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Ukrainian Bank Chief Temporarily Resigns Amid Condemnation Of Assault On RFE/RL Journalists

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Ukreksimbank chief Yevhen Metsher (file photo)

KYIV -- The chairman of Ukraine's state export-import bank has apologized for an assault on journalists from the Schemes (Skhemy) program during an interview earlier this week, and announced that he was stepping down until the completion of a criminal investigation launched into the incident.

"The situation around the bank is unacceptable. My overly emotional reaction and unrestrained behavior toward journalists have no justification," Ukreksimbank chief Yevhen Metsher said in a statement on October 6, two days after the incident that drew condemnation from Ukrainian journalists, politicians, the prosecutor-general, and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's office.

Metsher said he would "immediately write a resignation statement for the duration of the necessary investigative actions by the National Police and an internal review by the bank" in order to "remove at least part of the damage to the bank's reputation."

The incident took place in Metsher's office in Kyiv on October 4, after Kyrylo Ovsyaniy -- a reporter for Schemes, a joint investigative project run by RFE/RL and UA: Pershy television -- asked him a question about a controversial loan given to a client.

Caught On Video: Ukrainian Banker Tries To Delete Recording After Assault On RFE/RL Journalists
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Metsher instructed security personnel to stop the journalists and take their cameras and video materials away, after which physical force was used against cameraman Oleksandr Mazur to forcibly seize his two cameras and memory cards.

The journalists were allowed to leave the office after the interview was apparently deleted from their memory cards.

But Schemes' technicians managed to retrieve video showing the incident.

The clip shows how Metsher instructed the head of Ukreksimbank's press service, Volodymyr Pikalov, and security personnel to take the cameras and memory cards. Bank personnel can be heard saying that the memory cards "must be cleaned up to zero."

Meanwhile, Zelenskiy's office condemned the "unacceptable" assault on the journalists, saying freedom of speech is "one of the fundamental values in Ukraine."

"Therefore, it is the duty of officials at all levels to communicate correctly with journalists and to respect their right to ask any questions of public importance," Mykhaylo Podolyak, an adviser to the chief of the presidential office, said in a statement.

Podolyak noted that the office's position on the incident "fully coincides with the public condemnation of the actions of the state bank's management."

Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova also condemned what she called "a brutal use of force against journalists."

"There must be a fair and effective investigation, charges, a trial, and a verdict. We in the Prosecutor-General's Office cannot and will not cover, excuse my language, the madness shown by the employees of the state bank," Venediktova wrote on Facebook.

The previous day, Ukraine's National Police announced that they had launched a criminal probe into the obstruction of the journalists' work.

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly welcomed the probe, and said he expects that "those involved in physically abusing our two journalists and erasing their recorded interview materials will be held accountable under Ukrainian law."

"Journalists must be allowed to do their work without fear of physical intimidation or harassment," he added.

Journalists are expected to hold a protest outside Ukreksimbank's headquarters in Kyiv later on October 6, while the parliamentary committee on press freedom is to discuss the incident.

In a statement on Facebook on October 5, the bank did not address allegations that force was used against media staff.

The statement said the press service was "forced to stop the interview" because Ovsyaniy asked questions that had not been agreed on. It said the questions were related to information about clients, which it said the bank did not have the right to provide to journalists, and that Ovsyaniy also "made assumptions about alleged violations committed by the bank."

The Schemes interview was part of an investigation that the journalists plan to make public in the coming days.

Oleksandr Parashchiy, an industry analyst at Kyiv-based Concorde Capital, said the scandal "uncovers the poor governance and corporate culture in the state bank, as well as the poor skills of the bank's technical staff."

Metsher's suspension by Ukreksimbank's supervisory board "does not guarantee" that the CEO will be removed from the position, Parashchiy added.

And his possible dismissal "does not guarantee any changes in the bank's corporate culture or corporate governance, which seems to remain the worst among Ukraine's state-controlled banks."

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