UD. 30 April 2016.  By Iryna Terlecky.

A grim week, as Ukraine commemorates the 30th anniversary of the Chornobyl disaster, free speech takes a battering and the war in the east intensifies.

Free speech under attack

Back in September 2015, in moves which were barely noticed, the Ukrainian government banned several journalists and public figures from entering Ukraine – ostensibly as a result of any part they played in the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine. 

Dmitry Kiselyov, a Russian television host known for his anti-western statements, who is also barred from entering the European Union, and the major Russian state news channels Rossiya-24, Channel One and NTV were all banned. 

But curiously, so were  BBC Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg and producer Emma Wells, for a period of a year.

A new round of bans has been announced, but this time it’s causing outrage, as the popular television journalist Savik Shuster, who has Canadian citizenship, has had his work permit annulled. 

Shuster hosts what many say is ‘the’ political analysis show to watch, and he is known for not pulling his punches. 

He fled Russia in 2004 when his show on the NTV channel was banned by President Putin, at the beginning of a clampdown on media critical to the regime.

The State Employment Service’s Kyiv branch said in a statement that the permit had been annulled because Shuster had failed to inform the agency about a criminal case opened by the State Fiscal Service against him. 

Shuster said he would keep working without a permit. 

“This government doesn’t tolerate any criticism,” he added. “They’re fighting with a mirror. Even if they break our mirror, others will emerge.” He said he believed the authorities would “crack down on all journalists who are trying to tell the truth” and added that he had faced the same problem in Russia and feared that Ukraine was on the brink of plunging into authoritarianism.

Commenting on the report, Poroshenko wrote on Facebook that “free speech is one of Ukraine’s biggest achievements after the Revolution of Dignity and is the cornerstone of democracy.” 

“As the guarantor of the Constitution, I have protected and will protect free speech in any of its manifestations,” he said. “That’s why I hope that the relevant agencies will resolve the incident with journalist Savik Shuster as soon as possible.” 

Clampdown in Crimea

The Supreme court in Crimea has banned the ruling body of the Crimean Tatar community, the Mejlis, branding it an extremist organisation. 

Crimea’s Russian-appointed Prosecutor General, Natalia Poklonskaya ordered the Mejlis to cease its activities earlier this month, accusing the respected body which has been working in Crimea for 25 years of “extremism”.

The Mejlis resisted the peninsula’s return to Moscow rule in 2014 and has been operating under pressure, with many key figures banished from the region. 

Some Crimean Tatar leaders have also attempted to organise a blockade of the peninsula.

Police have raided the homes of many Crimean Tatars and took the prominent Tatar TV channel ATR off the air last year. 

Several community leaders have been prosecuted for allegedly organising riots in February 2014 before Moscow’s annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine.

A deputy chairman of the Mejlis said it would try to continue its work despite the ban. 

“This court decision was absolutely expected,” Nariman Dzhelal said. “But that does not mean that the Mejlis will cease to exist, it will continue working in Ukraine and other countries.”

The decision has been widely criticised by Western governments and organisations. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights said: 

“I am very concerned about today’s court decision… As the highest representative body of the Crimean Tatars, the Mejlis is indissociable from their aspirations to reestablish themselves in the peninsula after decades of exile during the Soviet era. 

“The Mejlis is an important traditional and social structure of the Crimean Tatar people. Equating it with extremism paves the way for stigmatisation and discrimination of a significant part of the Crimean Tatar community and sends a negative message to that community as a whole. 

“I strongly urge a reversal of this ban in the interests of human rights protection and social cohesion on the peninsula.”

More civilian lives lost

Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine say at least five people were killed in an attack on a checkpoint in the town of Olenivka, and that ten more civilians were injured by artillery fire from the Ukrainian side as they waited in a queue to pass into Ukrainian-controlled territory. 

Kyiv has denied the separatists’ accusations of opening fire on the checkpoint.

A local border-guard spokesman, Anatoliy Kotsurba, was quoted as saying there was an explosion at the checkpoint but he saw no artillery fired from either side, suggesting the blast could have been caused by a bomb.

In the meantime, the violence along the front line shows no signs of abating, with the Ukrainian army reporting well over 20 attacks every day, saying that the Russian-backed separatists are firing heavy mortars which should have been withdrawn under the Minsk agreements. 

The separatists have already said that they are planning a May Day parade which will include heavy weaponry which should be in safe storage, and fears are growing of a new spring offensive.

Glimmers of hope for Savchenko

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has said that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had agreed a framework for a deal to secure the release of Nadiya Savchenko from prison – though there have been no public signs of progress.

However, as we go to press, Savchenko’s lawyer, Mark Feygin, has said that a procedure to extradite Savchenko from Russia has begun. He said that papers had been delivered to Savchenko and that he had received her agreement to be extradited to serve her term in Ukraine. 


He warned, however, that this would not happen immediately and that the process could take several weeks.

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