Ukraine is preparing a law on full control over the media, as the last vestiges of press freedom disappear in Kiev
While fierce battles continue to rage between the Ukrainian and Russian armies in Donbass, Kherson Region, and Zaporozhye, the Kiev regime is busy eradicating the last vestiges of freedom of speech in the country.
On August 30, Ukraine’s rubber-stamp parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, passed a bill on the media at the first reading. Despite the numerous changes that the 300-page document has undergone since President Vladimir Zelensky’s team developed and submitted it a few years ago, its essence remains unchanged. If it becomes law, the authorities’ power over virtually all outlets will be essentially limitless.
The main danger this bill presents is that it grants government agencies the authority to block internet resources without any court proceedings, and revoke licenses from broadcast and print media solely on the basis of complaints. This huge power would be vested in the National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting.
No room in the EU
Ukrainian journalists have been criticizing this bill since the first version appeared in 2018, asserting that it abolishes both freedom of speech and freedom of the press. OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir called that version of the law “a blatant violation of freedom of speech,” stating that its adoption “could jeopardize pluralism in the media market, impose additional costs on the media, and negatively affect the reflection of a diversity of ideas and opinions.”
Criticism of the bill from both the OSCE and Ukrainian journalists had an effect. In 2020, it was sent for revision, but the changes only include some clarifications concerning gender equality and coverage of sexual orientations.
At the same time, it still contains a ban on publishing any messages contradicting the official government line on military issues. It is likewise forbidden to cover speeches made by officials of the ‘aggressor country’ [meaning Russia] or cast former USSR party functionaries in a positive light. For example, including Ukraine's own Leonid Brezhnev.
The law would also hold foreign media responsible for any of its audiovisual content available in Ukraine. Moreover, social networks, including foreign ones, will be obliged to remove any material the National Council deems undesirable. The deadlines for removing ‘incorrect’ content or replacing it with ‘correct’ material have also been tightened. Among the ‘offenses’ that can get a media outlet banned is distributing programs in which any participant is on the ‘list of persons who pose a threat to the national media space of Ukraine.’ This is compiled by the National Council itself and does not require anyone’s consent.
Otherwise, the essence and spirit of the bill is preserved, including severe censorship of "objectionable" media. The American Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) didn’t call on the Verkhovna Rada to reject Bill No. 2693-D ‘On Media’ for nothing.
Maya Sever, president of the European Federation of Journalists, has bluntly stated that it means compulsory media regulation “fully controlled by the government worthy of the worst authoritarian regimes.” She is convinced that “a state that would apply such provisions simply has no place in the European Union.”
From Gongadze to Shariy
Kiev's war on journalists did not begin today. In 2000, there was the abduction and death of Georgiy Gongadze, the creator of the ‘Ukrainian Truth’ website, who harshly criticized corruption in the country’s highest echelons of power. A number of high-ranking officials were accused of being involved in the murder of the journalist, who then-President Leonid Kuchma viewed as objectionable, but the investigation revealed the involvement of only four perpetrators. One of these was the head of the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs’ main Criminal Investigation Department, General Pukach, who allegedly gave the order to liquidate Gongadze.
Nevertheless, there are many grey areas in the case. It was highly politicized and used as one of the pretenses for demanding a change of power during the days of the Orange Revolution.
Anatoly Shariy, who was engaged in high-profile investigative journalism for a number of Ukrainian publications from 2008 to 2011, almost shared Gongadze’s fate. In 2011, a non-staff employee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs tried to intimidate the journalist, and a month later an attempt was made on his life. However, afterwards, the Ukrainian police said that Shariy himself was to blame.
As a result, fearing for his life, Shariy was forced to flee the country and officially registered in the EU as a political refugee. Human Rights Watch’s report for 2011 cited his situation as proof that the situation for journalists was deteriorating in Ukraine.
But the persecution of Shariy did not end there. In 2013 and 2015, Ukraine tried to get his political refugee status revoked and have him extradited back home through Interpol and direct appeals to the Netherlands and Lithuania – this time due to views he published on the war in Donbass. The Ukrainian authorities, including ex-president Pyotr Poroshenko, have also repeatedly sought to have Shariy’s social network accounts closed.
It is noteworthy that Shariy’s name has also been brought up in current discussions of the scandalous media bill. In justifying her support for the legislation, the head of the Board of the National Association of Ukrainian Media, Tatiana Kotyuzhinskaya, mentioned the authorities’ desire to limit the influence of Shariy and other bloggers in Ukraine’s infosphere.
