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Europe

Ukraine's president defends record on press freedom

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych faced a tough grilling over press freedom in an interview with the German media before a visit to Berlin on Monday. The president had hoped to focus on economic issues.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych

Yanukovych wanted to focus on economic matters

In an interview with Deutsche Welle and other German media ahead of his visit to Berlin on Monday, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych said he hopes to focus on economic issues when he meets German Chancellor Angela Merkel. However, it appears that concerns about freedom of the press threaten to overshadow the visit. The role of Valeriy Khoroshkovskyi, who is both the head of Ukraine's security intelligence service and a media entrepreneur, also came under focus.

What expectation do you have of this trip to Germany? What do you hope for from this visit?

Viktor Yanukovych: I hope this visit will open up a new chapter in relations between Ukraine and Germany. The main aim of our foreign policy is that we fulfill our obligations. We are involved in pursuing these commitments.

An important issue that we are paying special attention to is making the economy more important in our foreign policy. In practice, that means the reform plan that I announced recently should serve to create new possibilities for foreign investors.

We are trying to overcome a lot of bureaucratic hurdles that stand in the way of investors. The system of permits and licenses in place until now has placed a considerable burden on the economy. We have already halved the number of licenses and different permits. This system will conform to European standards.

For that reason, I expect only positive outcomes from this visit to Germany.

Angela Merkel

Merkel's questions may extend to the case of Nico Lang

It is expected that the German chancellor will address the case of Nico Lang. The Ukrainan director of the Konrad-Adenauer political foundation was denied entry to Ukraine and detained at Kiev airport [the matter was settled after intervention from the German embassy]. Initially it was said that there had been a misunderstanding. Then there was talk of interference in internal affairs. What was that about?

Every security service has its job to do. Information gets shared. Conflicts that arise are resolved through negotiations between both sides. I gave my personal instructions to the chief of staff of the security service and also to the foreign minister. We were able to resolve this very quickly with Germany and therefore the case for us is settled.

We hear that you lightly admonished intelligence chief Valeriy Khoroshkovskyi after this incident, to put it mildly. Is that true?

When conflicts arise, one must be careful. There is no doubt, a warning had to be given. And that's what I did.

One subject that is also closely watched in Germany is the issue of press freedom. Journalists report growing political pressure and in some cases, abuse. In court, there is a case being contested about whether two TV stations should be allowed to keep their licenses. Several days ago, a journalist in the east of the country disappeared. How do you assess these developments?

An elderly demonstrator holds a newspaper and chants

Press freedom is an issue of growing concern in Ukraine

I am of the view that all conflicts must be solved through the courts. I cannot imagine that in these cases pressure would be put on the court and that courts would make biased decisions. Every court decision is binding for the executive and also must be observed by the mass media.´

I have had many meetings and encounters concerning freedom of expression and I sometimes ask journalists to tell me or give me proper examples where there is obstruction of freedom of expression. For me it is important to have concrete, named cases and until I have them, it would not be right to pass judgment.

I have two cases. First, the director of the television channel TVi claims he was shadowed by people from the secret service. Secondly, I heard from my own contact here in the Ukraine that she was summoned to have conversations with people from the intelligence service and asked about my work. I consider that to be an attempt to intimidate my contact. Are these cases known to you, and how would you categorize them?

Ukraine intelligence chief Valeriy Khoroshkovskyi

Questions were raised about intelligence boss Valeriy Khoroshkovskyi

Well, this is the first time I have heard that there are such cases. When there really are such cases then you need to report them officially. Where the first issue is concerned, it hardly seems realistic to me that journalists would be monitored in this way. I don't believe that. Anyway, there has been no case that I have been informed about.

As far as journalists being summoned to have conversations with the intelligence service is concerned, I am also hearing that for the first time. I really would ask you to tell me specifically which journalist was summoned, when, and where to.

I have already submitted these cases officially to the intelligence service a couple of weeks ago. Apparently it has not been forwarded. So, I would pose the question: Do you believe, after so many incidents, that your secret services chief is still the right man to be in this position? I ask this in consideration of his connected interests as intelligence chief, media entrepreneur and member of the highest council of justice.

I would say the security chief performs his job in a quite normal manner. This work has no connection at all with the activities of the mass media. Regarding his assets, he has handed over their administration of his assets to relatives. We have many officials who also have had assets and, according to the law, the management of these assets have been handed over to trustees. As far as I know, that happens not only in the Ukraine, but also all over the world.

Interview: Roman Goncharenko (Deutsche Welle), Konrad Schuller (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) Olaf Bock und Esther Hartbrich (ARD-Studio Moscow)/(rc)
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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