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As world watches 'murdered' reporter case, Ukraine media crackdown grinds on

In the West, Ukraine usually draws attention for its conflict with Russia, or most recently, the "murder" of Arkadiy Babchenko. But it has also been quietly cracking down on media, both foreign and domestic.

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Russian journalist Arkadiy Babchenko, center, Vasily Gritsak, head of the Ukrainian Security Service, left, and Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko attend a news conference at the Ukrainian Security Service on May 30, 2018. Babchenko turned up at a news conference in the Ukrainian capital Wednesday less than 24 hours after police reported he had been shot and killed at his Kiev apartment building. The country's security services said Babchenko's death was faked to foil a plot to take his life.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP

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When a Russian journalist critical of the Kremlin is seemingly gunned down in Kiev – and then is revealed to have been faking his death as part of a geopolitical sting – it is quite rightly headline news in the West.

But a state-supported campaign to silence media critics in pro-Europe Ukraine isn’t getting much notice at all. And human rights monitors say that needs to change.

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While many of those targeted have been Russian – and thus claimed by Kiev as legitimate casualties of Ukraine's “information war” with Russia – an increasing number are Ukrainian, and whose offenses appear solely to have been criticism of the government’s policies. More disturbing, analysts say, is the role of ultra-nationalist street gangs, who have besieged the offices of critical news outlets, threatened journalists, harassed LGBT activists, and dispersed meetings with seeming impunity, while police stood by and watched.

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“It's extremely worrying to see Ukraine adopt methods that seem straight out of the Kremlin toolbox, especially since Ukraine is a country that has chosen a different path and declared that its future lies with Europe,” says Tanya Cooper, Ukraine researcher at the New York-based Human Rights Watch. “By cracking down on free expression, and ignoring their international legal obligations, they are losing sight of that future.”

A media crackdown in Ukraine?

Kiev has developed a reputation as an unsafe city for journalists, with two murdered there since 2015. On Tuesday, Arkadiy Babchenko, a Russian journalist and critic of the Kremlin, appeared to have been number three, after being reported to have been killed by an unknown gunman. Mr. Babchenko’s apparent death made international headlines, especially as Russia was accused of being behind it.

But during a Wednesday press conference held by the Ukrainian security service (SBU), Babchenko walked out uninjured: his “murder” was an SBU ruse meant to root out people who were attempting to kill him. The shocking turn made an already dramatic media story that much more so – and highlighted just how chaotic Ukraine can be.

But behind the “stranger than fiction” Babchenko saga, a more mundane but grinding campaign is going on against journalists, media critics say.

Ukrainian authorities insist they are fighting Russian propaganda and, indeed, the primary targets of the crackdown have been Russian journalists, news outlets, and even movies and TV serials.

Last week President Petro Poroshenko published a decree extending sanctions against 1,748 Russian individuals and 746 entities, including a ban on most Russian media outlets. Dozens of Russian journalists have been expelled in recent years. On May 15, the SBU raided the Kiev offices of the Russian state-run news agency RIA-Novosti and arrested its chief, Kirill Vyshynsky, a dual Russian/Ukrainian citizen, on suspicion of treason.

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But growing numbers of solely Ukrainian news organizations are also coming under pressure from the SBU for airing criticisms of government policies, particularly on issues like conduct of the war in the east, relations with Russia, and military conscription. In an open letter to Mr. Poroshenko last September, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) cited an expanding pattern of repression against independent journalists and bloggers who step over those lines.

Government supporters say there’s a war going on and Russian disinformation needs to be countered. They say the claims of “media crackdown” are inventions aimed at blocking efforts to defend the country from “information attack” and blackening Ukraine’s name.

“There is no attack against the mass media in Ukraine, not on the internet, TV, or printed press,” says Olga Bodnar, a parliamentary deputy with Yulia Tymoshenko’s BYuT bloc. “There are just some questions being asked about the information policies of a number of [news outlets]. These charges are garbage, aimed to escalate tensions and make Ukraine look bad.”

Other analysts say the attacks are narrowly focused, aiming to tar any dissent over Ukraine’s radical de-communization laws, anti-war sentiment, or desire for better relations with Russia as treasonous.

“These are not general repressions but selective attacks against mass media seen as affiliated or associated with Russia. It’s intended to have a public effect, to create the impression there is an ideological struggle going on and information needs to be protected,” says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev. “Russia is blamed for the growing influence of pacifist and anti-nationalist moods, which the authorities find very worrisome.”

‘The path Ukraine chose’

The current plight of Ukraine's Inter TV, a major Ukrainian-owned, Russian-language network, illustrates this problem.

On May 9, Ukraine’s Memorial Day, Inter TV broadcast a concert celebrating the country’s victory over Nazi Germany. While the former Soviet holiday is still marked nationally, it is only really embraced in central and eastern Ukraine, where just about everybody’s grandfather fought in the Red Army, and they still tend to honor that service. In Ukraine’s west, May 9 is largely downplayed, as locals’ forebears battled against the Soviets.

Those past conflicts have reemerged in modern legal battles, as Kiev’s pro-Europe government has tried to purge Ukraine of Soviet symbolism. Western Ukrainian independence fighters who fought against Soviet power, sometimes in collaboration with the Nazis, have been made “heroes of Ukraine” and awarded monuments and street names. At the same time, new laws have made Soviet symbols and Red Army paraphernalia illegal to display, building up resentments in the country’s east

The presenters of the Inter TV concert expressed their criticism of the de-communization laws to their viewing audience of some 7 million. “We cannot allow the streets of our cities to be named after the fascist criminals, and their portraits to be carried with impunity during torchlight processions in our capital, where every meter was blood-soaked by our compatriots.”

Within 48 hours, Inter TV’s Kiev headquarters was surrounded by nationalist protesters who tried to burn it down and demanded authorities deprive the station of its broadcasting license. Instead of condemning the attacks, Ukraine’s official media watchdog said it was scheduling a snap inspection of Inter TV to look into alleged violations of the law.

“Of course it’s challenging to maintain freedoms while there’s a war going on, but that is the path Ukraine chose,” says Ms. Cooper. She says she has personally experienced the intimidation of Ukrainian ultra-right street groups. She was recently asked to speak at a meeting organized by the local chapter of Amnesty International, about pending legislation banning “homosexual propaganda” similar to that enacted in Russia a few years ago.

“The meeting was disrupted by about 20 nationalists – you can only call these people thugs – who did not permit it to proceed,” she says. “The police were of no help. In the end, they enabled safe passage out for us, nothing more. These kinds of incidents are very common these days, and they are rarely investigated.”

That combination of street intimidation and official pressure is casting a deep pall over Ukraine’s claim to be building a free and open media culture.

“Fighting Russian propaganda without following international laws and obligations is the wrong way to go,” says Cooper. “It’s a losing battle. Ukraine needs to counter Russia by following the principles it has declared, by supporting civil society and putting resources into a real media alternative.”