Banning Pro-Russian Media: Fighting Disinformation, Silencing Dissonant Opinions, or Both?
(Kennan Institute – wilsoncenter.org/program/kennan-institute – Brian Milakovsky – Feb. 18, 2021)
Brian Milakovsky works on economic recovery issues in the development sector in Luhanska Oblast, Ukraine. He has been in Ukraine or Russia since 2009, working in the ecological, humanitarian and development sectors.
Ukrainian liberal civil society and Western governments voiced nearly unanimous support for the decision by President Volodymyr Zelensky and the National Security Council to shut down three popular pro-Russian channels, 112 Ukraina, ZiK and NewsOne. It is widely accepted that these channels belong to Viktor Medvedchuk, head of the parliamentary party Opposition Platform—For Life and Ukraine’s most prominent pro-Russian politician.
This consensus is both understandable and troubling.
President Zelensky posted on Twitter: “Sanctions is a difficult decision. #Ukraine strongly supports #FreedomOfSpeech. Not propaganda financed by the aggressor country that undermines Ukraine on its way to #EU & EuroAtlantic integration. Fight for independence is fight in the information war for truth & European values.”
The model of all three closed channels is to walk a thin line between criticism of liberal, Western-oriented government policies, which is organic in Ukraine and resonates with a significant swath of society, and messages that are overtly coordinated with the Kremlin and that range into “Soros conspiracy theory” territory.
This is what makes this case more problematic than it might seem at first glance. In the process of countering disinformation, the ban also severed an entire end of Ukraine’s televised ideological spectrum. It remains an open question whether other media will be allowed to claim this viewership by presenting a milder version of the same Western-skeptical messages or whether this is the beginning of a general move against so-called opposition media.
Almost immediately after the ban, nationalist organizations picketed the offices of Nash and Inter, two more channels often perceived as pro-Russian. Thus far the government has made no official move against these channels.
The basic questions at play in this case are not unique to Ukraine, though they are sharpened by Russia’s aggression in the Donbas and Crimea:
Who defines the boundary between disinformation and dissonant opinions?
How can competitive discourse be maintained in wartime?
Spreading Disinformation versus Expressing Dissonant Opinions
The decision to ban 112 Ukraina, ZiK and NewsOne was ultimately made by the National Security Council, which does not open its decision-making process to public scrutiny. But we can get a sense of how the case against these media was built by reviewing the public decisions of the National Council of Radio and Television Broadcasting of Ukraine (NCRTBU), which is charged with policing the country’s media. Medvedchuk’s channels have by far drawn the most attention of all Ukrainian TV media.
The most serious and well-documented accusation by the NCRTBU against Medvedchuk’s channels is their systematic denial of Russia’s role in the Donbas war. The council cites frequent messaging on the channels that “this is purely a civil war” and “the world does not recognize Russia as an aggressor.”
These messages align perfectly with the Kremlin’s positions. They are central to the worldview the channels aim to foster in their viewers.
And those messages have an echo in real life. I have met a number of self-professed Medvedchuk supporters in eastern Ukraine who believe to this day that there is no evidence of Russian military involvement in the Donbas. In fact, the evidence of Moscow’s role is overwhelming and crucially important for understanding the nature and consequences of the conflict. 112 Ukraina, ZiK, and NewsOne strive to obscure that fact.
But the NCRTBU has also labeled as disinformation more debatable opinions expressed on Medvedchuk channels, such as “the Ukrainian government does not want to implement the Minsk agreements and is blocking negotiations.” Understanding what is going on in the Minsk process requires interpreting the motivations and limited public statements of participants in secret negotiations. The room for interpretation is enormous. I often disagree with how Medvedchuk’s channels report this issue, but I would stop short of automatically labeling their takes as disinformation and propaganda.
Free Speech Standards during Wartime
A significant number of violations cited by the NCRTBU deal with alleged incitement of hatred toward participants in the Revolution of Dignity and veterans of the Anti-Terrorism Operation (ATO), which one NewsOne host provocatively claimed “all have immunity from punishment for murder.”
But it isn’t clear that the same standards are applied to all media. Journalist Nikita Pidgora of Vesti.ua (a site that has held a highly critical position of Ukraine’s post-Maidan politics) claims that the NCRTBU has remained silent when other social and political groups are maligned in Ukrainian media, such as residents of the non-government-controlled areas of the Donbas, internally displaced persons, Russian speakers, and “vatniki,” the catch-all category for Ukrainians nostalgic for the Soviet system.
That inconsistent approach to hate speech matters when the number and frequency of NCRTBU audits are cited as proof that particular media are serial offenders and deserving of closure.
I also worry that many figures in the government and civil society mix together understanding of propaganda with opposition to Ukraine’s Western geopolitical orientation. For example, Anastasia Radina, the head of the Verkhovna Rada’s anti-corruption committee, wrote on Twitter “for years, Medvedchuk’s TV channels had freely disseminated fakes, attacked UA reforms and Euro- and Euroatlantic aspirations.”
Fakes are definitely bad, but are anti-Western takes automatically bad too?
I asked Matthew Shaaf, director of the Ukraine office of Freedom House, about Radina’s position. He told me that “Ukraine’s ‘Euroatlantic aspirations’ are unambiguously a good thing when it comes to improving respect for human rights and the strengthening of its democracy. Yet there are many who do not support these … aspirations or otherwise disagree with the direction the country is moving in, the government’s positions…. Such views are legitimate, and those who hold them must have opportunities to hold, express, and share such views, including online and on TV. Without freedom of expression and pluralism, Ukraine, or any other country for that matter, will never be a full democracy.”
In short, the Zelensky administration’s case against Viktor Medvedchuk’s TV channels combines well-justified accusations of disinformation with a worrying tendency to delegitimize the political expression of Ukrainians critical of the country’s post-Maidan consensus. That should give civil society and Western embassies pause.