Why Two Spanish Journalists Were Expelled From Ukraine
1 September, 2017

Last week, two Spanish journalists who arrived Kyiv’s Borispil airport were detained and deported from Ukraine.

The reporters, Antonio Pampliega and Angel Sastre, were also banned from entering Ukraine until 2020. The official reason: false coverage of the war in the country’s east.

The news has sparked a controversy over press freedom in Ukraine, with rights activists criticizing the move.

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The Madrid Association of Journalists has described Ukraine’s actions as characteristic of authoritarian states. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the European Association of Journalists have already asked the Council of Europe to respond to the situation. And Human Rights Watch has also chimed in with criticism.

Hromadske spoke with Angel Sastre and also approached the Ukrainian Security Services (SBU), the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Information Policy to find out what happened and how this scandal could affect Ukraine’s reputation abroad.

Did the Spanish journalists violate Ukrainian legislation?

The Spanish reporters arrived at Boryspil airport on August 24. There, they were told that they were on a “blacklist” and deported the next day. Previously, Pampliega and Sastre’s names had appeared on a sanctions list published by the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine in 2015. However, they were removed from that list the next year.

On the day he was detained, Pampliega wrote on Twitter: “It turns out we are on another list from the Security Services, together with 40 other names. They consider us a threat to national security. We’ve been banned from entering until 2020.”

“When we arrived at the airport, the police and soldiers took us to a room and said that we were banned from entering Ukraine because we were included on another blacklist. They told us that we were a threat to national security,” Sastre explained to Hromadske.

According to Pampliega, he gave the Ukrainian border guards a copy of the presidential order that removed them from the black list in 2016. He also handed over other relevant documents, including a permit to work in the Anti-Terrorist Operation zone, the official term for the conflict area.

Pampliega and Sastre are well-known in Spain, particularly for the fact that they were held prisoner for 10 months by the Al-Nusra Front terrorist organization in Syria. At the time, the global community closely followed their story.  

As freelance journalists, Pampliega and Sastre cover many hot topics: Syria, El Salvador, Iraq. While in Ukraine, they were covering the Russo-Ukrainian war in the Donbas region and interviewing people on both sides of the conflict. This means they also worked in the occupied territories.

“We were on both sides of the demarcation line. We were in Ukraine and on the side [controlled by] those they call separatists,” Sastre told Hromadske. “At the time, my colleague and I had accreditation from the Ukrainian army and from the [self-proclaimed] ‘Donetsk People’s Republic.’”

Sastre insists that he did not cross the Russia-Ukraine border illegally. “I have never been to Russia,” he says. “I have thought about it, because a lot of people I know go via Russia. Maybe it’s the best option, since so many journalists are banned from Ukraine.”

Additionally, neither of the reporters have visited Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.

What were the deported journalists writing?

Hromadske contacted the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) the day after Sastre and Pampliega were deported. But the SBU only responded to the issue once the story began to spread throughout the Ukrainian media.

The journalists wrote “incorrect” stories, “including about how the Ukrainian army is firing on peaceful Ukrainian towns and villages,” SBU spokeswoman Olena Hitlyanska said, according to the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.

The spokeswoman did not specify which publications by the two journalists did not suit the SBU. However, she did confirm that they were not allowed to return to Ukraine until 2020.

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Hromadske asked Sastre to comment on the SBU’s claims that he falsified information in his publications.

“I was [the town of] Pervomaisk, because there were civilians there living without coal, gas, water, without anything. I’m not only interested in war and all the explosions, but, first and foremost, in the lives of civilians,” he said. “That’s what I wrote about. I was with the cossacks, the soldiers, I was with the [so-called] ‘cyborgs’ in Donetsk airport, in the hospitals. I was filming the war, in that way, from both sides.”

His articles also reported on imprecise shelling by the Ukrainian side. This issue arose while reporting from the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic,” and Sastre largely cited separatist sources. He also did not provide context on Russia’s role in the conflict and the Kremlin’s support for the separatists.

In an article for the Spanish magazine Tiempo de hoy, Sastre wrote the following: “The miner, like his father and grandfather, decided to quit his job when the Ukrainian army started randomly bombing the Donbas region.”

However, claims that Ukrainian shelling led to civilian casualties in the occupied territories are not unique to separatist sources. In 2014, Human Rights Watch also criticized Ukraine for using “indiscriminate rockets in populated areas.”

 Do these new blacklists exist?

Sastre says he was not shown any document stating that he was banned from entering Ukraine. The border guards simply mentioned a list from the Security Services. “No one showed me any documents,” he says. “They just put a stamp in my passport and told me to get out.”

All government agencies contacted by Hromadske emphasized that they know nothing about these new blacklists. 

Oleh Slobodyan, press-secretary for the State Border Guard Service, says the border guards’ actions were legal. “The order was received in accordance with procedures established by the law,” he said. “Information on the citizens was entered into the database, and they were banned from entering.”  

Photo credit: Ángel Sastre

SBU spokeswoman Hitlyanska also denies the existence of an SBU blacklist. “The SBU doesn’t have any lists. I don’t know what lists they’re talking about. So, maybe the journalists lied,” she said.

“The SBU banned them from entering Ukraine until 2020,” she added. “This kind of decision is taken separately for each person.”  

The Ukrainian Ministry of Information Policy sent a request to the law enforcement agencies asking them to explain the situation. “Freedom of speech and the protection of journalists’ rights are priorities,” the Ministry stressed.

Photo credit: La Voz de Galicia

However, as of August 30, there has been no response from the SBU, Deputy Information Policy Minister Emine Dzheppar said.

What was the international reaction?

The Madrid Association of Journalists (MAJ) has accused Ukraine of “attempting to introduce censorship” and has called for the Ukrainian authorities to reverse the ban. They have asked the Spanish government to demand an official explanation from Kyiv.   

“The work of journalists in countries where a conflict in taking place is paramount for obtaining independent and true information. The government should not interfere under any circumstances,” MAJ said in a statement.   

Photo credit: Ángel Sastre

The International Federation of Journalists and the European Federation of Journalists have asked the Council of Europe the react to Sastre and Pampliega’s expulsion from Ukraine. The case has already attracted attention from “Reporters Without Borders,” as well as several members of the European Parliament.  

The 2015 Sanctions List

The original sanctions list, which banned numerous Russian and Western journalists from entering Ukraine, provoked a harsh response internationally when it came to light in fall 2015. The list, which contained over forty journalists and bloggers, even included highly regarded correspondents from the BBC and the influential German weekly Die Zeit.  

The journalists were accused of “committing a criminal offenses against Ukraine,” as well as “creating real and/or potential threats to [Ukraine’s] national interest” and “carrying out acts of terrorism and/or violating laws and the rights and freedoms of [Ukraine’s] people and citizens.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the government’s actions in a statement: “The government may like or dislike how they cover the events. However, to call the journalists potential threats to national security is an inadequate response. This decree undermines the interests of Ukraine by obstructing vital news and information, which is informing the world community of the the political crisis in the country.” 

In response, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko instructed the National Security and Defense Council to exclude six journalists, including Pampliega and Sastre, from the list.

/Text by Liuda Kornievich