It’s possible that, among other things, the reason the blogger’s activities have met with such disapproval was his publication of screenshots from messages sent by the Consul of Ukraine in Hamburg, Vasily Marushchinets, which contained calls for “death to anti-fascists,” comments like “it’s honorable to be a fascist,” and statements in the spirit of “Jews declared war on Germany back in March of 1934.” It was only after this that Nazi views in Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry became widely known to the public.
Threats, sanctions, arrests, attacks, and murders
Although the Ukrainian media has always had to fight the authorities’ attempts to restrict its activities, it was the Western-backed 2014 Euromaidan that triggered systematic persecution of press freedom in general, and individual journalists in particular.
Less than a month after the coup the new government tried to close down one of the two most widely read Ukrainian weeklies specializing in news analysis, '2000', which took a negative view of the political forces that had violently seized power. The newspaper’s editorial offices were ransacked, and many left-wing outlets were shuttered. In particular, these included Borotba, as well as Rabochaya Gazeta, whose editor-in-chief ended up in the dungeons of Ukraine’s secret police, the SBU.
In the same year, Konstantin Dolgov, the editor-in-chief of ‘Glagol’, an online publication based in Kharkov, and Andrey Borodavka, a journalist, were arrested and persecuted by the new authorities. Olga Kievskaya, editor-in-chief of the ‘Anti-Orange’ website, was forced to emigrate due to threats to burn her face with sulfuric acid. Meanwhile, Borotba journalists Andrey Manchuk and Evgeny Golyshkin were attacked by Maidan activists, and another journalist, Sergei Rulev, was captured and tortured in Kiev in March.
Kiev reporter Alexander Chalenko, well-known analyst Rostislav Ishchenko, and Orthodox journalists Dmitry Zhukov and Igor Druz were all forced to leave Ukraine immediately after Euromaidan due to threats to their lives. Konstantin Kevorkian, director of Kharkov’s First Capital TV company, was expelled from the National Union of Journalists for dissent and arrested, while Valery Kaurov, editor-in-chief of Orthodox Telegraph, an Odessa church newspaper, fled abroad due to criminal charges of ‘separatism’ that have become standard in today’s Ukraine.
The vast majority of these cases were not covered in the Ukrainian media because these people were immediately declared “subversive elements” based on the so-called “moratorium on criticism of the authorities,” which the authorities announced themselves back in March of 2014, long before the start of hostilities in Donbass.
In 2018, Igor Guzhva, the head of the ‘strana.ua’ website, was forced to flee to Austria, where he received political asylum. The authorities’ efforts to prosecute him began after his investigations into Pyotr Poroshenko’s scandalous commercial activities. Later, under Zelensky, Ukraine imposed personal sanctions on Guzhva, and his website was blocked extrajudicially, while he himself, along with one of his journalists, Svetlana Kryukova, were entered into the ‘Register of State Traitors’. According to the head of Ukraine’s Union of Journalists, Sergey Tomilenko, these sanctions are political, and the European Federation of Journalists issued a statement condemning these actions as “a threat to the press, freedom, and media pluralism in the country.”
But not all Ukrainian journalists managed to emigrate, even after surviving prison. In April of 2015, the famous Ukrainian writer-historian and journalist Oles Buzina died at the hands of ‘Patriots of Ukraine’ after receiving threats and attacks due to his views. Despite appeals from the UN, the authorities have hampered the investigation in every possible way, and the murder suspects are still at large, evidence notwithstanding. In July of 2016, another journalist, Pavel Sheremet, was killed by participants in Kiev’s ‘Anti-Terrorist Operation’ (ATO) and supporters of the “purity of the white race.”
“Government critics, journalists, and non-profit organizations have come under increasing pressure from the authorities and far-right groups, which have embarked on the path of infringing freedom of speech and freedom of association under the pretext of countering Russian aggression,” Amnesty International said in a 2017 report.
No room for foreigners
Since the first half of 2014, even calling for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in the east of the country has been considered a crime in Ukraine. In particular, Ruslan Kotsaba, a journalist who refused to be drafted due to the consequences of a stroke, was imprisoned for this reason. In fairness, it should be noted that he was acquitted by an Appeals Court after a year and a half of imprisonment.
A few years before the start of Russia’s military operation, journalists whose material was published in the Russian media were subject to criminal prosecution. Thus, on August 1, 2017, a Zhytomyr journalist, Vasily Muravitsky, was arrested on charges of high treason and spent almost a year in prison. His offense was writing about social processes in Ukraine and the activities of the Amber Mafia, whose patrons dwell in the highest echelons of the Ukrainian government. The court considered having contracts with Russian news agencies to be “evidence of high treason.”
