Please note, this is an approximate translation provided by Google Translate
Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russia Today TV, is one of those prevented from entering Ukraine. Photograph: Ruslan Krivobok/AP

Ukraine bans Russian journalists accused of 'stirring hatred'


Shaun Walker in Moscow

Thursday 2 June 2016 12.32 BST

Ukrainian authorities have placed sanctions on 17 Russian journalists and media personalities they accuse of stirring hatred in the country. While many in Kiev believe it was a necessary move against Russian propagandists, it is the latest incident to raise concerns about media freedom in the country.

Rights organisations said it was understandable that Ukraine has concerns about Russian propaganda, but sanctioning journalists was not the way forward. Human Rights Watch called on Ukraine to revoke the sanctions.

The sanctions bar the individuals from entering Ukraine, as well as from owning property or holding bank accounts in the country. The list includes the editor-in-chiefs of a number of state-owned or pro-Kremlin media outlets, including Margarita Simonyan of Russia Today TV, as well as others that are less ideological, such as Russian Reporter magazine. Vitaly Leybin, the editor of Russian Reporter, who is a Ukrainian citizen, said he would challenge the sanctions in court.

“Putting sanctions on any journalist is a terrible idea, but sanctioning your own citizen is completely absurd and makes no sense at all; perhaps they didn’t even realise I am a Ukrainian citizen,” said Leybin, who is from Donetsk but lives in Moscow. It is unclear how Ukraine could ban its own citizen from entering the country.

“I’ve regularly travelled to both sides of the lines during this war. Like many people in east Ukraine, I’m a supporter of a more federal Ukraine. In the terminology of today’s Kiev I could be called a vatnik, but I’ve never questioned the territorial integrity of Ukraine and I never gave approval to violence on either side.” A vatnik is a derogatory slang term used for those who strongly support Russia.

Supporters of the sanctions argue that Russian media coverage of the war in east Ukraine was instrumental in its escalation, and also note that in Crimea, annexed by Russia, the media environment has been completely decimated, with all dissenting voices against the new authorities crushed. However, western diplomats in Kiev and rights activists are pushing the Ukrainian government not to take their example from Moscow’s treatment of the press.

“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.”

Last September, Ukraine put dozens of journalists on a list of those who either “threaten national interests” or “promote terrorist activities”. The list included three BBC journalists, who were quietly removed along with a number of other foreign reporters after international outcry.

Last week Ukraine also slapped a five-year ban on Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, after he said in an interview he supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The latest sanctions came shortly after the personal data of hundreds of journalists who had accredited with separatist authorities in the east of the country was leaked online by a website that has tacit backing from authorities.

The website Mirotvorets publishes photographs and sometimes contact details of those it believes to be engaged in separatist activity or undermining the Ukrainian state. It has previously targeted individuals such as Oleg Kalashnikov, a former MP and associate of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, who was later killed.

The leak of journalist data caused fury among many Ukrainian journalists, given that registering with separatist authorities was a necessary step in order to be able to report from both sides of the lines. In the current climate, some fear they will receive threats for having travelled to separatist territories.

Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, has backed the website, accusing accused its critics of harbouring separatist tendencies.

© 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies