“Increasing Restrictions on Media Freedom”: How an Austrian Journalist Was Branded as an “Enemy of Ukraine”

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard

20:05:09
02/01/2019

strana.ua

The international scandal due to the inclusion of the well-known Austrian journalist, the 57-year-old Christian Wehrschütz in the list of enemies and “pro-Russian propagandists” in Ukraine gains steam.

Wehrschütz was recognised in Austria as 2014 journalist of year, he is a long serving special correspondent in the Balkans, and since 2015 he has headed the correspondent’s office of the largest Austrian TV channel ORF in Kiev.

The Austrian journalist has illuminated the conflict in Donbass since its beginning – in particular, he spoke a lot about humanitarian topics and also made a series of reports in Crimea, where he, in particular, communicated with Crimean Tatar organisations – both pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian, and visited the Crimean Bridge.

He has also twice interviewed the editor-in-chief of the “Strana” Internet newspaper Igor Guzhva, who in October of this year was granted asylum in Austria.

Now Wehrschütz was included in the database of “agents of the Kremlin” under the name “Posipaka” (“henchmen”). This website is similar to the notorious Mirotvorets. “Posipaka” is supported by the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies.

The director of this center is the former journalist Valentin Badrak, who is a member of the public council of the SBU.

“Ultranationalists threaten journalists if they criticise the authorities”

Unlike “Mirotvorets”, this website is just a “board of shame”, since it doesn’t disclose personal data.

Nevertheless, the Austrian journalist fears for his life – after all, such lists are considered to be a firing squad (the reporter mentions the murder of Oles Buzina, who was included in the “Mirotvorets” database).

Wehrschütz asked the Austrian government for help.

“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,” wrote Wehrschütz in an appeal (the mentioned second journalist is Pavel Sheremet – a host of the “Vesti” radio station whose car was blown up with him inside in the summer of 2016).

According to his statement, “EU countries and the US know about this, but are silent”. Wehrschütz asked the Austrian authorities to remove the post about him on “Posipaka” — the “agent of the Kremlin” website.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Austria reacted to the scandal, having accused Ukraine of preventing the journalist from working in a conflict zone.

“The increasing restriction of the media’s freedom in Ukraine is unacceptable. I observe the conditions that the Ukrainian and international media work in with big concern. The use of violence and threats towards journalists must be punished. Both the Austrian Embassy in Kiev and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Vienna work hard at all levels so that the Ukrainian authorities give journalists the relevant accreditation”

said Karin Kneissl, the head of the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who was summoned on January 8th by the Ukrainian ambassador for an explanation

Wehrschütz’s colleagues say that he is a skilled journalist who illuminated the conflicts in post-war former Yugoslavia after 1999. In other words: it is difficult to suspect him of being sympathetic towards Moscow. He repeatedly spoke about Russia’s policy in Ukraine extremely critically.

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Wehrschütz, by the way, turned down two large Russian TV channels that requested an interview with him.

“I don’t want to give Russia ammunition against Ukraine”

said the journalist to “Strana”

By the way, one of the editors of the American “War Is Boring” Internet publication who writes on military topics was added to the list of the same “Posipaka” website. The publication called him “pro-Russian”, although there are a lot of articles that are critical of the Russian Armed Forces.

Reporting from Crimea and an interview with the editor-in-chief of “Strana”

The colleagues of Wehrschütz believe that he was placed on the list of “enemies” not only because of his Crimean reports, but also because of his unbiased interpretation of the events in Donbass. Wehrschütz also interviewed the editor-in-chief of “Strana” Igor Guzhva, who in October was granted asylum in Austria because of the fabrication of criminal cases and threats of physical violence in Ukraine.

Wehrschütz doesn’t exclude that his interview with an oppositional journalist also influenced his arrival on the list, which is secretly supervised by the authorities.

The authors of “Posipak” say that Wehrschütz was included in the list because of his allegedly pro-Russian illumination of the Crimean topic and shares of news from Russian websites on his personal Facebook page.

“At the end of July 2018 he published a report about a visit to the annexed Crimea where he spoke about ‘the success of the Russian Federation in the construction of the airport in Simferopol and the construction of the Crimean Bridge’ (it should be noted that by then the Crimean Bridge had already been built, as well as the new airport terminal in Simferopol – ed).

