OSCE Media Rep gets translation wrong & condemns Ukraine for attack on journalists critical of Babchenko ‘murder’
Harlem Désir, the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, has leaptto the defence of Ukrainian journalists supposedly accused of treason for expressing critical views. The concerns would have been warranted had they not been based largely on a mistranslation of the text he condemned.
Désir’s 4 June statement was about a Facebook post from 30 May, by Larisa Sarhan, Spokesperson for the Prosecutor General, Yuri Lutsenko and concerned comments made in the first 18 hours after the believed assassination of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko. The OSCE Representative understood Sarhan to have accused a list of journalists, including Myroslava Gongadze and Chair of the National Union of Journalists Serhiy Tomilenko of being traitors for their criticism of the Ukrainian authorities.
He states that "Labelling those with critical voices as traitors put them at great risk, and it must not be tolerated."
Such labelling would, indeed, be unacceptable, however this was not what either Sarhan’s post, or Lutsenko’s words at the extraordinary press briefing that day were doing.
The apparent ‘news’ reported on 29 May that Russian journalist and implacable Kremlin critic Arkady Babchenko had been gunned down as he entered his Kyiv flat prompted a number of comments critical of the Ukrainian authorities. A fairly large number of commentators called the assassination the result of Ukraine’s failure to bring the killers or those who ordered the killings of other journalists to justice.
While some politicians used the opportunity to gain some political mileage, this could hardly be said of Myroslava Gongadze. Her comment that "Impunity generates crime" was both true and poignant, coming as it did from a person who has for close on 18 years been trying to bring those who ordered her husband, Georgy Gongadze’s killing to answer.
The difference this time was that Babchenko was alive and his murder had been staged as part of an SBU sting operation, apparently to catch those who had really planned to kill him.
Given the backlash after the news broke, it is perhaps hard to recall that the SBU and Lutsenko seem to have genuinely expected their moment of glory for having carried off a vital special operation to foil an attempt on Babchenko’s life.
Sarhan’s comments were written in that mood of triumph, about those who "had yet again shouted ‘treason’, while all law enforcement officers were carrying out the #Babchenko special operation. Let’s see how they apologize", she wrote.
It can certainly be argued that such point-scoring is not behaviour we should expect from either Lutsenko, or his spokesperson. There was, however, no accusation of treason, only an attempt to show up those who had been swift to criticize the law enforcement bodies. The term "зрадофіл" [zradophile, from the word for betrayal or treason, zrada] is difficult to translate, but refers to an attitude which assumes treachery, failure, deception, etc. Sarhan’s picture shows a young woman writing with the caption reading: "I have added you to my list of zradophiles, but for the moment only in pencil".
As mentioned, there have been extremely mixed reactions to the SBU’s sting operation both inside Ukraine and from abroad. There are those who defend the operation and appear to assume that everything the SBU says can be believed. Others are considerably less inclined to make those assumptions, but do assume that if Babchenko cooperated with the SBU, it was because he had grounds to believe his life to be in danger. Others have vehemently criticised the Ukrainian authorities and claimed that this undermines their credibility, or the country as a whole, or even the cause of truth in the face of torrents of fake news.
The situation has not been improved by doubts about the alleged hit list of journalists, and even how many names it contains. On 31 May, Lutsenko spoke of the list containing 30 journalists and bloggers, and said that all would be provided with protection. By 1 June, he was talking of a list with 47 names. Then on 5 June, the 47-strong Russian hitlist was published by Strana.ua, a publication which often expresses views quite close to the Kremlin line on many developments in Ukraine. Neither list contained Babchenko's name.
While some journalists have been openly sceptical of the list, media expert Natalya Ligacheva expressed the view on Tuesday evening that the SBU and authorities in general are continuing a kind of ‘special operation’ which only a small group of people currently understand, and that these leaks are clearly deliberate. She expresses bemusement that those same journalists who felt that they had been deceived by the SBU during the sting operation appear to have now lost any wariness about being manipulated.
All of this, it should be said, has commanded the public's attention at a time when Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko has been sentenced in Russia to 12 years’ maximum security imprisonment on highly implausible spying charges and journalist Stanyslav Aseyev remains imprisoned by Kremlin-backed militants of the so-called ‘Donetsk people’s republic’. At least two civic journalists / activists – Nariman Memedeminov and Server Mustafaev – have been imprisoned in occupied Crimea in ever more brazen attempts to crush any critical voices. Not to mention the fact that Ukrainian political prisoners Oleg Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko, Volodymyr Balukh and Oleksandr Shumkov illegally held in Russia or occupied Crimea are on life-threatening hunger strikes. They could do with our attention.
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