The task of any independent and self-respecting media outlet is to present information objectively and comprehensively. 112 Ukraine, Newsone and Zik TV channels have been working under this principle since the beginning of broadcasting. And because of the unwillingness to dance to anyone's tune, they have amassed many ill-wishers, the main ones of which, oddly enough, are sitting in the offices on Bankova Street in Kyiv. Post-Maidan Ukrainian authorities are usually called democratic, although if you look at the indicators of freedom of speech in Ukraine (we have slipped from being a “free” country to a “partially free” one), there is hardly a lot of democracy. For example, the history of 112 Ukraine TV channel, the country's main independent information broadcaster, reflects well the sad tendency of the authorities' attack on freedom of speech in Ukraine. The TV channel, which was created from scratch and in a short time turned into a leader in news broadcasting, was thrown off the air with one stroke of the pen of President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Summons to journalists
The administration of Petro Poroshenko used all legal and not very legal means to put pressure on independent journalists, hiding behind statements about the “hand of Kremlin,” which Bankova saw in every critical material about the president or his actions. In the fall of 2014, Channel 17 journalists, headed by Zhan Novoseltsev, who cooperated with 112 Ukraine, investigated the business of President Petro Poroshenko. By a strange “coincidence,” the authors of the investigation immediately received a summons for military service in the zone of Anti-Terrorist Operation.
A striking example of “freedom of speech” in post-Maidan Ukraine was the story of Savik Shuster. At first, at the request of the Presidential Administration, his show was taken off the air by 24 TV channel of Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovy, whose Samopomich party was still a member of the parliamentary coalition in 2015. The National TV Council issued a warning to 112 Ukraine, which also broadcasted Shuster Live - for broadcasting the words of Russian journalist Maksim Shevchenko live. Shuster himself said that, in his opinion, “Shevchenko's speech was only a pretext for issuing a warning to 112 Ukraine and intimidating 24 TV channel.” Even the leader of the Radical Party, Oleg Lyashko had to admit that “there was more freedom of speech under Yanukovych” and called the actions of the National TV Council “censorship,” for which certainly “Maidan did not stand for.”
Pressure through licenses
Since 2015, the National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting of Ukraine refused 112 Ukraine in renewal of licenses, which obstructed the work of major broadcaster. According to the market players the protracted war started by the regulator against 112 Ukraine was associated with an attempt by the authorities to put the resource on the edge of the abyss, and then buy it cheaply. For example, member of Venice Commission from Ukraine Maryna Stavniichuk spoke about it publicly. This was confirmed a year later, when MP Oleksandr Onyshchenko said that Petro Poroshenko had offered him to act as an intermediary in the purchase of 112 Ukraine. While the negotiations lasted, Poroshenko suggested that the channel's management sign an agreement of intent, which implies softening of the channel's news policy towards the president in exchange for help in reissuing the channel's licenses and lifting the sanctions of the National TV Council from it. Onyshchenko even published даже published the relevant documents. Thus, it was proved that the Poroshenko administration used the regulator in the president's business interests in order to bring down the price of the channel and persuade the current owners to sell it.
“I will do my best to prevent 112 Ukraine TV channel from receiving a license,” said the head of the National TV Council Yuriy Artemenko, who is a protégé of President Poroshenko. Indeed, the National TV Council has refused to renew digital licenses of 112 Ukraine more than 30 times. Then the broadcaster went to the court, and the latter forbade the regulator to take any action regarding 112 Ukraine licenses.
The channel was also inspected regularly and it got to the point of absurdity. However, the channel's lawyers were able to defend the right for broadcasting. The government of Petro Poroshenko was unable to close 112 Ukraine with the help of the regulator. Then Bankova involved the Verkhovna Rada, the National Defense Council and even the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU).
Verkhovna Rada, National Security and Defense Council and even Security Service of Ukraine involved
On October 4, 2018, the parliament at the suggestion of a group of lawmakers urged National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine to impose sanctions on NewsOne and 112 Ukraine TV channels. If these sanctions were imposed, the country's leading news channels could have stopped broadcasting. It is not clear what the MPs were guided by when they voted for the decision, because the media did not violate the law. This was pointed out by the head of National Union of Journalists of Ukraine Serhiy Tomilenko as well as many experts and players in the market. In fact, the decision on sanctions was purely political.
Among the lawmakers who voted for the restriction of the freedom of speech in the country, there were MPs who intended to run for the president in 2019 and theoretically had to be the first to protect the freedom of speech in the country.
