and National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) have the right to impose sanctions — and they’ve used it to target opposition-leaning media outlets. The television channels 112 Ukraine, NewsOne, and ZIK came under sanctions back in February, and in August, sanctions were imposed on Igor Guzhva, the founder and editor-in-chief of the news site Strana. All of these media outlets have a reputation for being “pro-Russian” and for leveling criticism against Zelensky, particularly for his supposed refusal to reconcile with the separatist-held territories in eastern Ukraine, alleged infringements on the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, and alleged support for nationalists. In turn, the Ukrainian authorities maintain that they’re imposing sanctions in the name of protecting national security and accuse these media outlets of promoting the “Kremlin’s agenda.” At the same time, the opacity of the decision making leaves room for the opposition to argue that Zelensky’s government is carrying out attacks on freedom of speech. Journalist Konstantin Skorkin breaks down the controversy for Meduza.
Citizens under sanctions
Volodymyr Zelensky’s sanctions have delivered the greatest blow to the media empire of Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Kremlin oligarch and lawmaker known for his close personal ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Medvedchuk set up a powerful media holding with the help of his close associate, pro-Russian lawmaker Taras Kozak.
In December 2018, Kozak acquired the news channels 112 Ukraine and NewsOne and in June 2019, he bought the western-Ukrainian television channel ZIK. These three channels served as the basis for Kozak’s media holding, which quickly rose to fifth-place in the ranking of Ukrainian television broadcasters. In terms of influence in the information sphere, this put Viktor Medvedchuk on equal footing with other oligarch-linked media groups in Ukraine — such as the television empires of tycoons Rinat Akhmetov, Ihor Kolomoisky, Victor Pinchuk, and Dmytro Firtash. The holding’s channels were most popular in south-eastern Ukraine.
After Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president in April 2019, a bitter battle emerged between him and Medvedchuk — and the pro-Russian oligarch’s media resources played an important role in the conflict. Zelensky didn’t have comparable media support himself, meaning he depended on the benevolence of the oligarchs who control Ukraine’s main countrywide channels. And when his ratings began plummeting in early 2021, Zelensky decided to take a swing at his opponent’s media empire.
On February 2, 2021, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) introduced three-year sanctions against Taras Kozak and his companies, whose assets were frozen. The sanctions were imposed on the basis of information from Ukraine’s Security Service (the SBU), which claimed to have evidence that the television channels were funded using revenue from the illegal coal trade in the breakaway territories of eastern Ukraine. Television providers took 112 Ukraine, NewsOne, and ZIK off the air and, at the request of Ukraine’s Culture Ministry, YouTube blocked their accounts.
The NSDC’s decision was made on the basis of the law “On Sanctions,” which was adopted in August 2014 and conceived as a measure to counter the aggressive actions of Russian and separatist forces in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. The law allows for imposing sanctions not only on foreign governments, but also on Ukrainian citizens and legal entities that are under “foreign control” or the control of those involved in terrorism.
The sanctions imposed on Kozak in February 2021 formally complied with the requirements of the law, since the SBU established Kozak’s links with Russia (an “aggressor state”) and the unrecognized Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics,” which Ukraine recognizes as terrorist organizations. The television channels were blocked because the law provides for restricting telecommunication services and the use of telecommunication networks. (Notably, Kyiv also sanctioned Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash, but his television channel Inter is still on the air).
Zelensky called his actions “a fight in the information war for truth and European values.” The television channels themselves accused the president of suppressing freedom of speech. Medvedchuk’s party, the Opposition Platform — For Life (OPZZh, whose 37-person faction holds the second most seats in the Ukrainian parliament) threatened the president with impeachment, but nothing came of it.
Sociological surveys conducted by the Kyiv-based Rating Group showed that Ukrainian society was divided on the issue: 49 percent were in favor of the sanctions, while 41 percent were opposed. That said, some pointed out that the decision to shut down the television channels didn’t provoke any major protests in the regions where their viewers are concentrated.
Political analyst Denis Yudin chalks this up to two main factors: 1) the main audience of Medvedchuk’s channels aren’t inclined to protest in the first place and 2) there was no attempt on the part of OPZZh to organize protest rallies. Anton Savichev, the editor-in-chief of the Ukrainian outlet Vesti.ua, is of the same opinion. “It’s about the audience. These are people who don’t accept protests as a form of political activity,” he explains to Meduza. “In our country, the streets are controlled by nationalists, so any protests in defense of an alternative agenda are fraught with problems.”
All of this, it seems, only reassured Zelensky’s team that they had chosen the right tactics.
‘Reveal the beneficiary and everything will fall into place’
Using extraordinary presidential decrees — issued arbitrarily and without a clear legal basis — Zelensky has sanctioned smugglers, organized criminals (“thieves in law”), and a number of entrepreneurs and media owners. But the decision to impose sanctions on Igor Guzhva, the founder and editor-in-chief of the online outlet Strana.ua, was especially resonant in Ukrainian society.
