Austria & Ukraine Quarrel Over Kiev’s Decision to Ban the Journalist Christian Wehrschütz From Entering Ukraine

Foreign journalists working in Ukraine have the opportunity to personally feel, as Poroshenko once put it, “unprecedented freedom of speech”. The well-known Austrian journalist, the 57-year-old Christian Wehrschütz, who has worked for more than 4 years as the head of the correspondent’s office in Kiev of the largest Austrian TV channel “ORF”, was given a 1-year ban on entering Ukraine.

The journalist is linked with “violating the border of Ukraine”, “participating in attempts to justify the annexation of Crimea”, and also “anti-Ukrainian propaganda”.

At the beginning of this year Wehrschütz, who highlighted the conflict in Donbass and made a series of reports in Crimea, was added to the list of enemies and “pro-Russian propagandists” in Ukraine. In particular, he allegedly violated Ukrainian laws on July 30th 2018, having left Crimea via the Crimean Bridge.

The government of Austria protested against this decision.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs Karin Kneissl said that the decision made by the Ukrainian authorities is an “inadmissible act of censorship in Europe”.

We condemn such an approach, which is completely incompatible with European fundamental values, and we call for the immediate removal of the ban

He planned to interview Zelensky and Tymoshenko

As Wehrschütz told the Ukrainian “Strana” agency, he learned about his ban on visiting Ukraine while being in Austria, where he is currently editing a movie about Ukraine. According to Wehrschütz, his ban was already confirmed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Austria – where the notice from Kiev came.

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Wehrschütz reported to “Strana” that he planned interview to Yuliya Tymoshenko and Vladimir Zelensky. The journalist doesn’t know whether or not the ban on entrance is connected to this. He said that he has already appealed to the Austrian authorities to influence Kiev so that it fulfils its international obligations on providing freedom of the press.

The Director General of ORF Alexander Wrabetz expressed a protest:

This represents inadmissible interference in the journalistic profession. Wehrschütz is one of the most well-known experts on Eastern Europe. This unprecedented restriction of freedom of the media and disregard for the mission of public information in service of the Austrian people

In a conversation with “Strana”, the Austrian correspondent said that he observed all Ukrainian laws during his Crimean reporting and didn’t cross the disputed bridge through the Kerch Strait, but only did his reporting.

The ambassador of Ukraine in Austria, Aleksandr Shcherba, in an interview with the Austrian media said that the ban is connected not so much to the “critical illumination of Ukraine as much as it is to his tone and reaction to, or presentation of, what he chooses to illuminate”.

Revenge for criticism and “rebels”

Wehrschütz assumes that the authorities are simply dissatisfied with criticism aimed at them:

I, as much as possible, showed all sides in Crimea, all points of view. Of course, I wrote there, and I consider that it is the truth that within the last five years Russia invested more money in the development of Crimea than Ukraine did in 25 years. As for Donbass, I, of course, according to international journalistic standards, don’t speak about ‘terrorists’, ‘occupiers’, but use the term ‘pro-Russian rebels’. But, most likely, this will displease some

The authorities might not like some other observations made by the foreign journalist while working in Donbass:

I wrote that the blockade of Crimea and Donbass is bad for the local population. In addition, Ukraine now buys coal through Russia for currency, and before the blockade it bought it in Donetsk and Lugansk for hryvnia

The people’s deputy from the Verkhovna Rada Committee for Freedom of Speech (yes, such a committee really exists!) and former journalist Olga Chervakova, who accused the journalist of allegedly working “according to Kremlin media instructions”, wrote a post on Facebook concerning Wehrschütz’s entrance ban.

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The people’s deputy supported the authorities, having declared that, according to the information available to law enforcement bodies, over the last four years the journalist visited the “temporarily occupied territories of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions” and Crimea through non-controlled check points from the territory of the Russian Federation, thus violating the procedure of crossing the Ukrainian border.

Wehrschütz protested in the comments section:

It surprises me that a member of the Ukrainian parliamentary Committee for Freedom of Speech behaves in this way. Why didn’t you contact me before spreading this lie? I never violated Ukrainian laws. I will report everything else to the Ukrainian authorities properly

I was afraid of being killed like Buzina

Wehrschütz twice interviewed the editor-in-chief of the “Strana” agency Igor Guzhva, who in October of this year was granted asylum in Austria.

The journalist considers that his interview with Igor also played a role in his ban.

At the end of last year Wehrschütz was included in the database of “agents of the Kremlin” named “Posipaka” (“henchman”). This is a website that is similar to the notorious Mirotvorets. “Posipaka” is supported by the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies. The director of this center – the former journalist Valentin Badrak – is included in the Public Council of the SBU.

After this, the reporter was cautious about coming to Ukraine, being afraid for his life.

In Ukraine there are militarised and ultranationalist groups that threaten journalists illuminating the policies of the leadership of Ukraine from a critical point of view. Two journalists were already killed, I don’t want to be the next

Wehrschütz noted the deplorable condition of freedom of speech in Ukraine.

Those journalists who speak about problems in the country, about the real policies of the authorities, are often written down as ‘enemies of the people’ or ‘pro-Russian agents’. In a word – ‘bad people’.

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