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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 New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said more than 40 journalists and bloggers from various countries were included on the list.

Among those banned were three Moscow-based employees of the BBC and a German correspondent whose names’ were later removed.

But it maintained the ban on a Spanish writer and historian along with dozens of other mostly-Russian reporters due to their allegedly biased coverage of Ukraine’s 17-month campaign against pro-Moscow insurgents in the separatist east.

The surprise decision raised immediate concerns that Ukraine’s Western-backed government was abandoning European values in order to win its high-stakes propaganda war against the Kremlin.

“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.

And the CPJ said it “deplores” the decision by Ukraine’s pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko, questioning his commitment to media rights.

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

– Kremlin joins Western fury –

Poroshenko signed a decree late Wednesday enacting punitive 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 financial giants like 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,” Russian presidential 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,” said OSCE media freedoms representative Dunja Mijatovic.

“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 EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn 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,” he said in Brussels.

– Ukraine backtracks –

Ukrainian officials appeared shocked by the backlash and promised a full review of the list.

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

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

It also said it was lifting restrictions on two correspondents from Spain.

But it said the ban on Cesar Vidal — a Spanish radio host and historian — would remain in place because he had allegedly referred to Ukraine as “an artificial state that is being used (by the West) as a weapon to threaten the Kremlin”.

The ministry said it would keep “propaganda-spouting” Russian media personalities, such as the virulently anti-Western weekly TV show host Dmitry Kiselyov, out of the country for the coming year.

The ban was on Thursday further broadened to include disgraced former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi because he visited Crimea last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The UN estimates that the conflict in Ukraine has killed nearly 8,000 people — most of them civilians — since April 2014.

burs-zak/hmw

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