Guzhva is a well-known Ukrainian media manager. In conversation with Meduza, his former colleagues describe him as a workaholic and a high-class professional, whose convictions are “100 percent pro-Moscow.” Today, Guzhva lives abroad: he received political asylum in Austria in 2018, after criminal cases were launched against him in Ukraine on charges of tax evasion and extortion. Guzhva maintains that he was a victim of political persecution.
Guzhva and his team created Strana in 2016 and it quickly gained popularity as an opposition outlet. According to a joint study by the Internet Association of Ukraine and SimilarWeb, Strana was among Ukraine’s top-ten online media outlets: in the first months of 2021, it ranked ninth in terms of average unique visits per month (2.7 million) and fifth in terms of total views (158 million). After Guzhva came under sanctions, Strana’s website was blocked in Ukraine.
There are mixed feelings about Strana within Ukraine’s journalistic community. “Strana can show the unsightly part of the picture, to which the rest, perhaps because of their narrow-mindedness, don’t pay attention. In this regard, the site is useful for grasping the situation inside Ukraine,” explains Realnaya Gazeta editor Andrey Dikhtyarenko. At the same time, he suggests taking Strana’s reports with a grain of salt, “due to [their] political biases.”
In particular, Strana offers detailed coverage of regional events, as well as insight into the lives of regional elites and business conflicts. Generally speaking, it presents a view of the country that’s strikingly different from the “pro-Euromaidan” mainstream.
But Yuliana Skibitskaya, the deputy chief editor of the online outlet Zaborona, describes Strana’s reporting methods in less than flattering terms: “Anonymous sources that may not even exist, yellow headlines, a loyal attitude toward the Kremlin agenda, and aggressive lobbying for the interests of OPZZh [the pro-Russian party Opposition Platform — For Life].”
The NSDC formally based its decision to sanction Guzhva on Strana’s lack of transparency about its financing; allegedly, the publication received support from sources connected to Russia. “We didn’t introduce any sanctions against ‘Strana.ua.’ We introduced sanctions against its owner, Mr. Guzhva. Who is an apologist for the Russian Federation. Who cooperates with the Russian Federation. Who gets help from there,” NSDC Secretary Oleksiy Danilov said in a comment on the decision.
Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to the head of the President’s Office, says that Strana’s work isn’t journalism, but rather “aggressive propaganda, which is produced by another country and rebroadcast in full, formally by a Ukrainian host.” He also underscores to Meduza that the origins of Strana’s funding are “completely opaque.”
But Guzhva asserts that he’s the outlet’s sole owner and investor. “All the revenue that I plan to invest in my project, which I consider primarily as a business project, is all indicated by me in my [asset] declaration,” he said in an interview with the Ukrainian watchdog group Detector Media.
People familiar with the Ukrainian media market cast doubts on Guzhva’s claims. Media manager Leonid Tsodikov, who worked with Guzhva in oligarch Rinat Akhmetov’s holding, tells Meduza that “it’s obvious to anyone versed in media that Strana doesn’t generate enough cash flow to exist.” “It’s perhaps the only media in Ukraine whose sources of coverage for losses are unknown. If the Security Council had information about these sources being affiliated with the aggressor [Russia], then it’s obliged to do what it did. If not, then this is a crime. It’s enough for Guzhva to reveal the beneficiary and everything will fall into place,” Tsodikov says.
Strana’s editorial office maintains that the accusations of shadow financing from Russia are unsubstantiated fictions. According to their sources, no documents justifying the need to impose sanctions were presented during the NSDC meeting. In conversation with Meduza, Strana’s first deputy editor-in-chief Svetlana Kryukova says the outlet’s popularity allowed it to cover costs with revenue from advertising. “The sanctions are absolutely illegal, since the law on sanctions allows the introduction of [sanctions] against Ukrainian citizens only in one instance — when it comes to terrorism,” Kryukova asserts. “But this clearly isn’t our case, and even the authorities themselves aren’t making any such accusations against us.”
Indeed, unlike in the case of Kozak and Medvedchuk’s media holding, Ukrainian authorities didn’t make public any of the specific information that served as the basis for imposing sanctions on Igor Guzhva. At the same time, adviser Mykhailo Podoliak rejects the accusations that the NSDC’s decision wasn’t transparent, adding that authorities have every right to withhold information if it’s for the sake of national security.
Be that as it may, on August 8, the Ukrainian parliament’s Committee on Freedom of Speech submitted an official request to the NSDC, asking it to provide information on its grounds for imposing sanctions on Guzhva.
After the authorities blocked Strana, the outlet quickly changed its domain name (from strana.ua to strana.news). But under pressure from the NSDC, Internet providers are blocking the new site too. According to Strana’s editorial staff, their original website and its mirror sites can still be accessed using a VPN, and not all providers are complying with the government’s demands. “The NSDC’s actions are illegal, since the new domain names aren’t in the resolutions on the sanctions,” insists Strana journalist Denis Rafalsky.
