President Volodymyr Zelensky this week issued a decree enforcing sanctions on 112, NewsOne, and ZiK TV channels, believed to be controlled by Vladimir Putin's crony Viktor Medvedchuk, which caused a huge public stir. This is indeed a significant move that could have quite serious consequences.
If we analyze these outlets' activity over the recent period, we will see that they had been openly promoting narratives fitting the interests of Russia and its external influence efforts
A blow to Russia's information influence in Ukraine
Representatives of pro-Russian political forces, as well as their media pool, immediately jumped on a train of spinning claims of censorship, violations of freedom of speech, and so on. At the same time, Ukraine's Western partners have backed sanctions against the said TV channels, as evidenced by statements by British, American and a number of other embassies, who said that information is a weapon in modern times, and that information security is no less important than any other.
If we analyze these outlets' activity over the recent period, we will see that they had been openly promoting narratives fitting the interests of Russia and its external influence efforts. For example, a campaign to promote the Russian vaccine was indicative, being spun despite the fact that the drug is not certified. Therefore, if the ban on these TV channels is implemented consistently, Russia's information influence on the territory of Ukraine will significantly decrease, although it will not disappear permanently. In this case, we are talking about the tools of total information defeat, which these TV channels were in their essence. I think that in the future their blocking will become even more extensive, including through YouTube bans.
How channel blocking harms a pro-Russian political force OPZZh
The ban on TV outlets creates serious problems for the OPZZh, as it will greatly complicate any growth of their public support.
Moreover, it is possible that OPZZh competitors will make use of the situation. For example, the OppoBloc may try to get its second wind or perhaps another similar project may emerge with a focus on the relevant target audience, but with a different list of investors. After all, it was precisely due to their media pool that the OPZZh once managed to crush the OppoBloc and all other competing projects.
In addition, this shifts the balance of power within the OPZZh itself – between Liovochkin's and Medvedchuk's groups. It's no secret that their relations have been rather complicated, to say the least. So their unification within a single political project was a forced move rather than that consistent with their shared vision of the future. Now Liovochkin is getting a certain advantage in this struggle. Therefore, it is possible that centrifugal processes are awaiting the OPZZh. However, it is too early to talk about it.
Due to the blocking of OPZZh's channels, their basic electorate won't go anywhere, but this will definitely be an issue in relation to any electoral expansion
This political force has an ambitious goal – to return to power, the OPZZh certainly doesn't seek to be an "honorary opposition." However, in order to regain power, they need to constantly expand their electorate, ensuring a steady growth of popular support. But the fewer information resources they have, the fewer opportunities they get to influence the audience, rock the country, seek snap elections, provoke unrest, and so on.
Due to the blocking of OPZZh's channels, their basic electorate won't go anywhere, but this will definitely be an issue in relation to any electoral expansion. OPZZh is unlikely to be able to get anywhere beyond their electoral ghetto.
Implications for the authorities and personally for Zelensky
None of the blocked information resources could be referred to as friendly to Volodymyr Zelensky. The alternative for Zelensky would be to claim freedom of speech and watch himself being annihilated in the media space. After all, over the past period, these channels' content has turned into streams of dirt, provocation, and fake news, primarily targeting the president. Therefore, having decided to block these TV channels, Zelensky definitely loses nothing. However, there are no grounds for overly optimistic suggestions that he would immediately take the lead in the patriotic niche of voters and that ex-President Petro Poroshenko's supporters would immediately side with the incumbent.
Currently, many Ukrainians experience cognitive dissonance. After all, there has long been an opinion in our society that Zelensky was a pro-Russian politician. But after his move on blocking Medvedchuk's channels, many who loathe Zelensky have their reality picture fractured. And now moderately patriotic citizens of Ukraine will at least start looking closely at the president.
Russia traditionally uses military blackmail as key leverage on Ukraine
Zelensky retains opportunities to attract a variety of voters. At present, he continues the search for electoral opportunities and options – he remains oriented towards centrism, avoiding any radical manifestations and, I believe, will continue to try to keep the balance, clearly supporting a pro-European and Euro-Atlantic vector.
Will things get heated in Donbas again?
Russia traditionally uses military blackmail as key leverage on Ukraine. The big question, however, is whether Russia will apply any major military blackmail tactic this time. After Joe Biden took over power in the United States, it is difficult for Russia to expect that any serious escalation in eastern Ukraine will remain unnoticed and not lead to another package of Western sanctions.
Therefore, Moscow will definitely try to put some kind of pressure on Ukraine, but most likely it will be limited to purely ideological issues, such as claims on the possible accession of Donbas and voyages by Russian propaganda pundits to the occupied Donetsk.
Probability of the banned channels resuming broadcast
I don't really believe that 112, NewsOne, and ZiK will be able to lift the blockade through courts. After all, there's no mechanism for appealing sanctions. They could only challenge the constitutionality of the presidential decree in the Constitutional Court and its validity – in the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court, however, is also unlikely to hear the case
However, the Constitutional Court is unlikely to be able to hand down any decisions in the near future, given the tension around it. If the Constitutional Court now overturns the presidential decree and the three TV channels in question get back on air, the reaction won't take long – a crowd will do a "Maidan" outside the CCU HQ. And the judges seem to be quite aware of such developments so they are likely to pass on the issue.
The Supreme Court is also unlikely to take up the case, as judges might be wary of creating a problem for themselves in the future by overturning a presidential decree.
Besides, the president's decree does have a legal basis to back it: it's the law on sanctions, the Verkhovna Rada decision, the relevant evidence gathered by the SBU, as well as the established practice of imposing sanctions, which was used earlier.
Petro Oleschuk is a political scientist, lecturer at the Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University