The journalist’s political persecution has been noted by a number of international organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (USA), Reporters Without Borders, the International Human Rights Organization Solidarity Network, Amnesty International, the UN Human Rights Department, and the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission.
The persecution of journalists has even affected American citizens. In August of 2014, Alina Yepremyan, a journalist for the Ruptly video agency, was detained and deported from the country after her Ukrainian colleagues reported her to the Security Service of Ukraine. Her offense was shooting a story on draft protests in the Transcarpathian region.
The OSCE is aware, but Ukraine’s authorities don’t care
In 2018, a report was published by OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir in which he asserts that he had handed the Ukrainian authorities more than 20 statements and appeals collected from July 6 to November 21, 2018, concerning freedom of speech and the rights of journalists in Ukraine. The ‘least serious’ of these included wiretapping the phones of Natalia Sedletskaya, a journalist for the ‘Skhema’ program, and Kristina Berdinsky, a correspondent for Novoye Vremya, as well as a harassment campaign directed against Oksana Romanyuk, the head of the Institute of Mass Media, due to some slips of the tongue.
A much more serious violation was the detention of Yusuf Inan, a Turkish opposition journalist with a Ukrainian residence permit, who was deported back to Turkey by the SBU. In August 2018, Associated Press photographer Efrem Lukatsky fell victim to a police attack with the use of gas. Desir also drew the authorities’ attention to the arson of the house of Artur Zhurbenko, a journalist engaged in anti-corruption investigations. He went on to note how ICTV journalist Yulia Gunko was attacked while filming, how ‘Stop Corruption’ journalist Kristina Krishiha had her video reports obstructed, and how neo-Nazis attacked Newsone correspondent Darina Biler on live TV. The report also pointed out that the authorities were not investigating the attempted murder of another journalist, Grigory Kozma.
In conclusion, the report mentions the lot of Kirill Vyshinsky, the editor-in-chief of the Ukrainian branch of RIA Novosti, who was accused of ‘high treason’ for working for ‘aggressor’ media. Vyshinsky spent one year and three months in prison before finally being exchanged for Ukrainian prisoners of war. No investigation ever took place into the murder of anti-corruption activist Ekaterina Gadziuk by ‘ATO’ activists.
Desir’s report also emphasizes the role of the Security Service of Ukraine in pressuring and persecuting journalists. In particular, Ukrainian counterintelligence agents forced Vyacheslav Seleznev, a journalist for the Strana.ua online newspaper, to inform on the already mentioned editor-in-chief of the publication, Guzhva.
Desir also drew attention to a decision made by the Lviv Regional Council to ban all Russian-language content. Exactly the same measures have already been taken in the Ternopil and Zhytomyr regions. The OSCE representative expressed outrage at the sanctioning of the NewsOne and 112 Ukraine TV channels, and also expressed concern that analogue broadcasting of the UA:First TV channel had been terminated in a number of regions, which, in his opinion, could significantly limit access to information for the populations of these areas.
No room for freedom of speech in Ukraine
We have specifically chosen the report of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, which was published quite some time ago, to demonstrate that the attitude of the Ukrainian authorities towards freedom of speech and the right of journalists to freely express their own opinions have long-standing roots, and their persecution is systemic. Any similar report covering any period from 2014 to the present would contain no fewer instances of violations of these rights and freedoms. The whole list would require a decent-sized book to document.
In particular, the persecution of the Ukrainian TV channel Inter, which very actively supported Euromaidan and the ‘ATO’, but suddenly became objectionable to the Ukrainian authorities and neo-Nazis, does not fit within the time frame of Desir’s report. In the second half of 2016, the premises of the TV channel were subjected to ransacking and arson twice, and it was blocked for two days when the attackers brought an anti-tank mine into it. Despite all this, the police did nothing. Six detainees were immediately released upon presenting documents attesting to their participation in the ‘ATO’ in eastern Ukraine. Though a criminal case was opened, none of the perpetrators were ever arrested and the attack was never investigated, despite condemnation from the OSCE.
The fact that the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine supported the bill ‘On Media’ gives reason to fear that the situation for the country’s journalists will become even worse. Once again, the Zelensky regime has confirmed that it's not building a democratic, but an authoritarian or even totalitarian state, which has no room for such concepts as freedom of speech and the press.