The publication also contains fragments of interviews with the so-called ‘Minister of Tourism’ of Crimea, and also local businessmen who talk about ‘significant progress in the development of the peninsula from the moment of its voluntary accession to the Russian Federation, as well as the gradual overcoming of the international isolation of Crimea’. Other reports concerned ‘the improvement of life of the Crimean Tatar people on the territory of the peninsula’.

At the beginning of the video the author tried to present pro-Ukrainian Crimean Tatar activists as scattered marginalised persons: against the background of which the collaborationist movement ‘Unity of Crimea’ is presented as highly educated and cultural. At the same time, one of the representatives of the movement is quoted as saying that ‘only Vladimir Putin completely rehabilitated the Tatars. And it is precisely when Russia built the main mosque that it became possible – after all, the Ukrainian authorities didn’t give neither land for building nor construction licenses’,” wrote Wehrschütz’s opponents.

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“Martial law is connected to the electoral campaign”

In a conversation with “Strana” the journalist refuted all accusations.

“I, as much as possible, showed all sides in Crimea, all points of view, the reporting was weighed and impartial, I didn’t give my assessments. I talked to a lawyer of Crimean Tatars who represents Crimean Tatar activists who are in prisons. I also talked to Crimean Tatar organisations that cooperate with Russian institutions. 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. And this is a fact. As for Donbass, I, naturally, 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”

said Wehrschütz to us

The authorities might not like some more observations from a 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 hard currency, and before the blockade they bought it from Donetsk and Lugansk for hryvnia”

said the Austrian reporter

In his reports Wehrschütz also spoke about problems with freedom of speech in Ukraine. In addition to the interview with Igor Guzhva, the agenda included comments from representatives of Channel 112 – which the authorities want to impose sanctions on, the English-language newspaper “Kyiv Post” – which risks closure because of the language law, “Freedom House” (a non-governmental organisation supporting freedom of speech financed by the US).

“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’. The expression ‘Agent of the Kremlin’ is a potential threat from radical groups also because our employees (camera operator and driver) had an unpleasant situation during filming the march of peace, when the called them pro-Russian mass media etc., but then the police intervened and everything was sorted out”

said Wehrschütz to “Strana”

Wehrschütz’s statement about the introduction of martial law in Ukraine could but upset the Ukrainian authorities.

“I said that it is connected to the electoral campaign”

said Wehrschütz

In general the journalist considers that currently relations between Ukraine and Austria are “not the best”. In particular, because a considerable part of Austrian politicians supports dialogue with Moscow and reconciliation in Donbass.

“Austria always was in favour of finding a solution to the conflict in Donbass through negotiations”

explained Wehrschütz

Foreign journalists aren’t allowed in the ATO

Shortly before being included in the database of “agents of the Kremlin” Wehrschütz was deprived of his accreditation in the zone of the OUF (it wasn’t renewed) without an explanation, but before this he received his card, although with bureaucratic delays.

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Over 4 months ORF fought hard for re-accreditation for the frontline areas for Wehrschütz and his team – the camera operator and producer, since they were also refused.

Earlier the ORF team also longly waited for permission to film at the port of Mariupol – in February 2018 the journalists were refused, but in November 2018 they were allowed, which granted the Austrians to film a broadcast about the situation in the Sea of Azov (back then Wehrschütz still had accreditation for work in the OUF).

“Now, should there be military operations or clashes in the Sea of Azov, we can’t do anything due to a lack of accreditation”

complained the journalist

By the way, other foreign journalists also faced the same problem. If before accreditation was given out for a couple of days, then now, after organisational changes (the ATO transfored into the OUF), this process is dragged out for an indefinite period of time, journalists are given the runaround.

Representatives of foreign media suspect that the Ukrainian authorities do this for the purpose of interfering in the coverage of events surrounding the military operations in Donbass.

Another journalist, the correspondent of the German weekly “Zeit” Herwig Heller also complained on Facebook about the red tape with accreditations.

“For some reason everything became more difficult since accreditations were transferred to the OUF, but nevertheless the guiding function of the SBU thus remains”

wrote Heller

“Because now the General Staff is responsible for journalists in the OUF. And there, there are exactly those staff members who in the summer of 2014 (still before MH17, exactly when Russian equipment started coming from the Russian Federation in large quantities) told me that foreign journalists have no business being in the occupied territories. In Mariupol foreign groups waited for two weeks in order to pass through an ordinary checkpoint. And this is already the 4th complaint from foreign media that I have heard in the past month. This is probably how people in the OUF understand the task of improving work with the foreign press”

said the media expert and former Deputy Minister of Information Policy of Ukraine Tatyana Popova

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