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25 Aug, 2021 15:40

Ukraine condemned for crackdown on media freedom by OSCE after leading news organisation 'Strana' banned by Zelensky government

Ukraine condemned for crackdown on media freedom by OSCE after leading news organisation 'Strana' banned by Zelensky government

An international free-press watchdog has blasted Kiev for attempting to shut down popular independent news site Strana over unproven claims the online media outlet is secretly involved in undermining Ukrainian national security.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) aired concerns that the country was heading down a dark path when it comes to recent restrictions on the work of reporters.
OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Teresa Ribeiro, said that the shuttering of a number of domestic outlets and the banning of Russian newspaper groups were concerning developments. "While Ukraine has a legitimate right to protect its national security, the authorities should find a balanced and proportional solution in addressing media related concerns, a solution that preserves media pluralism, free flow of information and diversity of opinions in line with relevant international standards," she said.

"Media freedom is dependent on a healthy, vibrant and competitive landscape, which includes voices that provide a variety of news," Ribeiro added. "Any sanctions on media should be subject to careful scrutiny, accompanied by effective procedural safeguards to prevent undue interference.”

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On Friday, Strana.ua was taken down after officials included both the company and its editor, Igor Guzhva, in a new round of restrictions. Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council secretary, Alexey Danilov, said the move was based on “documents” held by the country’s SBU security agency, the successor to the Soviet KGB.
However, Danilov refused to disclose the basis of the allegations, adding only that Guzhva, who fled to Austria in 2018 and was later granted asylum there, and organizations linked to him, were being targeted because “they are engaged in illegal activities on the territory of our country.”

The outlet, which describes itself as among the country's three most influential publications, has called on international organizations and foreign journalists for support. "In its essence the Government's actions are an illegal crackdown on independent media," Strana's staff said in an open letter.

At the same time, Russian news sites including Vedemosti and Moskovsky Komsomolets were blocked by Kiev. Almost all Ukrainians are proficient in the use of the Russian language, and it is spoken at home by a majority of people in the east and south of the country. Despite that, imports of television, news and films from the neighboring country have been banned in a series of rules imposed since the 2014 Maidan.

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In February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issued a decree sanctioning a total of eight news groups producing Russian-language content from within Ukraine. The groups’ TV channels and websites were taken offline as part of the decision. Mikhail Podolyak, an adviser to the presidential administration, denied that the move was a worrying sign for free speech in Ukraine, saying that “it’s just about effectively countering fakes and foreign propaganda.” Without action, he argued, the opposition media would “kill our values.”

Over the summer, a report from the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights slammed the Ukrainian government for what it characterized as a series of repressive measures. “This decision is contrary to international human rights standards, as it lacks justification of its necessity and proportionality, and was not taken by an independent authority,” the organization said.

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