The desperate plight of independent journalists and the threat they face in doing their work has been highlighted at a conference hosted by the Press Club, Brussels.
The meeting heard from a Ukrainian blogger who said he faces up to 15 years in jail if he returns to his homeland for “trumped up” charges.
These, said Anatoliy Sharij, include allegations of “high treason” which he says are unfounded and the result of attempts by Ukraine to discredit his work as an investigative journalist.
The conference, called “Defending the Freedom of Speech”, was told of several other examples of similar attacks on press freedom in other countries, including Belarus and Russia.
Willy Fautre, of Human Rights Without Frontiers, the leading, Brussels based rights NGO which organised the gathering, told the meeting that such cases should be of “real concern” to the EU which, it was said, continues to fund allegedly corrupt organisations in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Sharij, a keynote speaker at the conference, told of how his life and that of his wife and young child, had been threatened because of his work which, he said, seeks to expose wrong doing in Ukrainian circles. He lives under 24/7 protection in exile in Spain after fleeing Ukraine, via Lithuania, over ten years ago.
Sharij, whose audience is mostly educated young Ukrainians, fled, he said, due to threats after his journalistic work which was critical of successive regimes in the country, including the current government led by Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy.
Speaking in Russian via an interpreter, Sharij, who is one of the most prominent bloggers in Ukraine with 2.5m subscribers to his website, said, “The EU is not aware of the situation in Ukraine as it doesn’t get the same exposure as some other countries. Ukraine wants to join the EU but EU membership is not just about economic advantages as some in Ukraine seem to think but also about human rights and respecting press freedom and freedom of speech.”
The journalist, whose work includes exposing “illegal” casinos which, he said, are protected by the State, and drug trafficking, said he faces a jail term of up to 15 years if he returns to Ukraine but denies all charges made against him by the Ukrainian authorities.
He said the evidence he had presented should serve as a “wake up call” to the EU which, he said, currently helps fund some of the allegedly corrupt organisations in Ukraine he had sought to expose.
Such funding ran into tens of millions of euros, he said, and includes an EU funded organisation which had “grossly overstated by ten times” the income on property it rents.
Another online organisation was receiving EU funds, he said, even though it had “hardly any” visitors to its website.
He said, “It goes without saying that the EU should wake up to this and act.”
He also highlighted the recent Pandora Papers which show how the rich hide their money. It said Ukraine has the highest number of politicians in the world involved in such practice and Sharij said, “These show that the current regime has transferred money to offshore schemes. Indeed, the practice is depicted in Ukraine as a good way of doing business.”
He said that last year alone, three tv channels in Ukraine had been shut down because of coverage deemed to be against the state.
“The regime is allowed to get away with all this and there has been no proper reaction from the EU or Europe. In doing so and allowing dictatorial regimes to grow the EU is risking a new Hitler to emerge.”
Another speaker at the event, Christine Mirre, who runs a French rights NGO, spoke of similar events in Russia where, she said, independent reporters and media outlets were being “discredited” and turned into “social lepers” by the State.
She said that since August 34 independent media groups and reporters had been classified as foreign agents which, she said, was a direct attempt cut off their sources of revenue.
Their only “crime”, she said, was to have published articles critical of the Russian regime.
Alia Papageorgiou, vice president of the Association of European Journalists, a body set up to protect the rights of reporters and others, said all three countries, Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, ranked lowly when it comes to press freedom, adding, “The personal testimony we have heard today from Anatoliy Sharij speaks volumes for what is going on.”
Fautre, summing up the event, said, Everyone has a right to freedom of opinion and expression but certain journalists are forced to look for a safe haven in another country.
“The message from this event is that the EU should not close its eyes to what is going on. It should not lift sanctions and, in the case of Ukraine, it should not be a case of business first.”
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