At the time of this interview, Christian Wehrschütz, a long-time Ukraine and Balkan correspondent for Austria’s ORF public broadcaster is in Vienna. His stay is not entirely voluntary: on March 8, the Ukrainian state imposed an entry ban on him, which was later lifted. Wehrschütz spoke to the International Press Institute (IPI) about the current media situation in the Ukraine, the entry ban against him and why foreign journalists often feel like a “hamster in a wheel” when dealing with Ukrainian bureaucracy.
According to Wehrschütz, the press situation in Ukraine is an interesting case due to the enormous diversity in the media. Additionally, government control over media in the Ukraine is much lower than in other countries of the former Soviet Union.
Social media also plays a vital role as a source of information in Ukraine. “If you’re not on Facebook, Telegram, Instagram and Twitter, it’s almost like you’re illiterate”, Wehrschütz said. While radio is barely present as an information source in the country and there exists no daily quality print newspaper in Kiev, social media offers an infinite platform for various interest groups offering a wide range of information and opinion. “It’s a big challenge to reach and watch this much news”, Wehrschütz commented. “But you do have great media diversity.”
A hamster in a wheel
But especially for foreign journalists, who represent an important source of information about Ukraine and the country’s now five-year-old war, the powerful Ukrainian bureaucracy poses an obstacle to free and fast reporting. “When it comes to state institutions, we often feel like hamsters spinning in a wheel, not actually getting anywhere”, Wehrschütz explained.
The troubles start with the accreditation process. Ukraine does not have a standardized accreditation system for the whole country, only requiring special permits for the front. “I have always told the Ministry of Information that having accreditation would be helpful to us. On the Ukrainian side there is considerable mistrust: ‘Is he working for Russia?’. It was sometimes difficult that, from our own (personal) documents, we had nothing.”
The lack of a nationwide accreditation system has at least the advantage of allowing journalists who want to report from Ukraine to move largely freely. Accreditation is, however, required for reporting from the Parliament or the eastern front. In the cases of the front, accreditation is normally valid for six months. The catch: the validity period starts from the time the application is made and processing times are relatively long. This can lead to a situation in which accreditation is received but is only valid for a short time before the six months expire.
“It is very hard for us to plan long-term”, Wehrschütz commented. “When I had accreditation, my team didn’t. So then we had to look for another cameraman. There are a lot of bureaucratic obstacles.”
Still, sometimes there are positive surprises. After the entry ban on Wehrschütz was lifted mid-April, he applied for renewed accreditation for the eastern front on Good Friday. On Easter Sunday, the presidential run-off took place. “On Wednesday after Easter, I received the accreditation, which is now really valid for a full six months”, Wehrschütz said.
But the bureaucratic obstacles are not limited to accreditation. For example, when Wehrschütz sought to conduct a report on the Ukrainian state railways, he was denied access to the building because he was a foreigner. Access to military facilities requires a special permit. Notably, Wehrschütz said the bureaucratic issues are not confined to particular topics. “It’s not a question of whether it’s a sensitive topic or not. It’s the procedure itself that creates the complication.”
Surprise entry ban
In December 2018, Wehrschütz’s renewal application for accreditation for the eastern front was denied, with no reason given. Then, in March, Ukrainian authorities banned him from entering the country – a move that took Wehrschütz by surprise.
“I did not expect that”, he told IPI. “Before the entry ban was imposed, the signs pointed in the opposite direction. My team from Donetsk had regained accreditation for the Ukrainian front line two days earlier.”
In addition, several differing reasons for the entry ban were given. Ukraine’s SBU security service claimed that it wanted to protect Wehrschütz from pro-Russian provocateurs, while the Foreign Ministry, without presenting evidence, accused Wehrschütz of violating Ukrainian legislation related to Crimea. “Which I did not do”, Wehrschütz said. “If you travel to Crimea, you need accreditation from the Russian authorities to work there. I also need a Russian visa and a special permit from the Ukrainian authorities.”
The entry ban didn’t just affect Wehrschütz’s work as a correspondent. He also has an apartment and an office in Ukraine. When he found out about the ban, he was in Vienna.
“At first I saw rumours on Facebook from an MP belong to the party of (Ukrainian President) Petro Poroshenko. Then came a call from the Foreign Ministry in Vienna”, Wehrschütz recounted. Only after Ukrainian authorities were asked to provide a reason did they offer any justification in writing.
“Of course, the entry ban was a surprise for my entire team in Ukraine. But they kept a cool head anyway and kept doing their work, which was very important for coverage of the first round of voting (in the presidential election).”
Gratitude to NGOs and Austria’s foreign minister
The entry ban was criticized not only by the Austrian Foreign Ministry but also by several international press freedom organizations. IPI described the ban as an attack on press freedom and reported the incident to the Platform for the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalism of the Council of Europe. The OSCE also criticized the move.
“I would like to take this opportunity to thank all NGOs, but also to especially think (Austrian) Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, who raised my case internationally and took a clear stance with respect to Ukraine”, Wehrschütz said. “She was of tremendous help to me. The Austrian ambassador in Kiev, Hermine Poppeller, also worked hard on my behalf. There was also support from friends in Austria and the Ukraine as well as of course my Ukrainian lawyers.”
The entry ban on Wehrschütz was lifted on April 12. IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen welcomed that the decision at the time, saying: “The entry ban on Christian Wehrschütz sent a very wrong signal regarding Ukraine’s commitment to media freedom and we are glad that the authorities have now reversed this decision. We urge Ukraine to allow foreign journalists to report free from harassment.”
So is everything now resolved, in Wehrschütz’s view? “Now it is. However, only time will tell whether anything about the bureaucracy will change.”
After the incident, Wehrschütz had to deal with various interview requests, most of which came from Russia. “I rejected all such requests”, he said. “That would have just poured more oil on the fire. I’m not here to cause Ukraine any damage. I’m here to report from the country and deliver a realistic picture of the situation.”
He added: “There have been a lot of accusations from the public that were completely baseless. I was also accused of having entered the conflict zones through Russian territory. But I have never done that in the five years that I have been working in Ukraine.” Wehrschütz said those facts are easy to check, because such movements are registered at control posts.
The accusations, he said, “are very uncomfortable, but that’s a part of the essence of social media. Sometimes things are separated from reality and have nothing to do with it anymore. But that doesn’t apply just to Ukraine. But it does give you pause when people in social media damn you to hell even though the overwhelming majority of these users don’t understand what I’m reporting because they don’t speak German.”