Following the visit of Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats warn GOP will regret Barrett confirmation Democrats brace for nail-biting finish to Senate battle Democratic Senate emerges as possible hurdle for progressives  MORE (D-Ill.) to Ukraine last month, the Democrat has joined the ranks of a growing number of U.S. officials calling for military aid to the country in order to counter Russia's aggression. However, while Kiev clearly needs the support of the U.S., Durbin, who is the founding chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, missed an opportunity to make such support conditional on Ukraine's respect for basic liberties, most importantly freedom of speech.

Indeed, following Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko quickly banned the transmission of all Russian TV channels, citing them as a threat to national security. This move was followed by the creation, in December 2014, of the Ministry of Information Policy as a key tool in the country's propaganda war with Russia. The ministry, led by the head of the Information Security Department of the National Guard, Yuriy Stets, has far-reaching powers allowing "officials [to] formulate and implement a 'state information strategy' and take measures to protect citizens from 'partial, ill-judged and unreliable information,'" writes journalist Maksim Vikhrov. Some journalists fear that the ministry was actually created to muffle internal opposition, rather than tackling Russian propaganda. It's not surprising that it has earned the Orwellian nickname "the Ministry of Truth."


This is not the first time such a restrictive and authoritative media policy has swept Ukraine. Before the 2004 Orange Revolution, President Leonid Kuchma's administration had consolidated its control over both the state and private media by releasing written instructions for editorial policy as well as the infamous tema nedeli — "themes of the week." This situation is looking dangerously similar today, as Kiev's actions aimed at influencing the media have spurred a backlash from civil society activists.

More recently, Ukraine's political agenda has become even more focused on curtailing critical voices in the country, culminating in the battle to revoke the broadcasting license of opposition TV station Inter over its broadcasting of a New Year's Eve show featuring three prominent Russian pop stars and their sarcastic song opposing Western sanctions. Immediately, Ukraine's security council stepped in the fray. Despite the fact that Inter has not been accused of supporting pro-Russian separatists, the channel's "imperfect" patriotic credentials were judged sufficient to demand its closure. On May 25, Ukraine's Interior Ministry announced that it would be investigating Inter on two counts, covering the partial privatization of the station in the murky 1990s period and accusations that unknown executives of the station had attempted to influence journalists' reporting.

But while some unconvincingly argue that Inter's coverage, often critical of government policies, is a direct danger to national security, others have pointed out that Inter, one of the most-watched Ukrainian channels since the mid-1990s, has attracted the wrath of the government because it is owned by Ukrainian tycoon Dmitry Firtash and Sergey Levochkin, leader of the Opposition Bloc in Parliament. Their channel has featured stories about the government's flawed austerity program and rampant corruption within its ranks, creating the perception that investigation against Inter may be more about silencing these critical voices than thwarting Russian aggression.Furthermore, the killing of several opposition figures and journalists in 2015 adds to such fears, casting a dark shadow over Ukraine's already shaky protection of freedom of speech and underlining the growing intolerance for dissenting opinions in the public sphere.

Poroshenko's law criminalizing positive discourse on the communist era in Ukraine and banning the use Soviet symbols, all the while glorifying the role of former Ukrainian militias and Nazi collaborators, is another symptom of the government's almost reflexive stifling of critical viewpoints and active promotion of a single unifying narrative that cannot be contested. Breaking these laws could result in up to 10 years in prison. Dunja Mijatovic, a media representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, noted that the new law sets "a worrying precedent" and added that, "potentially problematic speech should not be banned, on the contrary[;] it should be addressed through an open debate."

From tearing down communist statues to targeting opposition channels, Poroshenko's Ukraine appears to be drifting more toward Russia's authoritarian tendencies than to the democratic values of the European Union it seeks to join. For a country that largely continues to express its dedication to European values, Ukraine's government should note The Economist: "Defending free speech means defending speech you don't like; otherwise it's just partisanship, not principle."

If Ukraine is to be truly democratic, the government should be pressured to reexamine its current policy of curtailing freedom of expression, rather than seeking to fight Russia's influence with the Kremlin's own weapons.

Popova is a Russian-British freelance journalist with a focus on Eastern European politics and society.