Three National TV Channels Connected to Opposition Platform for Life Closed by Presidential Decree
February 2 – The Ukrainian government has put into effect measures to close a number of television channels owned by the Opposition Platform For Life Member of Parliament Taras Kozak, a close associate of Viktor Medvedchuk. Viktor Medvedchuk has long been considered the actual owner of these broadcasters as Kozak does not appear to have any visible means to become, in such short order (these channels were purchased in 2018 and 2019), a media mogul.
The channels affected are national TV broadcasters 112, NewsOne, ZIK and regional rebroadcasters New Format, Ariadne TV, TV choice, Partner TV and TV Leader.
The National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine decision, which was the basis of President Zelenskyy’s order, applies sanctions against Taras Kozak and all companies associated with him. The sanctions are applied for five years and include blocking his assets, restriction of trade, prevention of capital flight outside of Ukraine, revocation of licenses, prohibition of technology transfer etc.
Is this an attack on freedom of speech?
- The TV companies affected have been demonstrated to be channels of political influence for the Opposition Platform for Life, and as such, pro-Russian government and anti-Ukrainian government. Ukrainian media watchdogs have frequently criticized the continuous violation of professional standards and ethics on these channels, as well as the promotion of Russian disinformation.
- The channels have been used to promote points of view which are hostile to the notion of Ukraine as a state with its own territorial integrity and have been positive about the role being played by an aggressive and occupying foreign force. They are widely considered to be instruments of malign Russian government influence. For numerous examples, see this Detector Media article https://detector.media/infospace/article/184529/2021-02-03-chomu-zakryttya-kanaliv-medvedchuka-tse-ne-nastup-na-svobodu-slova/
- The head of the National Union of Journalists Sergiy Tomilenko, who has previously defended pro-Russian media on similar grounds, has decried this action as an attack on freedom of expression, calling on the OSCE Freedom of the Media Representative, and various freedom of speech advocate organizations to weigh in.
- Freedom of speech is not an absolute right. In the circumstances that the territorial integrity of the state and national security are threatened, signatories to international human rights commitments have the right to issue sanctions for violations outlined within the law.
- A group of Ukrainian civil society organizations issued a statement which supports the government’s decision to close the channels and rejects the idea that this is an attack on freedom of speech.
- Head of the State Security Service of Ukraine Ivan Bakanov welcomed the move, calling the decision to impose sanctions “a consistent step by the Ukrainian authorities in the fight against Russian hybrid aggression.” In his opinion: “There is a big difference between freedom of speech and outspoken anti-Ukrainian rhetoric. Freedom of speech ends where there are signs of encroachment into the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.”
So is this legal?
- The views and opinions routinely presented as facts and propagated on the Kozak-owned channels are egregious and break all the professional and ethical norms for journalism. The channels have been penalized several times for false reporting by the National Council of TV and Radio, Ukraine’s media regulating body. However the degree to which the views expressed there constitute the potential for harm has not been tested in court, which would be the more accepted way of approaching the problem. In the USA, the first amendment allows for all speech that does not call for “imminent lawless action” (e.g. a riot), however the European Convention on Human Rights allows for limitations prescribed by law that are considered necessary in a democratic society (i.e. in the interests of national security, territorial integrity, public safety, the prevention of disorder or crime, the protection of health or morals, the protection of the reputation or rights of others, preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence and for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary).
- The channels have not been sanctioned for violations of any of the above but instead using the sanctions law which pertains to “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.” This law has been considered before as a means of tackling the activities of Viktor Medvedchuk and his associates, however the previous administration under President Poroshenko decided it was not possible to bring this measure against a Ukrainian citizen. Ukrayinska Pravda reports that members of the National Security and Defense Council believe that the law can be applied against a Ukrainian citizen. Ukrayinska Pravda has also reported today that these TV companies have received financing from a company based in the occupied parts of Donbas, which would be defined as receiving profits from terrorism (the illegal occupation of Ukraine). Ultimately it is likely that this case will become a test for Ukraine’s Supreme Court to determine.
The National Council for TV and Radio has called on cable and other providers to abide by the president’s decree. While major Internet Service Providers in Kyiv have already cleared the channels from their services, the stations are currently still available online and on YouTube in many parts of the country.
Photo credit – uacrisis.org