Members of European Parliament Nathan Gill said that parliamentarians all over the world should support the TV channels, pressured by the Ukrainian authorities.
“I support 112 Ukraine TV channel as one would support what is vital for any nation - to have a free press that says everything it wants to say. I think it is important that parliamentarians from all over the world support your ambitious project. I am very concerned that your parliament opposed your channel because it is a slippery path. Who else can stop that?” Gill says.
However, the National Security and Defense Council did not dare to make an illegal decision and “threw the problem” to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). The SBU were supposed to deal with the problem but as all the accusations were absurd and had no grounds, the issue was hanging in the air. New owner of 112 Ukraine, the MP Taras Kozak on the background of this decision decided to seek protection not only in Ukraine, but also in Europe. In February 2019, 112 Ukraine and NewsOne TV channels created the International Editorial Board. This way, in addition to top managers of the channel, в Editorial Board of 112 Ukraine included three Members of European Parliament: Nathan Gill, Arne Gericke and David Coburn.
Zelensky is closing TV channels
However, even respected representatives of the West are no obstacle to our authority. After the victory in the presidential elections of Volodymyr Zelensky, the harassment of the independent media has only enhanced. If earlier the authorities acted toward the independent mass media through inspections and threats of the ban of activity, now, the violent intimidation and physical abuse is happening. Traditionally, the authorities use the “hand-raised” far-right activists for it.
At first, the far-rights beat journalist of Strana.ua Vladyslav Bovtruk in front of police officers at Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv. Society did not see the reaction of the law enforcers to it. Then, the NewsOne TV channel became the victim of the far-right forces. The harassment of the TV channel and journalists started due to the editorial policy of the media. The far-rights held a picket during which they covered the building of the TV channel with drawings, beat journalist of Strana.ua Kyrylo Malyshev who was broadcasting the events. The management of the TV channel and journalists who work there received anonymous threats and some MPs publicly stated that all journalists of NewsOne should be beaten and the TV channel should be burned down. Society did not see the reaction of the law enforcers to the illicit actions of the far-right groups and their political patrons.
There was no reaction of the president, who is the guarantor of rights and freedoms of the citizens.
Instead, we had international reaction. MEPs from the UK Nathan Gill and Jonathan Arnott passed to President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani letters signed by hundreds of employees of 112 Ukraine and NewsOne TV channels with the request to protect the freedom of speech in Ukraine.
Grenade launcher – the last argument of authorities
In July 2019, 112 Ukraine TV channel planned to show the movie of Oliver Stone Revealing Ukraine. In the film, a famous American director tried to find out why the crisis occurred in our country. As a response, the Ukrainian authorities threatened with the liability if the movie was shown. Particularly, Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko threatened to open the criminal case. As a result, the broadcast of the movie was canceled. As well as the telecast between Ukraine and Russia, it was an attempt within the telecast to organize the platform for discussion of non-political issues by common citizens who has never endangered the territorial integrity of Ukraine, without politicians and odious propagandists. NewsOne TV channel that was due to broadcast the telecast started to receive threats and curses from the officials.
Then, the terrorist act was carried out in the capital – the building of 112 Ukraine TV channel was shelled from the grenade launcher. 112 Ukraine TV channel had already received threats from the far-rights who tried to influence the editorial policy of the TV channel. The leadership of the TV channel stated that the authorities conceal the crimes of the far-rights and do not want to investigate the terrorist act that was condemned even by the Western politicians and the OSCE.
“I condemn today’s attack on the building of 112 Ukraine TV channel in Kyiv…Such violence and threats toward mass media cannot be reconciled,” OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir stated.
The Council of Europe responded to the shooting of 112 Ukraine TV channel in such a way: the TV channel demanded the protection of the law enforcers but ‘the police followed this request neither before the attack nor after it’.
The European Union stated that it expects from the Ukrainian authorities the investigation of the case on the attack from the grenade launcher of the building of 112 Ukraine TV channel. Then High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini made such a statement.
Later, the far-right activists headed by Serhiy Sternenko made a lot of strong statements about the necessity to close undesirable TV channels; he was an active partaker of meetings of the National TV Council when it considered the NewsOne case and even initiated a scuffle with MP without consequences for a far-right activist. We can only guess who allowed them to threaten the journalists and put pressure on the National TV Council.
