Fines, Revocation of Licences, and Prison: How Zelensky’s Party Is Going to Cleanse the Media and Jail Journalists

Zelensky’s team is gradually revealing its plans for freedom of speech in Ukraine. Strict regulation and total state control await it.

Such conclusions can at least be drawn from a number of statements made by “Servants of the People”.

And the other day they were crowned by the President Zelensky’s decree, which gives a start to this process. It demands by the end of the year to develop laws on “news standards” and to strengthen the responsibility of journalists and the media for violating them.

Judging by earlier statements made by the functionaries of Zelensky’s team – responsibility will be up to the level of criminal prosecution.

However, after a scandal rose – there are no such norms in any European country – the first persons of “Servants of the People” and the Cabinet of Ministers started to say that they were not so understood, and no draconian measures against the press are planned.

However, if we trace what was said, and most importantly – what the new authorities have done in the last few months, there is a slightly different picture. “Strana” understood what was being prepared by “Servants of the People” for journalists and how the authorities planned to clean up the information space.

Revelations of Poturayev

After Zelensky was elected president, he promised to launch a “powerful information war”. Mainly in Donbass. However, since then the region has been little affected. But in Kiev battles unfolded almost immediately.

The adviser of Zelensky’s team Nikita Poturayev, Dnepropetrovsk political expert who worked in the party Igor Kolomoisky “Ukrop”, started to seriously talk about reforms in the media sphere as early as the summer, on the eve of the parliamentary election. Already a candidate for deputy from “Servants of the People”, he made an outline of the changes to come.

“Firstly, it is necessary to ensure the transparency of property and to understand for what money the media was bought. Secondly, a public annual economic audit should be conducted. Thirdly, there must be an independent editorial policy in the news. For this purpose, we can oblige companies to provide a contract with the owner for their non-interference in editorial policy,” said Poturayev.

He also proposed to transfer the functions of the State Television and Radio Committee to the National TV Council and to expand the prohibition and authorisation actions of this body to all the media.

“The National Council needs to be made more independent – to form it not on the basis of different quotas, but with the help of an independent competitive commission. The composition of the National Council should be increased by one person, because 8 members are an opportunity to block any decision. Having changed it, it is possible to change also the name – for example, National Media Council,” said Poturayev.

After the victory of “Servants of the People” in the Rada election, the government planned to transfer all the levers of influencing the media to the new committee – Information and Humanitarian Policy. It was headed by former Director-General of Kolomoisky’s “Plyusov” Aleksandr Tkachenko. Poturayev was also included there. He gave a very frank interview about the tasks of the newly created committee.

In it he repeated the thesis that the National Council will have to deal now with all media outlets, not only television and radio. Including Internet sites, which the new mega-regulator will be able to block.

“Concerning blocking websites: I believe it should all go to the regulator. If the regulator recognises illegal content aimed at undermining the constitutional order and poses a threat to territorial integrity, of course, it should be blocked,” said the people’s deputy, without specifying that the blocking should pass through the court, as is currently stipulated.

Another idea voiced by the new government in the person of Poturayev is the creation of criteria for “bad” content.

“We haven’t specified what malicious content is… We need to write down criteria for such content. For example, where is a crime in the constant insistence on peace? And who is against the peace? After all, everyone is for peace. And what to do about it? Go prove that this is the same thing that Skabeyeva or Dmitry Kiselev or Solovyev say.

For example, Medvedchuk’s channels (“112 Ukraine“, “NewsOne“, and “ZiK” owned by an associate of Viktor Medvedchuk, Taras Kozak – ed) speak about the integrity of the country only with special status. Can I say that special status is a crime if the previous Verkhovna Rada supported it? And where do I have evidence that this is a crime?” said Poturayev.

Apparently, such “evidence” is going to be prescribed in new laws on mass media. Especially since the August statements of the people’s deputy are correlated with the November decree of Zelensky, where the need to create some “standards” is written down.

All of this will be included in a big media code, which will replace other laws in this sphere.

“(We are preparing) a bill on audio-visual services, which should replace the laws on the National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting, Print Media… To have one big media act that would have everything to do with media. Because when there are dozens of such laws, there are a lot of connections, double-reading, triple-reading, etc,” said the political expert.

At the same time, Poturayev made a strange statement that only three media groups – Kolomoisky’s, Pinchuk‘s and Akhmetov‘s – have the right to exist in Ukraine.

“I do not yet see the possibility of the existence in Ukraine of powerful broadcasters, except for four: Public, ‘1+1’, ‘StarLight (the holding company “StarLightMedia” unites three major TV channels from the top six: “ICTV”, “STB”, “Novy Kanal” – ed), ‘Ukraina’. I don’t mean that it is necessary to shut them down, I just don’t see where to find the money for their existence. From the market? Where to find it?” said the “Servants of the People” adviser, referring to the deoligarchisation of the media – another bullet point of the supposed reform.

