Ukraine backtracks on some media sanctions after backlash

By Alessandra Prentice and Pavel Polityuk
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko addresses a cabinet meeting in Kiev, Ukraine, September 8, 2015. REUTERS/Andrew Kravchenko/Pool

By Alessandra Prentice and Pavel Polityuk

KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered six European journalists to be removed from a newly-published sanctions list, officials said on Thursday, in a swift U-turn after the list was criticized by the country's Western allies.

Poroshenko signed a decree on Wednesday naming more than 900 people to a blacklist to face penalties for reasons of "national security", after pro-Russian separatists who have seized parts of Ukraine set a date for what Kiev sees as "illegal elections".

The government has not specified precisely what penalties it would impose on those on the list, but these are thought to include bans on travel and financial restrictions for those with Ukrainian assets.

While mostly made up of Russians and separatists, the list included 34 journalists and seven bloggers from countries including Britain, Germany and Spain.

The European Union responded sharply.

"I am surprised and I am concerned and I will certainly discuss it with the colleagues in Ukraine because this is not European in spirit," Johannes Hahn, the EU's commissioner in charge of enlargement, said in Brussels.

In a statement, Poroshenko said he had ordered Ukraine's security council to take three journalists from Britain's BBC broadcaster off the list.

"Freedom of the press is of absolute value to me," he said.

A security council spokeswoman later said the names of two Spanish correspondents and a German correspondent would also be removed.

The European Union and the United States have both supported Ukraine by imposing financial sanctions on Russia since a pro-Russian president was toppled in Kiev last year and Moscow responded by annexing Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.

Nearly 8,000 people have since been killed in a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. Kiev and NATO accuse the Kremlin of aiding the rebels with funds, equipment and troops. Russia denies any involvement in the fighting.

International watchdogs including the Committee to Protect Journalists said including journalists on Kiev's blacklist would restrict media freedom.

The sanctions misstep follows other moves that have unsettled some of Kiev's partners. In May the OSCE security and democracy watchdog criticized new laws relating to Ukraine's 20th century history that it said discouraged freedom of expression. The Council of Europe, a human rights body, has reported a lack of progress in bringing justice for those killed in protests last year.

Such moves could strengthen the case of Europeans who argue that sanctions against Russia should be eased, especially as fighting in east Ukraine has waned.

Moscow said the inclusion of journalists on the sanctions list was "totally unacceptable".

"It does not correspond with the principles of freedom ... We very strongly condemn this decision," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Andreas Umland, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev, called the blacklist a "public relations disaster for Kiev that is already being used by its enemies".

"It is frustrating to note how low the Ukrainian government's expertise on the basics of international affairs and cultural diplomacy is," Umland said in a Facebook post.

(Additional reporting by Darya Korsunskaya in Moscow; Editing by Peter Graff)