At the same time, the Office of the President was preparing an operation for the raider seizure of 112 Ukraine TV channel. The Security Service (SBU) demanded to arrest the corporate rights of the TV channel and transfer the media to the management of ARMA, intending to forcibly and irrevocably take away 112 Ukraine TV channel from the current owner - Taras Kozak, Ukrainian MP, for political reasons. Such actions of the special services were directly sanctioned by the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky and the head of the Security Service of Ukraine Ivan Bakanov, this was reported by sources from Bankova.
MEPs Maximilian Krah, Nathan Gill, and Miroslav Radačovský called the situation unacceptable and urged Ukrainian judges to be independent.
On August 6, 2020, Shevchenkivsky District Court of Kyiv refused the SBU and the Prosecutor's Office to arrest the corporate rights of 112 Ukraine TV channel, considering these actions of the security officials illegal.
112 Ukraine TV channel was also deprived of its digital license as a result of direct pressure on judges by Andriy Bohdan, the previous head of the Office of the President, which was repeatedly reported by the media. Bohdan summoned the members of the National Council and instructed them to stop 112 Ukraine TV channel from airing.
The National TV Council continued to serve the interests of Bankova under Zelensky’s rule, the same as it was during the Poroshenko regime. The new authorities illegally extended the term of office of the regulator’s “pocket” members so that they could “legally” vote on the revocation of 112 Ukraine TV channel’s license. The National Council also checked the TV channel on a regular basis, issuing fines for criticism of the authorities on air of the broadcaster.
The level of its legitimacy and reasonableness can be displayed by the last case, which took place in January 2021. The National TV Council suddenly decided to monitor the broadcast of the 112 Ukraine TV channel in the period of August-December 2019 (!). On January 28, 2021, it issued a fine of over 4,000 dollars for criticism of the authorities.
Before the National TV Council convened a meeting, 112 Ukraine TV channel informed it that the general producer of Novyny media holding Oleksiy Semenov had contracted the coronavirus and was not able to take part in the meeting. In addition, due to Semyonov’s positive PCR test result, other responsible persons were required to self-isolate themselves. This letter was registered in the office of the National TV Council the day before the meeting.
As a result, during the meeting, the speaker said that the TV channel had received an invitation, but it had not shown up and had not contacted the National TV Council with a request to postpone it. That is, due to the order, the presence of a justified letter was deliberately ignored by the regulator. Thus, such a violation of the procedure by the National TV Council can be qualified as an official forgery.
The National TV Council was then under a threat of criminal proceedings on the fact of official forgery during the imposition of sanctions on 112 Ukraine TV channel. Only after that, the National TV Council canceled its unfair decision regarding the TV channel.
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A couple of days later, Zelensky gathered the National Council and told their members to vote in favour of 112 Ukraine TV channel’s closing and the shutdown of other opposition channels - NewsOne and ZIK. On the same day, the channels were taken off the air.
This unprecedented step taken by the Ukrainian authorities was condemned by a number of international organizations.
UN Rights Office Spokesperson Marta Hurtado (OHCHR) noted that President Zelensky's ban on the broadcast of these TV channels could negatively affect freedom of speech in the country.
Peter Stano, the Lead Spokesperson for EU’s Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said in a statement that Ukraine's efforts to protect its population from information manipulation should not come at the expense of media freedom.
The International Federations of Journalists and European Federations of Journalists (IFJ and EFJ) condemned the situation and called President Zelensky's decision “an extrajudicial and politically motivated ban and a flagrant attack on press freedom that must be urgently revoked.”
Matthew Schaaf, director of the Ukrainian office of the US-based human rights group "Freedom House", warns that sanctions can represent violations of human rights or freedom of expression: “Zelensky's ban on Ukrainian TV channels is a big step. It is hard to imagine how he can meet the international standards of freedom of expression that Ukraine has adopted.”
MEP Nicolas Bay welcomed the news on the closure of NewsOne, 112 Ukraine, and ZIK TV channels harshly: “Zelensky crossed the line of a democratic regime by introducing censorship in the country.”
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In civil society, freedom of speech, including the freedom of media, should be regulated not legally or by orders and decrees, but by the activities of public organizations and associations. Instead, we have a gendarme with a baton, who clearly fulfills the will of his master, no matter how absurd it may be.
- In total, over 1500 people work on these channels.
- 112 Ukraine, NewsOne, and Zik TV channels are leaders in news broadcasting, their total share in audience of 18 + 50 + is more than 4%.