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Ukraine slammed for banning dozens of foreign reporters

September 17, 2015

Ukraine faced widespread condemnation Thursday for blacklisting dozens of foreign reporters as it expanded sanctions against Russia for its actions in the war-torn former Soviet state.

The banned journalists included included three Moscow-based employees of the BBC that were later removed from the list.

But the government kept the names of a Spanish correspondent and a writer whom Germany’s Die Zeit weekly later identified as a freelance contributor to one of its supplements.

The surprise decision raised immediate concern that Ukraine’s 17-month campaign against pro-Russian insurgents had forced its Western-backed government to abandon basic European values in order to win a propaganda war against Moscow.

“We are appalled by this ban, which represents an absurd, counter-productive breach of freedom of information,” the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

The New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists said it also “deplores” Ukraine’s pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko’s decision and questioned his commitment to media rights.

The group said it had initially counted 41 reporters and bloggers on Poroshenko’s list.

“While the government may not like or agree with the coverage, labelling journalists a potential threat to national security is not an appropriate response,” said the media protection lobby.

– Kremlin joins Western anger –

Poroshenko signed a decree late Wednesday enacting targeted measures against some 400 officials and 90 companies held responsible for Ukraine’s bloody pro-Russian uprising and Moscow’s annexation of Crimea last year.

It affected several major state-owned Russian media companies as well as such financial giants as the national flag carrier Aeroflot and Gazprom Bank.

Russia portrays the Ukrainian conflict as a “civil war” in which it has played no part.

“The fact that many media representatives are on these lists is, certainly, absolutely unacceptable. It absolutely does not comply with any principles of the freedom of speech,” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow.

The Kremlin’s anger was echoed by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) — a Cold-War era body that has spearheaded attempts to negotiate an end to the continent’s bloodiest crisis since the 1990s Balkans wars.

“I fully respect governments’ legitimate right to fight terrorism and to protect their national security and their citizens,” OSCE media freedoms representative Dunja Mijatovic said.

“But introducing … restrictions that curb free movement of journalists is not the way to ensure security.”

Washington’s Kiev envoy Geoffrey Pyatt tweeted that “press freedoms are very important to building a modern, European Ukraine.”

And the European Union’s neighbourhood policy and enlargement commissioner said he was both surprised and concerned.

“I will certainly discuss it, after having analysed it, with colleagues in Ukraine, because I wouldn’t say it was in a European spirit,” Johannes Hahn said in Brussels.

– Ukraine backtracks –

Ukrainian officials appeared shocked by the backlash and hinted that a review of the list would be conducted soon.

Poroshenko’s office said the president had personally intervened on the BBC correspondents’ behalf because “a free press was a fundamental value.”

The deputy head of Ukraine new information policy ministry said Poroshenko had simply signed off on legislation drafted independently by Ukraine’s powerful National Security and Defence Council (RNBO).

“I believe that we either have to rationally explain a sound reason why (these reporters) were included on the list, or to exclude them from it,” Tetyana Popova told AFP.

“I requested an explanation from the RNBO (on Wednesday) and have still not received an answer,” said Popova.

“I demand that the RNBO publish a statement explaining why the (foreign) reporters were included.”

The United Nations estimates that the eastern separatist crisis has killed nearly 8,000 people — most of them civilians — since April 2014.

burs-zak/ric

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.