The following is a long-forgotten story regarding the true nature of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s attitude towards free speech. Zelensky has been lionized by the western press since the start of Russia’s invasion, but in the not-so-distant past, many international human rights organizations and concerned Ukrainians were sounding the alarm on dangerous and anti-democratic patterns of behavior exhibited by the President.
Here is what happened…
“They [Zelensky Administration] believe that it is possible to return Donetsk and Luhansk to Ukraine by force,” read a headline from Ukrainian news outlet Newsone in December of 2021. “Only a suicide and a narrow-minded person [could believe that].” The article is quoting Viktor Medvedchuk, owner of Newsone, who is criticizing the President for reneging on his campaign promise of finding a peaceful solution to the conflicts in Eastern Ukraine, an issue BBC reported was Zelensky’s “number one promise.”
On February 3, 2021, President Zelensky circumvented parliament to enact sanctions on three television stations believed to be affiliated with Medvedchuk, a leader of the Opposition Bloc party and duly elected member of parliament. The channels were immediately taken off air, including Newsone. Zelensky also sanctioned the air travel company used by Medvedchuk and pressured American social media companies like YouTube and Facebook to deactivate the accounts of Medvedchuk-affiliated companies, which they ultimately did.
Justified by Medvedchuk’s ties to Putin, these actions were nonetheless widely condemned by international, European, and Ukrainian human rights NGOs. Free press advocates like the International and European Federations of Journalists (IFJ and EFJ), who collectively represent hundreds of thousands of journalists across 140 countries, jointly denounced the decree, calling it “an extra-judicial and politically motivated ban and a blatant attack on press freedom that must be urgently reversed.”
A division within the United Nations (UN) released a statement declaring that the decision had not been made by an impartial authority and lacked proper justification and proportion. The National Union of Journalists of Ukraine (NUJU), a group that has repeatedly condemned Russia for today’s invasion, openly criticized the 2021 sanctions, “Depriving Ukrainian citizens of access to media without a prior trial and banning hundreds of journalists and media outlets of their right to work is an attack on freedom of speech.”
Medvedchuk, still a sitting member of parliament at the time, attempted to create a new media organization called First Independent. Zelensky dissolved the outlet a few months later.
Gross negligence on the part of Ukrainian law enforcement also became a central issue internationally and was flagged by US intelligence agencies. A 2021 US State Department report on Ukraine blamed “government inaction in solving crimes for the emergence of a culture of impunity.”
“Government authorities sometimes participated in and condoned attacks on journalists,” the report went on, citing credible allegations that “the government prosecuted journalists in retaliation for their work.”
Ignoring international backlash, on August 20, 2021, Zelenksy passed broad sanctions against various digital media publishers, yet again without parliamentary involvement. Strana, one of Ukraine’s largest outlets at the time with 24 million visits per month, was a primary target of the sanctions. After its primary url (strana.ua) was cut off, the outlet was forced onto another domain (strana.news), which is still forbidden in Ukraine. Strana’s viewership dropped by more than 94%.
Human rights organizations once again found the justification of “pro-Russian” ties uncompelling. The previously mentioned journalistic freedom cohorts, IFJ, EFJ, and NUJU, issued a shared statement calling the decree an “extrajudicial action” and lambasted it as a “threat to press freedom and media pluralism in the country.” The EFJ further specified that “Strana.ua is one of the few remaining opposition media in Ukraine.” Freedom House, an American pro-democracy non-profit once chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, urged US President Biden to take a stronger stance against Zelensky’s actions. “Zelensky continues to use executive power, without judicial review, to sanction media outlets, tech platforms, journalists, and websites under the pretext of fighting disinformation,” the group said in an open letter to the US President.
Perhaps the most interesting target of the August 2021 sanctions was Anatoly Sharij, a Kyiv-born journalist and blogger with a devoted Ukrainian fanbase who founded a political party in his name in 2019. The “Party of Sharij” received nearly 10% of the vote in some localities during Ukraine’s 2020 national elections with several candidates attaining office at the city and regional levels.
Anatoly Sharij, in a photograph taken in Spain, where he lives. Credit: El Independiente
Sharij was forced to flee persecution by Viktor Yanukovych, a past Ukrainian President whom many western media outlets accuse of being aligned with the Kremlin. Far from exhibiting “pro-Russian” sentiment, Sharij strongly condemned Putin’s invasion back in May, stating in an interview with Spanish publisher El Independiente, “The war is an aggression and invasion by Russia against the Ukrainian people.”
A UN-affiliated organization investigated Zelenky’s sanctions against Sharij and concluded “Sharij is misportrayed by the authorities as a journalist being pro-Kremlin, pro-Putin, pro-Russian Federation.” At a conference in Brussels, Sharij shared his belief that Donbas and Crimea are part of Ukraine but disagrees with Zelesnky’s approach to the conflict. In response to being painted as a Russian sympathizer, Sharij said, “The Ukrainian government comfortably uses such labels against anyone who expresses any criticism… I have the right to criticize the corruption of the president and the government.”
The Party of Sharij was among several political parties disbanded by presidential decree at the start of Russia’s war, a decision upheld by Ukraine’s Supreme Court without opportunity for further appeal.
In the Words of Ukrainians
A local perspective on Zelensky’s press relations is provided by a Ukrainian outlet now familiar to many westerners, The Kyiv Independent, whose Twitter following rocketed from just 11,400 followers a few weeks before the invasion to more than 2.2 million as it provided English-speakers around the world with live war updates.
Having been celebrated in Forbes earlier this year for their reports on Russian war crimes and op-eds calling for western sanctions against Russia, it’s difficult to portray the outlet as pro-Kremlin. Before the invasion, in January 2022, The Independent published a piece titled “How Zelensky's administration moves to dismantle press freedom in Ukraine.”
“The past four months have seen a surge of attempts to control the media,” The Independent reported, highlighting the government's pattern of behavior characterized by “threats of criminal prosecution against media outlets and journalists.” Condensing the Zelensky presidency in a single sentence, the author wrote, “Instead of improving its dialogue with the press, Zelensky’s government decided to take a more direct route: amplify supporters and pressure critics into silence.”
Rethinking Our Support
As we consider the image of Zelensky portrayed not only by numerous human rights groups but by his own citizens and compare this to the version pushed by western media, we should also reconsider our continued military support for the President.
In an environment rogue missiles land in Poland and blame is tossed around in a hysterical frenzy, nuclear war is a real possibility. Nuclear war means billions dead, the end of modern civilization, and perhaps the end of humanity. Is that risk even remotely commensurate to the benefits of ensuring one corrupt despot maintains power over eastern Ukraine instead of another corrupt despot?
I don’t see how anyone with minimally functioning cognitive faculties would have a hard time answering this question.