Ukraine has condemned a series of searches in Belarus targeting journalists and rights activists, but the scolding comes amid Kiev’s own full-blown crackdown on opposition press and politicians at home – fully supported by the US.
Strongly denouncing the recent events in Belarus “where authorities continue (to) pressure and persecute journalists,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko lashed out at Minsk in a statement on Sunday.
“The entire democratic world recognizes mass media as the fourth estate and does not interfere with their professional activities. Attacks on freedom of speech, endangering the lives and well-being of journalists in Belarus, constitute outright violations of these basic principles,” the statement reads.
Earlier this week, Belarusian police conducted a series of searches across the country. According to authorities, the operation targeted individuals allegedly linked to stirring up the civil unrest that has been plaguing the country since last summer’s contested presidential elections. Among others, the searches targeted multiple journalists and rights activists. Law enforcement officials said they seized some $80,000 in cash, assorted documents linking the suspects to foreign entities, as well as drugs and even weaponry.
Ironically, Ukrainian concerns over press freedom within the neighboring country came amid a massive campaign against the opposition press launched by Kiev. Early in February, President Volodymyr Zelensky issued a decree that kicked off a series of “special economic and other restrictive sanctions” targeting a total of eight news organizations. The outlets had their assets blocked, as well as being ordered not to move money out of the country.
All of the services targeted are owned by Ukrainians, mostly staffed by Ukrainians and are aimed at Ukrainian audiences.
The package forced three of the affected outlets to go offline almost immediately. The 1+1 media group, which owns the outlets, belongs to opposition politician Taras Kozak, who has been highly critical of Ukraine’s authorities over alleged corruption, chaotic reforms and sloppy coronavirus response. Kozak is also a member of Opposition Platform–For Life (OPZZh), the largest opposition party, led by Viktor Medvedchuk. On Friday, Medvedchuk, alongside with six other individuals and 19 legal entities, was targeted with sanctions by Kiev authorities over alleged “financing of terrorism.”
Kiev promised the restrictions would affect “all the property that Mr Medvedchuk owns.” The politician, in turn, accused the government of taking “the path of establishing a dictatorship and usurping power.” While the nature of the terrorism-related allegations was not immediately clear, it likely stems from Medvedchuk’s support for improved ties with Russia, which largely reflects the desires of his party’s core electorate in the east and south of the troubled country.
We support Ukraine’s efforts to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity through sanctions. Medvedchuk has been under U.S. sanctions since 2014 for undermining Ukraine’s security, territorial integrity, and democratic institutions. https://t.co/QvC7Pfn5de
— U.S. Embassy Kyiv (@USEmbassyKyiv) February 20, 2021
Kiev’s offensive against the opposition politicians and press has received full support from Washington. The US Embassy said it supported Kiev’s “efforts to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity through sanctions,” stressing that Medvedchuk has been under US sanctions since 2014, over his alleged role in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. However, the European Union has been less supportive of Zelensky’s clampdown.
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