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From media freedom messenger to headline news




While delegates debated media freedom and pluralism in the Ukraine in times of conflict, I was given my marching orders and deported from the country.

I landed up spending eight hours in the departure hall of Boryspil International Airport in the capital Kiev. The last time I’d visited the country was in 2015 to cover a story about fires that had broken out in the Chernobyl region.

After two days, my RT (Russian Television) editors pulled me out of the country as I was receiving death threats from Ukrainian nationals who hadn’t liked my earlier reporting about the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

They threatened to kill, rape, and decapitate me. The posts were detailed and intimidating. What made it worse was that the online witch-hunt was started by a Ukrainian blogger, who had picked up from my tweets where I was in the country, and had encouraged people to find me.

When someone from the journalistic fraternity crosses the line, spewing hate speech and encouraging violence, it creates a dangerous precedent for the fanatics who have no problem acting out his words.

So, it wasn’t an easy decision to return to Kiev. As far as I knew, I wasn’t on any blacklist, and I was intending to participate in a conference on press freedom organised by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Oh, the irony!

The Ukrainian authorities flagged my passport at customs, took me to a side room for an hour-and-a half, and then gave me a declaration to sign that I was expelled from the country and banned for the next five years.

The OSCE issued a statement saying that it was “regretful” that I had been prevented from entering. So, while conference delegates discussed how to ensure press freedom, I was waiting on the other side for a flight to take me out.

The border guards treated me decently. They would not explain why I had been listed as an “enemy of the state”. When I was pulled aside, the officers disappeared behind a closed door and emerged only to ask me for my press credentials and purpose of visit. I presented them with my RT badge and the OSCE conference agenda. They disappeared again, and I was left to WhatsApp my driver waiting on the other side, my editors in Moscow – who were concerned – and my family.

Seated alongside me were two Palestinians who had received visas to enter the Ukraine, but who were now told they could not enter. There was a Russian national who wanted a visa to visit the United States and was hoping to apply for one from the American embassy in Kiev. He did this because it took longer than a year for such requests to be processed in Moscow where the US consulate had closed. I couldn’t work out if I felt important or sidelined.

A Russian colleague who I’d last seen in 2011 was visiting the Ukraine for the first time since he was a child. He was attending the same conference as myself, and had not reported from the Ukraine during the recent conflict. Within 20 minutes, he was told he could not enter and was banned for five years. Soon, I received the same bad news.

The border officer who called me into his office spoke English, and explained that, “in accordance with Ukrainian law regarding border control, there is a decision to ban your entrance of the state border to Ukraine”. I was asked to sign a declaration in Ukrainian that stated that he had informed me of this, and I had understood.

I was in a state of shock. There was no time to comprehend what he was saying, let alone put up a fight. I was immediately escorted out of the arrivals hall by two heavily armed men and taken to fetch my luggage that by now had been placed in the “lost and found” department. I was then left with my bags in the departure hall, but without my passport, and any explanation of what would happen next.

It could have been worse, and for this I am grateful. I was able to organise a late afternoon flight to Berlin, and I write this from the German capital where I’m reflecting on the past 24 hours.

Was it a surprise? In retrospect, no. Do I feel angry? Yes. Am I sad? Yes.

I attend many journalism conferences around the world where I am often a guest speaker on issues related to press freedom, the safety of journalists, propaganda, and Middle East reporting. I have participated in at least half a dozen OSCE workshops like the one held in Kiev under the auspices of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. Its task is to help journalists, media workers, and countries establish a climate of media freedom and pluralism across the OSCE region.

There is a real challenge facing the media fraternity nowadays. Public trust is at an all-time low, and new technology has resulted in people picking up a phone, filming something, posting it online, and calling themselves a journalist.

Charges of “fake news” are levelled against media outlets that broadcast an unfavourable view, and journalists are being killed in greater numbers than ever.

No longer are we the messengers; more frequently we are the news.

Take my deportation for example. The real story is not about me being prevented from entering into the Ukraine, rather about what this says about press freedom in a country where the government views Russian journalists as criminals.

I am seen as a “propagandist”, hence my deportation is justified and encouraged by the authorities. But what exactly is propaganda, especially if one person’s truth is another person’s lie? If I’ve learnt anything over the past 20 years of reporting, it is that there are always many sides to one story.

What happened to me is not just about Ukraine-Russia politics. It is about the media fraternity, which is being forced on its head, and is struggling to redefine itself at a time when not everybody agrees what press freedom is, and who should be afforded it.

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