But Podoliak argues that taking down Strana’s mirror sites upholds the spirit of the sanctions: “Blocking the legal entities through which the base site operates indicates that these legal entities, the funding passing through them, and the resources belonging to them shouldn’t be used to create certain copies of those sites that are used in a hybrid confrontation against Ukraine.”
National Security Council sanctions aren’t the only way the Ukrainian authorities are going after outlets they consider to be instruments of “media aggression.” The television network Nash, which is also regarded as pro-Russian, regularly gets slapped with lawsuits from Ukraine’s National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting, the body that monitors compliance with media legislation.
Nash belongs to the family of Yevgeniy Murayev, a former lawmaker from the pro-Russian Party of Regions. According to experts, viewers of Kozak and Medvedchuk’s channels flocked to Nash after 112 Ukraine, NewsOne, and ZIK were taken off the air earlier this year.
On August 19, the National Council filed a lawsuit demanding that Nash be deprived of its television license. The grounds for the lawsuit were statements made on a talk show by Petro Symonenko — the head of the effectively outlawed Communist Party of Ukraine. The regulator maintained that Symonenko incited national and religious discord: during a live broadcast, he called the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine “schismatic” (repeating the position of the Moscow Patriarchate), referred to the war in Donbas as a “civil confrontation” (echoing the Kremlin’s claims that it’s a “civil war”), and described Ukraine’s policy on language and culture as “state fascistization.” The National Council instructed the network’s management to remove these statements from the recording, but the broadcast was aired again without any cuts. At this point, the regulator filed the lawsuit against Nash.
Nash’s journalists consider the National Council’s actions an assault on freedom of speech. “We were fined and now they’re asking to revoke our license because of a guest’s comments. Each fine and audit is only [because of] guests,” fumed television host Maks Nazarov in a comment to Strana.
Ukrainian media outlets have lost their broadcasting licenses because of National Council lawsuits in the past — this is exactly what happened to Radio Vesti in 2017. It’s owner, Media Holding Vesti Ukraine, later won a lawsuit against the regulator, but this didn’t help the radio station get back on its feet.
A very dangerous path
There’s no consensus in the Ukrainian journalism community when it comes to the sanctions against the press. And media organizations have been reluctant to come to the defense of the affected outlets, perhaps due to skepticism about the quality of their work. For example, the Institute of Mass Information, an independent watchdog group, found violations of professional standards in 32 percent of Strana’s materials in 2020 (the most common being violations of the “principle of balance of opinion”).
At the same time, journalists of the conventionally “pro-Russian opposition” stripe hardly consider these “overseers of democracy” objective institutions.
“Even those organizations that are supposed to protect the journalistic community (the USAID-supported Detector Media and the Institute of Mass Information) rejoiced at the shuttering of Medvedchuk’s channels,” says Vesti.ua editor-in-chief Anton Savichev. On Ukraine’s Journalist Day this year, Vesti — which is ideologically inline with Strana — even published an article about media workers from the national-democratic camp who “rejoiced at the destruction of their colleagues.”
Some journalists genuinely support Zelensky taking action against news outlets and television channels that have a “pro-Russian” reputation. Oleksiy Matsuka, the editor-in-chief of the television channel Dom, believes that the sanctions are an attempt by the Ukrainian authorities to defend themselves “from hate propaganda and political violence.” “Russian media and pro-Russian media in Ukraine need to learn to abide by the basic rules of journalistic work, to give up the schadenfreude and cynicism,” Matsuka tells Meduza.
There are, however, those who object to Zelensky’s less-than-transparent methods. Zaborona’s Yuliana Skibitskaya thinks that the NDSC sanctions represent “a very dangerous path.” “When they [the sanctions] were introduced against Strana I expected an explanation from the NSDC. Because you can’t just shut down one of the most popular (albeit terrible) sites in the country without explaining anything at all. But it turned out you can,” she recalls.
“I think that after the closure of NewsOne and the rest of Medvedchuk’s channels, the authorities realized that such decisions have more gains than disadvantages,” Skibitskaya continues. “OPZZh’s ratings started to fall, there was no condemnation — after all, it’s ‘enemy’ media, and there won’t be protests. The audience of these media [outlets], although large, won’t go out in protest and demand anything there.”
Meduza’s sources say that the Ukrainian authorities are operating according to the logic of a state of emergency and encouraging society to focus on the issue of security: Russia annexed Crimea, there’s a war in Donbas, so this isn’t the time to stand on ceremony with media outlets that are promoting an agenda that echoes the Kremlin line. But the opinions voiced by the sanctioned media outlets are in harmony not only with Moscow’s ideologues, but also with the views of a portion of Ukrainian society that’s too significant to simply ignore. And although the audience of the blocked media platforms belongs to a “silent” segment of society, their resentment could still come back to bite Zelensky — for example, in the next election.
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart