Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on February 2 signed off on the sanctions proposed by his national-security team against three television stations nominally owned by Taras Kozak, a member of the pro-Russian faction Opposition Platform For Life.
In particular, Ukrainian television channels "112", "NewsOne" and "ZIK" have been blocked.
Media claims Putin's friend owns the channels
The blocked channels are believed to belong to Viktor Medvedchuk, the head of the faction’s political council and one of the richest and most influential individuals in the country. The politician denies that he owns the television stations.
He also has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter.
Earlier in March 2014, the United States sanctioned Medvedchuk following the overthrow of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych for his role in undermining democracy in Ukraine.
"A difficult decision"
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said in a posting on Twitter, that the move had been a difficult decision and Ukraine supported freedom of speech but not "propaganda financed by the aggressor country."
"Sanctions against the media are always a difficult decision for any government except an authoritarian one. This decision was not a spur-of-the-moment decision, but one that had been in the works, based on information over a long time from many Ukrainian government agencies. This is by no means an attack on freedom of speech, this is a well-founded decision to protect national security," Zelensky said.
According to him, the sanctioned TV channels have long been actively used for disinformation campaigns in Ukraine aimed at undermining reforms and Ukraine's course toward European and Euro-Atlantic integration.
"Channels are funded by Russia"
Zelensky's spokesperson Yulia Mendel noted that the channels are funded by Russia as a part of its aggression against Ukraine.
"It has been confirmed that the financing of the channels is carried out by Russia, and the channels are used as a tool in the war against Ukraine," Mendel said.
Blocked channels issued joint statement
The three blocked TV channels issued a statement denouncing the ban as "political repression." Medvedchuk called the presidential order illegal and said he would appeal.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denounced the blocking of the three stations as a "violation of media freedom and international standards."
“Russian Trojan horse”
Serhiy Leshchenko, a former member of Ukraine’s parliament, called the sanctions against the stations a “powerful step” and described the stations as a “Russian Trojan horse” for disseminating Kremlin propaganda inside the country. He also called for YouTube to ban the stations.
The U.S. Embassy voiced support for Ukraine's efforts "to counter Russia's malign influence, in line with Ukrainian law, in defence of its sovereignty and territorial integrity."
"We must all work together to prevent disinformation from being deployed as a weapon in an information war against sovereign states," U.S. embassy said in a statement on Facebook.
"Expense of the freedom"
The spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in a written statement on February 3, suggested that the move could sacrifice media freedom in Ukraine.
"While Ukraine's efforts to protect its territorial integrity and national security, as well as to defend itself from information manipulation are legitimate, in particular given the scale of disinformation campaigns affecting Ukraine including from abroad, this should not come at the expense of freedom of media and must be done in full respect of fundamental rights and freedoms and following international standards," Borrell said.
The statement added that any measures taken should be proportional to the aim and that Brussels would be in touch with Ukrainian authorities to receive more information on the issue.
"Balanced solution for countering propaganda"
The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media (RFoM) Teresa Ribeiro on February 3 expressed her concern on the issue and requested more information from the authorities in order to fully assess the decision and the related restrictions on media freedom.
"Ukrainian authorities should find a balanced and proportional solution for countering propaganda, a solution that preserves media pluralism, free flow of information and diversity of opinions in line with relevant international standards and OSCE commitments," Ribeiro said.
She added that when propaganda amounts to incitement to hatred and violence, relevant measures may be applied by using existing national and international legal instruments.
TV platforms continue to stream online
As a result of the sanctions approved on February 2, the three stations were immediately shut down, but they continue to stream their content on Youtube and other platforms.
The move is the latest in a series taken by Kyiv since late January against figures considered Russian agents and follow the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden, a staunch supporter of Ukraine.
Relations between Ukraine and Russia deteriorated in 2014 after Moscow illegally occupied the Crimean Peninsula and began supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine.