Kremlin war of aggression in Ukraine is also war on information
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has registered more than 50 attacks against journalists and media that qualify as war crimes and show that the Russian armed forces are waging an all-out war on news and information. RSF has just filed a fifth complaint with the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor and with Ukraine's prosecutor general.
The toll from the more than 50 attacks since 24 February that RSF regards as war crimes includes 7 journalists killed, 9 journalists injured, 13 journalists abducted or arbitrarily detained – of whom 4 were tortured or mistreated – and 13 TV towers and media outlets destroyed or damaged by air strikes, missile attacks or artillery bombardments. In all, more than 120 journalists have been victims.
The complaint that RSF filed on 27 May with the ICC's chief prosecutor and Ukraine's prosecutor general concerns 17 attacks affecting 70 journalists and 3 media installations. This is the fifth war crime complaint that RSF has filed since the start of the war, following those filed on 4, 16 and 24 March and 21 April.
"Three months after Russia launched its war of aggression against Ukraine, the pattern of its all-out war on information is clearly emerging," RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. "This is a war in which information itself is targeted, broadcasting equipment is bombed, and journalists are not just targeted as news providers but are also kidnapped, tortured, threatened and even executed. Russia is demonstrating a determination to control information and silence those who contradict the official propaganda, by resorting to the kind of violence that is characteristic of war crimes."
Aiming to control or destroy media installations
Broadcast media have been targeted from the earliest days of the war. On 28 February, four days after the start of the invasion, the Russian army took control of the Melitopol TV antenna and interrupted the broadcasting of Ukrainian television programmes. TV towers were then the targets of air strikes: six in Kyiv, Korosten, Lysychansk, Kharkiv and Kherson from 1 to 4 March and at least six more since then.
Other media installation were also targeted. On 1 March, the satellite signal of UA Pershiy, a TV channel owned by the Ukrainian public broadcasting group Suspilne, was subjected to Russian jamming attempts and its website was hacked. On 20 April, the local Suspilne branch in Mykolaiv were hit by a Russian rocket. It seems to have been deliberately targeted, as there were no other buildings of interest in the vicinity.
Journalists under fire, deliberately targeted
Deliberate attacks and shooting at journalists also began early in the war. To date, RSF is aware of 48 journalists coming under fire – gunfire, artillery fire or air strikes. RSF is in a position to say that at least 18 of them were deliberately targeted as journalists. The other cases concern journalists who were either embedded with Ukrainian troops or were caught by chance in attacks – some of them indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas – or journalists in situations where RSF does not have enough information to affirm that they were deliberately targeted.
Kidnapped, threatened, harassed – to end their work or serve Russian propaganda
The number of journalists coming under Russian army gunfire or artillery bombardment has tended to decline in recent weeks – mainly because the front line and combat zones have been contracting as the Russian army has pulled back towards Donbas. But abductions and arbitrary arrests of journalists, which have been taking place since the start of the war, are continuing at the same rate, as are threats and other forms of harassment. The goal is always the same – to get the journalists or media outlets to stop working or put themselves at the service of Russia's propaganda.
Around 50 journalists were held for several hours at a media outlet in Berdiansk on 8 March in an attempt to pressure them into collaborating with the occupying forces, and some of them were roughed up. RSF is currently aware of at least 13 journalists who have been kidnapped or arbitrarily detained by the Russians for periods ranging from a few hours to several days.
The Russian occupiers draw up lists of journalists to be arrested and wage an all-out harassment campaign against them in the areas they occupy. Journalist Svitlana Zalizetska's father was held hostage for three days by the Russians with the aim of forcing her to work for them. Hromadske Radio journalist Viktoria Roshchina disappeared in Berdiansk on 12 March and was not released until ten days later, after being forced to record a video in which she said the Russian armed forces "saved her life" and that she had been "treated well."
Oleg Baturin, a journalist kidnapped by Russian soldiers in Kakhovka (in the Kherson region), was held for eight days and tortured before being released. A Radio France fixer who does not want to be identified suffered a similar fate after being abducted near Kyiv. Dmitro Khiliuk, a journalist who is thought to have been abducted by Russian soldiers on 4 March, is still missing. According to RSF's partner organisation in Ukraine, the Institute of Mass Information (IMI), 14 other journalists are missing in Mariupol.
Abducted and then executed
Some journalists appear to have been executed after abduction. This is the case with Maks Levin, a Ukrainian journalist whose lifeless body was found on 1 April, nearly three weeks after he went missing while out reporting. Two shots to the head with a small-calibre firearm were the cause of death, according to the Ukrainian prosecutor's office.
The Lithuanian documentary filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravicius seems to have been tortured before being murdered. Five days after he was kidnapped by Russian soldiers on 27 March while working on a documentary in Mariupol, his body was found with burn marks and both legs broken. The fact that his clothes were intact makes it unlikely that he was killed by artillery fire. The cause of death appears to have been a gunshot.
According to an IMI report published on 24 May, many media outlets and journalists have received emails or texts threatening them with prosecution, imprisonment, torture or even death with the aim of getting them to stop working or start relaying Russian propaganda. The IMI also reports many cases of cyber-attacks on Ukrainian media, radio signals being interrupted and media websites being closed. Although not classifiable as war crimes, they demonstrate the extent of the Russian offensive against information.
RSF will continue to analyse these cases and refer them to the appropriate Ukrainian and international prosecutors. A sixth complaint to the ICC and Ukraine's prosecutor general is already being prepared.