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(Berlin) – Ukrainian authorities should immediately drop a ban on 17 Russian journalists and protect media freedom, Human Rights Watch said today. On May 27, 2016, President Petro Poroshenko signed a decree to implement a May 20 National Security and Defense Council resolution barring 17 Russian reporters, editors, and media executives from entering Ukraine through December 31, 2017.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at a news conference in Kiev, Ukraine on January 14, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

“Ukraine is legitimately concerned about the effects of Russian propaganda, but cracking down on media freedom is a misguided, inappropriate response to whatever disagreement the Ukrainian government may have with Russia’s media coverage about Ukraine,” said Tanya Cooper, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Targeting journalists in this way inevitably encourages censorship.”
Among the 17 are Konstantin Ernst, general director of Channel One, Russia’s main state-owned television channel, and Margarita Simonyan, chief editor of Russia’s international television network RT (formerly Russia Today) and the Rossiya Segodnya news agency. Journalists on the list also include Vladislav Fronin, chief editor of the official government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, and Vitali Leibin, editor at Russkiy Reporter magazine. Russia either owns, at least partially, or exerts significant influence over the media outlets listed in the presidential decree.

The decree says that the targeted journalists “create real and potential threat to national interests, national security, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine; facilitate terrorist activity and violate citizens’ rights and freedoms; contribute to the occupation of territories, and obstruct full realization of rights and freedoms by Ukrainian citizens.”

Russian citizens do not need a visa to travel to Ukraine.

An earlier presidential decree, signed on September 16, 2015, had already banned a wide range of Russian individuals and organizations from entering Ukraine for a year. That list, compiled by Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, named 388 individuals and 105 legal entities deemed a threat to Ukraine’s security. In addition to Russian senior government officials, parliament members, and rebel leaders operating in eastern Ukraine, the list included 41 journalists and bloggers from several countries, including Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Israel. The original version of the list included three BBC journalists, whose names were quickly removed after an international outcry.

On May 27, Poroshenko removed 29 people from the earlier sanctions list, among them journalists from Israel, Estonia, Hungary, Moldova, and other countries, and several Russian journalists from RIA Novosti, RT, and ITAR-TASS, who are based outside Ukraine.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatović, issued a statement deploring the sanctions on journalists, saying that “introducing over-broad restrictions that curb free movement of journalists is not the way to ensure security.”

The May 27 decree instructs the government and security services to enforce the travel ban. It says the Foreign Ministry should inform officials of the European Union, the United States, and other governments about the new sanctions and encourage them to consider similar measures against the people on the list.

Ukraine is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which protect freedom of expression. While the journalists do not have an absolute right to enter Ukraine, the ban on entry as a result of their exercise of free speech and expression of opinion does constitute an interference with freedom of expression and is likely to have a chilling effect on other journalists. To be legitimate, an interference with or restriction on freedom of expression must be provided for in law, nondiscriminatory, and demonstrably necessary to protect a legitimate aim, in a manner that is proportionate to protect that aim.

Further restrictions are also permitted during a state of emergency if a country has announced a derogation – a temporary suspension – from certain of its treaty obligations. Even then, to be legitimate a derogation must be specific, for a temporary particular period of time, necessary to meet the exigencies of the situation, and subject to judicial review. Ukraine has not made any derogation with respect to freedom of expression under either treaty.

“Ukraine’s international partners should protest the decree and urge Kiev to revoke it,” Cooper said. “The EU, US, and others need to make clear that they do not support such arbitrary measures against the media and encourage President Poroshenko and his government to respect media freedom even if they disagree with the coverage by certain outlets.”

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