Will Inter Go Off the Air in Ukraine Over a Russian Pop Performance?

Inter has been one of Ukraine’s most popular television channels since the mid-1990s. Now it may close down over a New Year’s Eve show that featured three Russian pop stars.

A Russian pop song that aired on Ukrainian television on New Year’s Eve is causing big trouble for Inter, one of Ukraine’s most popular television channels.

The National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine is calling for Inter’s license to be canceled by January 15, after the channel broadcast three Russian pop stars—Iosif Kobzon, Valeriya, and Oleg Gazmanov—performing a sarcastic pop song about Western sanctions on New Year’s Eve.

The security council is calling it an “ethical” issue, arguing that Inter had no right to broadcast the three celebrities, who were among the more than 500 prominent Russian cultural figures who signed a letter in support of President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea last March. That their faces were shown on Ukrainian television immediately following the Ukrainian national anthem and the Ukrainian president’s New Year’s speech was a “humiliation for the whole country,” said Alexander Turchinov, the head of the security council. Turchinov officially addressed the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council on January 2 using language that sounded like an order: “Immediately consider the question of revoking the license of Inter TV channel, which has become a part of the information war against Ukraine.”

But Ukrainian journalists are questioning whether the security council should have the authority to shutter a television channel. The billionaire Sergei Levochkin, former head of Victor Yanukovych’s administration and one of today’s opposition leaders, is part owner of Inter. The channel often broadcasts interviews with opposition activists and politicians with pro-Russian views.

“There are plenty of questions about Inter, which is often biased. The authorities should make the channel’s ownership transparent but let civil society decide what is ethical and what is wrong to broadcast on television,” Nataliya Gumenyuk, a prominent Ukrainian television and radio host, told The Daily Beast in an interview last weekend. Gumenyuk said there were concerns about the security council’s growing powers over civil society in Ukraine.

Yuri Pavlenko, the only Opposition Bloc party representative in the Committee on the Freedom of Speech and Information in the state Rada, said ahead of a parliament meeting on Wednesday that he would fight for Inter, which has consistently been on of Ukraine’s most watched channels since the mid-1990s. Pavlenko told The Daily Beast he did not think Inter’s license should be revoked solely because the authorities considered its New Year’s show unpatriotic. “Why should the security council tell the National Television and Broadcasting Council what to do?” Pavlenko said. “Inter is the only channel in Ukraine that represents an opposition view of Ukrainians unhappy about joining the E.U. and NATO.”

Turchinov, for his part, insists that the three Russian celebrities—Kobzon, Valeriya, and Gazmanov—all of whom are banned from entering certain E.U. member states, “suppored terrorists” in the rebellious Donetsk and Luhansk regions and “mocked” Ukraine. Recently, Turchinov and the security council, which is made up of law enforcement and military agencies and institutions, were granted more authority by the Ukrainian parliament. Turchinov became the second most powerful figure after the president, authorized to solve security and corruption issues, fire heads of government institutions, and maintain order in the country, which is struggling with unrest and approaching default. On Tuesday the newly founded National Anti-Corruption Bureau began recruiting investigators, and leaders of civil society are wondering whether the security council will be putting pressure on independent anti-corruption investigations.

Tired of the war and corruption, Ukrainians have had a visceral reaction to any abuse of power or anti-patriotic visitors. In the last few weeks, there have been a series of attacks on Russian “personas non grata” supporting pro-Russian or pro-Putin politics in Ukraine. Ukrainian activists attacked a reporter, Yevgeniya Zmanovskaya, of the Russian news agency LifeNews during a protest against a concert by Ani Lorok. The singer was targeted in Ukraine, her home country, for accepting music awards in Moscow last year; the activists in Kiev demanded that Zmanovskaya stop covering the protest against Lorok’s concert. Earlier this month, activists in Odessa, some from the nationalist organization Right Sector, “detained” a Russian movie and theater actor, Alexei Panin, at a local restaurant and demanded that he apologize to all of Odessa.

Right Sector spokesman Artyom Skoropadsky told The Daily Beast in an interview on Saturday that the organization intended to keep up the pressure on pro-Putin Russian citizens and “betrayers of Ukraine.”

“We’ll always detain, punish, and transfer to the SBU [the Security Service of Ukraine] those whom we consider to be Ukraine’s enemies,” Skoropadsky said.