Monday, December 4, 2023

Ukrainian president seeks total control over media

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has had two options since he was elected in 2019: either to improve the reality that he faced or to create a fake one. 

He has opted for the latter: to silence independent voices and try to brainwash the populace through puppet media. 

Instead of creating a business-friendly environment and introducing the rule of law, Zelensky has decided to stifle the media that report on corruption, lawlessness and poverty. 

He wants the media to lavish praise on his non-existent reforms and meager achievements. This approach is strikingly similar to the one chosen by Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. 

The Kyiv Post, Ukraine’s main English-language newspaper and one of the most independent media in the country – was shut down on November 8 by its owner, Adnan Kivan. All of its staff were fired immediately. 

Although there is no sufficient evidence that the government ordered the closure, it is a fact that the Kyiv Post has faced increasing pressure from the government due to its independence stance. 

Crackdown on media

The Kyiv Post’s abrupt closure and firing of all of its staff was the culmination of a trend that started in early 2021. 

In February, Zelensky closed three pro-Russian television channels – NewsOne, ZIK and 112 Ukraine – without any legal grounds. There was no court ruling, and neither evidence nor clear explanations were provided for the claim that they threatened national security.

Many Ukrainians welcomed the move because it is indeed true that the channels had often allowed their speakers to voice pro-Russian opinions and spread Kremlin narratives. 

I warned at the time that the extrajudicial and unlawful closure of the propagandist channels set a very dangerous precedent for most media. I wrote that even the most pro-Western, independent and objective media, including the Kyiv Post, could be unlawfully shut down in the future. 

This is exactly what has happened. The Kyiv Post has been one of the most patriotic and anti-Kremlin media outlets in Ukraine, and now it has been destroyed after months of government pressure. 

Other anti-Kremlin journalists – such as the Suspilne and Pryamy television channels and Savik Shuster’s Freedom of Speech show – have also complained about pressure by the authorities in recent months. 

In August, Zelensky also blocked, a popular news site that heavily criticized the government, and the media outlet run by Anatoly Shariy, a fugitive Ukrainian blogger with a substantial following. Previously Shariy had also been charged with treason for his videos.  

Both Shariy and are admittedly pro-Russian but the real reason for the crackdown on them was their criticism of Zelensky. 

The National Television and Radio Council also filed a motion on November 4 with a court to strip Nash, another TV channel critical of the government, of its license. 

Pressure on the Kyiv Post 

The pressure on the Kyiv Post fits perfectly into Zelensky’s wholesale crackdown on free speech. For me, as a Kyiv Post journalist, Kivan’s intentions were clear from the very beginning. 

In 2018, Kivan complained to me that the administration of then-President Petro Poroshenko was pressuring him due to the Kyiv Post’s critical coverage. He asked me to reduce my criticism of the government. I refused, saying that I believe in the absolute freedom of speech. 

At that time, I was not fired only due to our chief editor Brian Bonner’s efforts to preserve our editorial independence. Since 2018, however, Kivan has tried hard to curry favor with the authorities. 

After Kivan took over, Sergey Leshchenko, a staunch supporter of Zelensky’s administration, became a paid columnist for the Kyiv Post. He has simultaneously worked as a paid board member at the state railway company, Ukrzaliznytsya

In 2020, the Kyiv Post also ran a critical story about Prosecutor General Irina Venediktova, and she summoned Bonner to her office. She was trying to pressure him at that meeting, threatening to file a lawsuit. 

After that the Kyiv Post published op-eds authored by Venediktova to give her the right to respond. After the Kyiv Post stopped running Venediktova op-eds and published another critical story about her in September 2021, the newspaper faced pressure again. 

Kivan came to the Kyiv Post’s office and said that, by criticizing Venediktova, we were hurting both ourselves and him. He was nervous and sarcastic, ridiculing our editorial independence.

After the September article, Venediktova also opened criminal cases against Kivan and then closed them, Bonner told the Ukrainian Weekly. Venediktova and Kivan denied the opening of such cases.

Due to government pressure, in October Kivan came up with a plan to undermine the Kyiv Post’s independence. The idea was to dilute its independent staff with his own loyalists and hire people who would do his bidding. 

This plan included launching a Ukrainian-language version of the Kyiv Post run by Kivan proteges. One of them, Olena Rotari, proclaimed herself the chief editor of this version without telling Bonner or anyone else from the Kyiv Post. 

We were not against expanding the Kyiv Post or launching a Ukrainian version as long as all new hires would be independent and professional journalists. 

But Kivan wanted to have his own way and decided to get rid of us. Now he is planning to launch a new puppet media outlet using the Kyiv Post brand under his total editorial control. 

A silver lining 

The good news is that Ukraine is not Russia. All Ukrainian governments have tried to stifle free speech, and all of them failed. 

The Kyiv Post will rise from the ashes like Phoenix. Most of the editorial team is launching a new newspaper that will keep the professionalism and independence of the old Kyiv Post. The new publication will continue to speak truth to power and to hold everyone, including Ukrainian officials, oligarchs and the Kremlin, to account. I strongly believe that it will outlive Zelensky’s presidency. 

At the Kyiv Post, we used to have cups with an Albert Camus quote that reflected our newspaper’s mission. 

The quote read: “A free press can be good or bad, but most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.” 

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