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"Ukraine Should Provide Clarity in Babchenko Case" – OSCE Rep
26 June, 2018
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From 2016 murder of Pavel Sheremet to the more recent and bizarre sting operation involving Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, it’s clear that being a journalist in Ukraine is not without risks.

The worrying number of these cases of journalists in Ukraine and Russia being targeted or persecuted for their work, as well as the way in which the authorities deal with them, raises serious questions about media freedom in the region.

This was the subject of a recent conference held by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Kyiv, which focused on the strengthening media freedom and pluralism in Ukraine.

Speaking at the event, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir told Hromadske that “journalists have to be respected as journalists and we cannot use them again as kind of pawns in a fight against the state to try to exchange, to put pressure.”

In particular, Désir expressed disapproval in the way in which the Ukrainian authorities staged the death of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko.

“It is very important that, in investigating threats and attacks against journalists, the authorities provide transparent information and true information,” Désir stated, adding that “there should be no lies about the life or death of a journalist.”

Désir further noted that the release of Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko, who was recently sentenced to 12 years imprisonment in Russia for espionage, was of “high priority” to the OSCE.

But it’s not just Russia under criticism for the impeding the work of foreign journalists.

Photo credit: Dmytro Rusanov/HROMADSKE 

Désir has also asked the Ukrainian authorities to release Kirill Vishinsky, who is imprisoned in Ukraine on treason charges.

“Vishinsky was established here as a journalist, working for Russian media for a long time. His opinions were known,” Desir told Hromadske, “I have asked for the release of Vishinsky and I think that journalism should not be criminalized.”

Hromadske spoke to OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir at the OSCE conference on “strengthening media freedom and pluralism in Ukraine during times of conflict in and around the country” in Kyiv on June 26.

My first question is regarding everything that happened in the Babchenko case. There was concern from the international community straight after. I knew you you flew to Kyiv, so what happened next? And what is the conversation now with the whole case?

Yes, I was about to meet with the authorities, and the colleagues and with the journalist associations about this very grave announcement about the death of a journalist. And, of course, when I learned that it was a staged operation for the purpose of a special investigation, operation, I reacted that I was relieved that Babchenko was alive and well, of course, but also that it is very important that, in investigating threats and attacks against journalists, the authorities provide transparent information and true information.

Photo credit: Dmytro Rusanov/HROMADSKE 

Do you have it – this information?

No, I still don’t have all the information about this event. I hear the declaration by the authorities, by the Prosecutor General, but I think and I wish that  more information will come in the future – I think it is necessary. And it’s very important in the fight against impunity that we ensure that, when there have been crimes against journalists – like Pavel Sheremet,which we mentioned today in this conference, and Oles Buzyna – that there is all the necessary means which are put in place to ensure proper investigation, to ensure that those who have been responsible for crimes, for attacks against journalists, are identified and brought to justice. And I think that regarding threats against journalists today – it's also important. Of course I can understand that some of the information cannot be made public, but when information is made public that it is the truth. And it's also important because we are at the age of fake news, of disinformation, of propaganda – and Ukraine has been a victim of such practice of disinformation – that the authorities make the effort to only provide true information. And that's also a matter of credibility for themselves, and it's also an issue for the credibility of the fight against those who want to attack the journalists.

For you, what kind of information is necessary for you to know that this operation was justifiable?

No, I say about the operation that I don't approve of that kind of staged operation about the life of a journalist. I think that there should be no lies about the life or death of a journalist. What is now important is that, if the authorities have information about threats regarding Babchenko or other journalists -- there was information about a list of targeted journalists -- that this information is provided when the authorities think that is possible, but that, in the meantime, there is no other kind of unconfirmed information which is put in circulation.

The question which a lot of Ukrainians care about is about Sushchenko, the Ukrainian journalist who is serving a long-term sentence in Russia. What can the international community really do? Because it looks like there is no way to influence that. What are your next steps? There is even criticism that the Vishinsky case has greater international attention here than that particular case.

For me, the release of Roman Sushchenko is a high priority. I raise this issue many times in many international fora -- in Vienna, of course, where we based, but also during my visit in Ukraine -- but I also raised it in Russia, in Moscow, when I met with the authorities, and it's clear that we cannot accept the idea that, you know, now journalists are like hostages of international relations. I mean, the fact to be a journalist is not to become a crime. The state can disapprove the view of a journalist, but participating states in the OSCE have a very clear commitment about the fact to respect the work of journalists from other countries and even to facilitate their accreditation, the circulation of journalists. By the way, Roman Sushchenko was not in Russia for reporting, he was in Russia for private and family reasons, and he has been arrested while he was not reporting. He was a very well known journalist, he was established in Paris at that time as a correspondent for Ukrinform and we really ask for his release, as we ask for the release and the free activity of Mykola Semena, who is de facto under house arrest in Crimea, and with now sanctions and is forbidden to exercise as a professional journalist, and who cannot leave Crimea, and he wants to join Ukraine. So it's very important that he becomes free. We will also dedicate special time in this conference to speak about Oleg Sentsov and to ask for his release.

In the case of Kirill Vishinsky, you know the Ukrainian government has provided provides some other evidence on, for instance, his Russian cooperation, on his financial cooperation with Russia rather that journalist. What would you say on this particular case?

Well, Vishinsky was established here as a journalist, working for Russian media for a long time. His opinions were known. He was not supporting the position of the government and that was a public aspect of his activity. So, I think that journalists have to be respected as journalists and we cannot use them again as kind of pawns in a fight against the state to try – I don't know what – to exchange, to put pressure. I think that one of the strong commitments of the OSCE is to accept the fact that journalists from another country, or from your country, working for foreign media, can operate. Of course, there can be rules, there can be some limits fixed under the law, but in respect of international standards, it cannot put at risk the freedom of the journalists. So I have asked for the release of Vishinsky and I think that journalism should not be criminalized.  

/By Nataliya Gumenyuk