It should be noted that Kolomoisky, Pinchuk and Akhmetov, albeit to different degrees, are all close to Zelensky. At the same time, Poturayev did not name among the broadcasters that are “entitled to exist” TV channels included in media groups close to the opposition – “Inter” (owners – Firtash, Levochkin), “112 Ukraine“, “NewsOne“, and “ZiK” (the associate of Medvedchuk, Taras Kozak).

Attack on TV channels

It is interesting that in parallel with Poturayev’s plans, an open attack on the aforementioned TV channels started – at the level of the President and the National Council.

In the autumn the “112” channel was deprived of its digital licenses, and according to “NewsOne”, the National Council appealed to the court to deprive it of its license, and in the Rada an investigation commission on the legality of the purchase of these media outlets by the deputy from the “Opposition Platform – For Life” Taras Kozak.

As the Ukrainian “Strana” agency already said, the attack on TV channels has two aspects.

The first is political competition. “Servant of the People” is trying to deprive “Opposition Platform – For Life” of its media in the run-up to the possible decline in the popularity of Zelensky in the south-east of Ukraine, where the “OP-FL” is the main competitor of “SotP”.

In this case, local elections (or extraordinary parliamentary elections) will show a serious increase in the popularity of “OP-FL” in this strategic region against the background that Zelensky is largely copying Poroshenko’s course contrary to the expectations of many of his voters.

Apparently, in order to disrupt this scenario, an attempt is being made to close the media associated with “OP-FL”.

The second aspect is business competition between TV channels, or rather their owners. “Medvedchuk’s troika” holds a confident leadership among information channels. Poroshenko and Akhmetov have assets in this sphere. And this gives rise to a bond between the “Servants of the People” and the oligarchs who want to occupy the vacant TV niche. Especially since Akhmetov will soon launch his news channel.

The fact that such consensus does exist can be seen by the vote of the National Council for the deprivation of the licenses of the “112” channel.

These showdowns show that it is not worth expecting any kind of delicate media reform from the new government. And very recently, this hypothesis has been confirmed.

Revelations of Borodyansky and Tkachenko

On November 6th the first parliamentary hearings to protect journalists from assaults and attacks in a decade were held in the Rada.

This is a serious problem for our country: such cases are hardly investigated by law enforcement officials. The reason is simple – journalists are attacked mainly by people associated with the authorities, which in semi-feudal Ukrainian realities means their total impunity.

It would seem that the topic of the hearing obliged to talk about the protection of journalists. However, the representatives of the authorities spoke and, as is said, reached a new rock bottom.

The first to come to the microphone was the Minister for Humanitarian Policy Vladimir Borodyansky. Former media manager Viktor Pinchuk said that it is necessary to introduce criminal liability for journalists.

“The punishment for journalists to disseminate untrue and manipulative information must be strengthened. And this is the third part of our important changes I’ve mentioned before. Namely, the introduction into legislation of the concepts of ‘the manipulation of public opinion’, ‘manipulation of public consciousness’, and their criteria, as well as the introduction of both administrative and criminal responsibility for ordering and carrying out such manipulation.”

Aleksandr Tkachenko, head of the Committee on Humanitarian Policy, said that journalists should be made responsible for fakes. At the same time he developed the above thought of Nikita Poturayev, who predicted the closure of many TV channels.

And also, about the influence of owners on the media. Ukraine is hardly the only country in Europe where the vast majority of private media is unprofitable. This, of course, creates suspicion that owners are influencing journalists. In football, in UEFA, for 10 years there has been a principle of so-called financial fair play, conditionally saying how much you can earn, how much you can spend. If, for example, for three years the media are constantly unprofitable, probably, there is a chance to apply certain sanctions,” said Aleksandr Tkachenko.

He assumes that in this case in Ukraine on the air of TV channels there will be fewer shows and serials, the number of information TV channels will be reduced – but, according to him, “it will be an honest business”.

It is interesting that this was stated by the former Director-General of the chronically unprofitable “Plyusov”. From which it became clear that sanctions would most likely be applied at the discretion of the authorities.

In summary, representatives of the ruling team stated that they were preparing the ground for the closure of any media outlet, as well as the criminal prosecution of journalists. After all, the concept of manipulation is very broad, and it can be interpreted freely, which, in the conditions of the Ukrainian judicial system, controlled by the authorities, will simplify convictions against the media.

“Dictatorial” decree of Zelensky

Three days after the controversial speeches of Borodyansky and Tkachenko, they were almost blessed by the President. On November 9th Vladimir Zelensky signed a decree “On urgent measures to implement reforms and strengthen the state”.

