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Ukrainian journalists stripped of accreditation over protest

Reporters Without Borders is appalled by Prime Minister Mykola Azarov's decision to withdraw the accreditation of 10 journalists who staged a silent protest at a cabinet meeting to draw attention to the impunity enjoyed by those responsible for an attack on two reporters during street demonstrations on 18 May.

“The allocation of press accreditation should not be used to 'cherrypick' journalists and eliminate those who express views at variance with the government's,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Ukraine's media law explicitly states that journalists can only be stripped of their accreditation for 'gross and repeated violation' of the rules.

“The protest staged during yesterday's cabinet meeting was calm and silent, and did not prevent ministers from working. Depriving the participating journalists of their accreditation constitutes a disproportionate and arbitrary punishment and should be rescinded at once.

“Instead of punishing these journalists, the authorities should be paying attention to their demands. Physical attacks on journalists nearly always go unpunished in Ukraine. This impunity is fuelling an alarming increase in violence against journalists, with at least 80 cases reported last year.

“The authorities obviously need to address the 18 May attack, which is now emblematic of the problem because of the attention it has received. But it is also imperative that full and impartial investigations are carried out into all the other attacks on journalists and bloggers, because such a high level of violence and impunity is having a direct impact on freedom of information.”

Prime Minister Azarov had just begun speaking at yesterday's cabinet meeting when the 10 journalists covering the event turned round silently to reveal signs pinned to their backs that said: “Today it is a journalist, tomorrow it will be your wife, your sister or your daughter. Act now!”

Azarov was incensed. “What is this show?” he exclaimed. “Leave the room at once.” He then ordered aides to note the names of the journalists and withdraw their press accreditation. “We respect the work of journalists, but don't turn this meeting into a circus,” he explained.

Later yesterday, the prime minister's press attaché confirmed that instructions had indeed been given to the relevant bodies to withdraw the accreditation of the journalists who “disrupted coverage of the work of the cabinet meeting.” This was “a legal requirement,” he said. The media that employ them have been asked to name replacements.

The cabinet meeting protest was prompted by the attack on husband-and-wife journalists Olga Snitsarchuk, a reporter for Pyaty Kanal, and Vladislav Sodel, a Kommersant-Ukraine photographer, while they covered the clashes that occurred during two simultaneous demonstrations in Kiev on 18 May.

One of the demonstrations was organized by the three leading opposition groups to demand the release of imprisoned former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The other was staged by supporters of the ruling Party of the Regions, who marched under the banner of “Towards Europe, without fascists.”

The two journalists were attacked and beaten by athletic youths who were providing security for the pro-government demonstration. They turned on the journalists when they realized they were being filmed. Many Ukrainians were particularly shocked by the fact that police who were nearby did not intervene.

Journalists protested within hours of the attack and continued to stage protests in the days that followed to press the authorities to identify the attackers and punish the police officers who failed to intervene.

The interior ministry initially announced that it was treating the incident as a case of “minor injuries” (under article 125-1 of the criminal code) but said later said it was also treating it as an “obstruction of a journalist's legal professional activities” (under article 171). The police announced on 20 May that they were conducting an internal investigation into the inaction of certain officers.

One of the reasons for journalists' anger has been the investigation's apparent slowness with regard to the main suspect, who was quickly identified by the media thanks to social networks and images of the incident. The main suspect has denied attacking the two reporters, claiming in a video that he just wanted to help Snitsarchuk when she fell.

In a 22 May report on the incident, police chief Vitaly Zakharchenko insisted on the professionalism of the police, blamed the unrest on the opposition and claimed that Snitsarchuk had been there as a demonstrator not a reporter. According to the latest reports, the main suspect was finally arrested and charged with hooliganism (under article 296 of the criminal code).

Attacks on journalists are common in Ukraine, especially during demonstrations, and 19 out of 20 cases go unpunished. For example, there has still been no result in the investigation into a brutal attack one year ago on reporter Vitaliy Lazebnik although the assailant was immediately identified from photos taken by witnesses.

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