21st Mar 2018


EU must help independent media in Ukraine

  • Protests in Kiev. Journalist Pavel Sheremet was murdered by a car bomb in 2016 - and 2018 looks like being another dangerous year for some of Ukraine's media (Photo: snamess)

As 2019 elections in Ukraine loom on the horizon, the European Union can play a unique role in protecting journalists - despite an increasingly complicated relationship.

2017 was a tough year for critical journalists working in Ukraine.

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On September 14, agents from the security service of Ukraine visited the offices of Ukraiynska Pravda and demanded that the editors take down an article that criticised Ukraine's defence capabilities.

The editor-in-chief Sevgil Musayeva said they claimed the article contained information that could "harm Ukraine's national security." A letter revealed that the security agency had opened a criminal investigation into the website's alleged disclosure of confidential information.

Such measures to 'protect national security' can restrict journalists in Ukraine.

In August, Spanish freelance journalists Antonio Pampliega and Angel Sastre were temporarily barred from entering the country because of their reporting in the east of Ukraine.

They were just two of many journalists detained or deported this year on grounds of national security. Other critical journalists have been harassed, subject to smear campaigns and cyber-bullied.

Newsrooms have been raided and press freedom advocates threatened. The outlook for 2018 does not look good for some Ukrainian journalists.

Ukraine is a country at war. The conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the east - and Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula - enter into most conversations about press freedom.

This constant war footing creates a staunch patriotic rhetoric which sketches arbitrary positions deemed by some Ukrainians as either officially correct or incorrect for journalists to take.

Criticism = 'traitor'

The message is often all too clear: in times of war, you are with us or against us. Criticism is linked with being a traitor. An information war between the two countries, and deliberate attempts by Russia to spread disinformation, feed this climate of mistrust towards journalists.

And journalists are simply not safe.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recorded a total of seven journalists killed since 2014 because of their work.

A lack of successful prosecutions underscores a climate of impunity.

In July, I joined a CPJ delegation to launch Justice denied: Ukraine comes up empty in probe of Pavel Sheremet's murder, a report which looked at the failed investigations into the 2016 murder of the leading journalist.

The authorities, including President Petro Poroshenko, made commitments to us that effective investigations would take place.

As a partner to Ukraine, the European Union also pushed for this impunity to be addressed.

But the national authorities have since not acted on their commitments to invite international support for the investigation - but they could do so at any moment.

At the year's end, dealing with Sheremet's murder seems to be added to a long list of stagnating concerns. The killers need to be brought to justice and until they do, Ukrainian journalists will continue to ask themselves if they could suffer the same fate.

Brussels and Kiev

The relationship between Brussels and Kiev looks to remain complicated.

On the one hand, 2017 saw what could be seen as positive steps. The July EU-Ukraine summit was hailed as an important moment for the two sides in terms of reform and investment.

Visa-free travel for Ukrainians travelling to EU member states came into force on 11 June. MEPs and Ukrainian parliamentarians maintained strong links.

On 1 September, the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement - the agreement that sparked off the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests - entered fully into force, promoting "deeper political ties and stronger economic links" between Ukraine and the EU, as well as "respect for common European values".

The potential for reform always seems to be around the corner.

Yet behind the scenes, future EU membership seems far away.

Ongoing corruption scandals involving the prosecutor general and the interior minister, the former with the apparent nod of Poroshenko, marred recent relations.

On 13 December, the EU ambassador to Ukraine told reporters at a press conference that EU funds would be withheld because Kiev had not met requirements on timber, energy, fighting corruption, trade, and social payments for immigrants.

Tensions in the country are building as the 2019 elections start to loom.

It would seem that the authorities are looking to think more of consolidating power, rather than addressing uncomfortable truths - especially those which could be raised by critical journalists.

EU institutions should continue to highlight the role that effective journalism can play in upholding shared values and take all measures to protect journalists.

This can mean practical actions like immediately and publicly denouncing threats, building visits to newsrooms into official visits and giving vulnerable journalists moral support and visibility.

Independent and critical journalism must survive and flourish in Ukraine.

Access to accurate and critical news is an expectation of Ukrainians themselves.

EU priorities, including good governance and the fight against corruption, can only really be achieved if Ukrainian journalists can hold their government to account, especially on sensitive issues.

Tom Gibson is EU representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists

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