Kyiv, Ukraine – In a move hailed by pro-Western Ukrainians, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy unplugged three television networks overnight that he said spread Kremlin-funded “propaganda” and served as a bullhorn of an increasingly popular pro-Moscow party.
But his ex-Soviet nation of 43 million is polarised linguistically and politically, and the move may prove risky for the political fortunes of Zelenskyy, a former star comedian who hails from a Russian-speaking family.
Millions in Ukraine’s east and south are Russian speakers – without necessarily being pro-Kremlin – and their votes propelled Zelenskyy to the presidency against all political odds.
Zelenskyy was elected in 2019 with 73 percent of the vote, a staggering figure for a rookie politician whose only experience in the halls of power was the role of an accidental president in a popular TV series.
But recent polls show that Zelenskyy’s approval ratings have fallen well below 40 percent, reflecting the public’s growing dissatisfaction with his inconclusive policies and constant cabinet changes.
One of the fiercest Kremlin foes and most successful reformers in the former Soviet Union applauded Zelenskyy’s move to close down the 112, NewsOne and ZIK news channels on Tuesday.
“He surprised everyone who said he was not capable of decisive steps, and he made the step none of his predecessors had been able to take in the past decades,” Mikheil Saakashvili, who served as fellow ex-Soviet nation Georgia’s president from 2004-2013 only to be expelled and end up as Zelensky’s adviser on reforms, wrote on Facebook.
The trio shut down are part of a dozen TV networks in Ukraine owned by several regional oligarchs. The networks produced plenty of exclusive content, covered the entire spectrum of Ukraine’s political life and refrained from directly praising the Kremlin.
But their anchors often called the central government’s conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the southeastern region of Donbass a “civil war”, said that Crimea’s population overwhelmingly supported their peninsula’s annexation by Moscow in 2014, and called for the restoration of peace and trade with Moscow.
“Imagine that in a conflict zone, on a national level there is a channel financed by the opposite side. It’s like an Israeli channel financed by Fatah or Hamas,” Kyiv-based analyst Igar Tyshkevich told Al Jazeera, referring to two Palestinian parties.
The networks were nominally owned by Taras Kozak, a politician with the Opposition Platform for Life (OPFL), a party that has the second-largest faction in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s lower house of parliament.
But their real owner is reportedly OPFL’s “grey cardinal” Viktor Medvedchuk, the main conduit of Moscow’s influence in Ukraine, whose daughter was baptised by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The United States sanctioned Medvedchuk in 2014.
He called the networks’ shutdown “absolutely illegal,” and said he would challenge the move in court.
“Zelenskyy’s coterie and masters from over the ocean clean the information space from their opponents with his hands, made him a tool of government lawlessness,” the 66-year-old tycoon told Ukrainian media on Wednesday.
The OPFL is gaining clout as Zelenskyy’s supporters increasingly gravitate towards the party, observers say.
“Zelenskyy, as a prominent television personality, strikes at his competitor in the field he understands best,” researcher Nikolay Mitrokhin of Germany’s Bremen University told Al Jazeera.
The OPFL has indeed become slightly more popular than Zelenskyy’s party, a motley crew of B-list politicians and political newcomers that was hastily put together two years ago.
According to a survey released on Thursday by the Rating pollster, 18.9 percent of Ukrainians support the OPFL, while the Servant of the People party lags just behind, with 18.6 percent support.
Media freedom concerns
At the dawn of his presidency in 2019, Zelenskyy pledged to “never, ever shut down any TV networks”, and key members of his Servant of the People party frequented the studios of the three television stations he would order off the air.
The networks widely covered his steps to settle the separatist conflict. But in recent months, they began to harshly criticise Zelenskyy’s policies as his ratings plummeted.
Their coverage is “propaganda financed by the aggressor country that undermines Ukraine on its way” to membership in the European Union and NATO, Zelenskyy tweeted on Wednesday.
However, the EU reprimanded Zelenskyy’s move.
“Given the scale of disinformation campaigns affecting Ukraine including from abroad, this should not come at the expense of freedom of media,” the spokesperson of EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement on Wednesday.
Zelenskyy’s decision prompted objections from his key ally.
Parliament speaker Dmytro Razumkov abstained from voting the sanctions in, and condemned them.
“Sanctioning TV networks is bad, no matter who they belong to,” Razumkov told Ukrainian media.
US weighs in with support
Zelenskyy’s decision seems like an attempt to win points with US President Joe Biden, who called him one day before the ban, on Monday, for the first time after his election.
Biden oversaw Ukraine between 2009 and 2017 while serving as vice president under Barack Obama, and visited Kyiv six times.
A key US official in Europe seemed pleased.
“Media freedom does not include the right to spread malicious propaganda and disinformation. We support Ukraine’s decision to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity by countering Russia’s blatant and malign influence,” Courtney Austrian, head of the US mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said in a statement on Thursday.
But to Zelenskyy’s critics, the sudden shutdown of the networks without a court ruling is yet more proof of his political inconsistency.
“Zelenskyy’s actions are a blow to grassroots patriotism in eastern and southern regions that is not pro-Russian politically at all,” Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.
He called the move “McCarthyism” and “a witch hunt” aimed at saving Zelenskyy’s plummeting approval ratings.
“The shut-down networks were not Russian propaganda bullhorns, but served as platforms in the search for alternative directions in Ukraine’s development,” he said.
Fiercely anti-Russian Ukrainians meanwhile said they saw the shutdown as a ploy designed to distract the public from Zelenskyy’s allegedly pro-Russian sympathies.
“He sold us to Russia the minute he was inaugurated,” Valentina Semenovich, a lawyer in Kyiv, told Al Jazeera.