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Ukraine Pivots, Says Austrian Journalist Barred 'For His Own Safety'

Austrian ORF broadcast correspondent Christian Wehrschuetz arrives for an ORF meeting in Vienna, August 9, 2011
Austrian ORF broadcast correspondent Christian Wehrschuetz arrives for an ORF meeting in Vienna, August 9, 2011

KYIV -- Austrian reporter Christian Wehrschuetz said he feared being attacked by Ukrainian nationalists over reporting critical of the government in Kyiv, according to the Ukrainian Security Service. Now they're using a one-year entry ban to keep him out of the country.

In citing Wehrschuetz's own purported concerns, the counterintelligence and counterterror agency appears to be contradicting the initial reason for the ban given to Austrian authorities: that he had violated Ukrainian law when his camera crew crossed the Kerch Strait via the Russian-built bridge connecting Russia to the annexed Crimean Peninsula. That legislation allows for bans of up to three years for those who violate it.

It also appears to skirt a dispute over whether or not Wehrscheutz actually broke the entry law, which is aimed at undermining Moscow's de facto control over the seized peninsula, since he said he stayed behind while other members of the crew crossed the bridge.

The ban sparked outrage from Vienna, which has summoned Ukraine's ambassador, and prompted calls from international media watchdogs including the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)'s office for press freedom to reverse the decision.

The dispute over Wehrscheutz's actions have raised tensions between Kyiv and Vienna despite Austrian officials' efforts to maintain good relations with both Ukraine and Russia throughout a five-year conflict that has pitted Ukrainian forces against Russia-backed separatists, killing around 13,000 people and leaving at least 30,000 more injured.

Reuters quoted Wehrschuetz as saying on ORF radio on March 8 that he would challenge the ban "by all legal means."

The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) took that rejection a step further with the entry ban against Wehrschuetz, writing in a March 9 post on Facebook that it had done so "to ensure the safety of the journalist." It said nothing of the alleged violation of Ukrainian border law in Crimea.

"Recall that Christian Wehrschuetz stressed in his comments about [sic] the existing threats to his life in Ukraine," the SBU wrote. "In order to avoid possible provocations during the stay of the Austrian journalist in our country, the SBU, in accordance with the law, has decided to ban his entry."

'The Right Thing'

Wehrschuetz is an award-winning reporter and former editor of a weekly for the Austrian Freedom Party -- a right-wing nationalist party in the ruling coalition that has opposed Western sanctions against Russia -- who has spent years as the Kyiv bureau chief for Austria's national broadcaster, ORF.

His trouble began on February 7, when he reported being denied permission by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry to report in the conflict zone in the country's east, citing a statement from Ukrainian Ambassador to Austria Oleksandr Shcherba.

Austria has now summoned Shcherba over the decision to ban him, calling it an act of censorship, according to Reuters. Shcherba was expected to meet with Austrian officials on March 11, Reuters added.

Wehrschuetz has denied ever setting foot on the Russian bridge, saying that when he reported from the area in July his crew crossed it but he did not.

He could not immediately be reached by RFE/RL for comment on the SBU's latest statement, and he has not published a response on social media.

For its part, however, the Austrian government has strongly condemned the move.

"The travel ban imposed on...Wehrschuetz in Ukraine is an unacceptable act of censorship," Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, who famously waltzed with Russian President Vladimir Putin at her wedding last year, wrote on Twitter on March 7. Kneissl also called the ban "totally incompatible with fundamental European values" and demanded it be reversed.

But with Ukrainian officials, diplomats, and politicians backing the decision, a reversal appears unlikely.

Olga Chervakova, first deputy chairman of the Ukrainian parliament's Committee on Freedom of Speech and Information Policy, told RFE/RL the SBU "did the right thing" and even "ruled mildly" by banning Wehrschuetz from Ukraine for one year instead of a possible three years.

"It is important to understand the decision is not an attempt [at] censorship," Chervakova said. "Ukraine has never created [nor] will ever try to interfere in or prevent ORF or any other Austrian media coverage."

But she also accused Wehrschuetz of frequently repeating Russian propaganda and "fake news" in his reports. "I don't know whether Christian Wehrschuetz is a Russian agent," Chervakova said. "It is a fact, though, that he widely uses Russian propaganda memes."

Chervakova provided no examples.

But Wehrschuetz has been critical of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and his government over perceived corruption and for purportedly alienating eastern Ukrainians displaced by the conflict, among other criticisms.

"In light of Mr. Wehrschuetz's continuously mocking Ukrainian legislation," Chervakova said, a one-year ban is "an extremely lenient punishment."

Citing the SBU statement about Wehrschuetz's personal safety, Chervakova suggested the ban against him was necessary to stave off a Russian operation to destabilize Ukraine. "I believe the threat of him being killed by Russian intelligence to further accuse [Ukrainian] authorities in the crime is very real," she said.

Kyiv has blamed Moscow for a spate of successful high-profile assassinations and unsuccessful plots on its soil since 2016.

Some of the evidence presented by the SBU in such cases has met with considerable skepticism.