The decree also contains a paragraph about the media. Before December 31st 2019 the document stipulates to develop and submit to the Rada for consideration draft laws on the regulation of media activities in Ukraine, providing, inter alia, for provisions on:

  • News requirements and standards;
  • Mechanisms to prevent the dissemination of false, distorted information and its refutation;
  • The prohibition of individuals and legal entities of the aggressor state from owning or financing media in Ukraine;
  • Increasing liability for violations of the law on information;

I.e., everything that Poturayev, Tkachenko, and Borodyansky spoke about earlier. Thus, the president legalised their promises to tighten the screws in the media.

It caused even more scandal. After which, the humanitarian minister hastened to clarify the decree. Borodyansky promised that no one would regulate news standards. However, it was even more discouraging: who now to believe – the minister or the president?

Borodyansky said that he plans to introduce the concepts of “dangerous information”, disinformation, and “unreliable information.” He also announced “the introduction of definitions of the nature of information, like news, entertainment, humorous, etc..”

Tkachenko also contributed to the interpretation of Zelensky’s decree. He stated that he did not yet know exactly how the bill, which was being hastily drafted in his own committee, would work.

To the journalist’s comment that the legislation already has a definition of the term “unreliable information” and mechanisms to prosecute its dissemination, Tkachenko said that it “concerns answers to questions in a specific media law”.

“These are slightly different regulations and self-regulation. We don’t know the answer to those questions yet. But we have identified for ourselves the challenges that face us. Including concerning disinformation, fakes, hate speech, and other issues that I spoke about from the rostrum during parliamentary hearings,” said the people’s deputy.

Tkachenko also stated that he does not yet have an answer to the question of who will determine if the information is fake and if it contains hate speech and how. But earlier the same Poturayev said that it will be the National Council.

“Firstly, you need to prove that a piece of information is misinformation. Secondly, if this happens once, it is not a fact, unless, of course, it is a direct appeal. But if there is constant disinformation or fakes from the same journalist or media outlet, then it is already necessary to have a mechanism of reaction to such events,” said Tkachenko.

At the same time, according to the people’s deputy, he does not yet know which mechanism can be applied in such situations.

“Or [liability for] administrative violations, or fines, or licenses. I don’t have a specific answer right now. Do I have any concerns? Concerning what I’m talking about right now, no. Knowing what kind of discussion we’re having right now, what we’re talking about. In no way did we ever mention any prohibitions, censorship or any other such things,” said Tkachenko.

He announced that the ideas of the bill would be presented at a meeting of the committee headed by him on November 14th.

“The goal is to squeeze UMKh and close Medvedchuk’s channels”

However, in “Servants of the People” there were people who gave less confusing explanations of what was happening.

The people’s deputy Aleksandr Dubinsky named the two main goals of Zelensky’s decree – and the subsequent efforts of the humanitarian bloc of the government and Rada.

“The purpose of this project is to take UMKh [Ukrainian Media Holding – ed] (with a grid of radio stations) away from Kurchenko, who is a citizen of the Russian Federation. And at the same time squeeze Medvedchuk a little, whose channels here form the information policy of the pro-Russian ‘Opposition Platform – For Life’,” wrote Dubinsky on Telegram.

It is interesting that the attack on UMKh already started at the end of September. The court handed over the property of Kurchenko’s media holding to the Asset Management Agency. The implementation of the presidential decree could open a new stage of pressure on the company – an attempt to close it because the actual owner is in Moscow.

However, there are likely to be difficulties with the evidence base. Firstly, it is unlikely to prove that the holding received money from the Russian Federation (in the media industry it is common knowledge that the owner “milked” rather than financed their company). Secondly, it is unclear how Ukraine will prove Kurchenko’s Russian citizenship.

And if it is proven, then according to the sources of “Strana” in UMKh, formally the oligarch does not own a large part of its assets, which are in the names of other people and chains of companies.

The bottom line: we can state that the package of media laws now being prepared by the authorities is likely to include several points:

  • Introduction of the concept of “manipulation of information” and “fake information”, with the simultaneous introduction of responsibility (up to criminal) for the dissemination of information by the media and journalists;
  • The creation of a new regulatory body, which will be given broad powers to control all media (not only TV and radio, as it is now, but also newspapers and Internet media). Control will include the right to withdraw the certificate of state registration of mass media and the right to block the work of media (for example, through blocking sites through a provider);
  • Simplification of the procedure of closing the media, which will be classified by some criteria like pro-Russian (receives funding from Russia, has among its owners Russian citizens, or uses rhetoric that the authorities consider to be pro-Russian).

It should be noted that together these points will lead to the creation of a system of total control over the media by the authorities.

Only a strong reaction from the journalistic community and international organisations can prevent this.

Viktoriya Venk

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