Reporters Without Borders is very worried by the many attacks on local news media in eastern Ukraine. The ransacking of media offices and intimidation of journalists since the start of the unrest have created a hostile climate that has had a disastrous impact on local media pluralism.
According to IMI, Reporters Without Borders’ Ukrainian partner organization, at least ten journalists have been forced to leave the region.
At the same time, because of the intensity of the information war and the flood of propaganda, the local media have acquired a special status in the public’s eyes.
Oksana Romanyuk, IMI director and Reporters Without Borders representative in Ukraine said: “The local media are regarded as reliable news sources by the population in the eastern regions, which get contradictory messages from the Russian and Ukrainian national media. The local media speak the region’s language, so the public puts more trust in them and has identified with them for some time.”
Because of their status, the local media have become a key challenge for the anti-Kiev rebels, who are very concerned to ensure that they have the local population’s support.
“The local media are on the front line as the militias impose their rule and tension mounts in eastern Ukraine,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “They play a key information role in local life, in which they are immersed, but this makes them all the more vulnerable to pressure."
“The self-proclaimed local authorities, especially those opposed to the government in Kiev, try to silence all sources of criticism in the regions they control. The impact of the threats is forcing a growing number of local journalists to censor themselves, go into hiding or flee in order to protect themselves.”
Bihr added: “We reiterate our call to all parties to respect the work of the media and refrain from attacking them. The existence of local media pluralism providing reliable information and reflecting society’s different viewpoints is indispensible if a lasting political solution is to be found to the situation in eastern Ukraine.”
Ransacking and occupations
There have been at least 11 violent raids on local media offices since the start of March. Their main aim has been to intimidate journalists and get them to adapt their reporting to the demands of the anti-Kiev militias.
Representatives of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk” occupied the premises of the regional TV station Union on 8 May, announcing their intention to “control” the work of its staff. Armed men demanded the removal of all Ukrainian symbols from its premises.
Anti-Kiev rebels blocked the entrance to the newspaper Provintsia in Konstantinovka, a city in the Donetsk region, the same day, and escorted its editor and founder, Mikhailo and Galina Razputko, to their headquarters, where they told the two journalists that they “no longer work for the newspaper.”
Vladimir Averin, a journalist who supports the self-proclaimed “People’s Republic of Donetsk,” was appointed as the newspaper’s new editor two days later. This was the third time the rebels had targeted Provintsia. They seized all copies of the latest edition as they came off the presses on 30 April. And Molotov cocktails were thrown at its offices, badly damaging one room, eight days later, after Razputko received threats.
In many cases, the identity of the assailants is not known. Eight masked individuals armed with bats ordered the staff of the 62-ua news website in Donetsk on 25 April not to describe the self-proclaimed local authorities as “separatists,” to relay their appeals for donations, and to publish nothing without their consent.
Fifty masked men stormed into the offices of the local television station ATN in Kharkiv on 7 April and announced to the journalists that they would henceforth “control” their activities. The intruders destroyed computer material, damaged offices and personally threatened the station’s CEO, Oleg Yukhta.
When media try to continue working as normal despite such “warnings,” the reprisals may include the destruction of their offices. Around 50 masked men methodically ransacked the premises of the newspaper Hornyak in Torez, in the Donetsk region, on 6 May.
According to IMI and the newspaper’s staff, representatives of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk” had threatened Gornyak with reprisals if it did not announce the referendum on self-determination that was organized in the region on 11 May. The editor had refused to comply with their demands. Three individuals used Molotov cocktails to set light to the offices of the local newspaper Pro Gorod in the same town on 18 April.
Although the attacks are intensifying, the local media have been subjected to pressure for months. In March, before the anti-Kiev rebels had taken over the main government buildings and created parallel institutions and militias, local journalists were already being harassed by activists demanding favourable coverage of their actions.
Anti-Kiev activists interrupted live broadcasts by local TV station Simon in Kharkiv on 1 March and by local TV station Donbas in Donetsk on 5 March. In the Kharkiv incident, Simon’s journalists were temporarily forced to retransmit the Russian TV station Rossiya 24 instead of their own programmes.
Intimidation and violence against journalists
Aside from the security problems affecting all journalists in the region, some journalists have been specifically targeted because of their work or their political views.
Yevgen Polozhy, the editor of the local newspaper Panorama, who is known for his pro-Maidan views, was attacked and beaten in the garage of his home in Sumy, in the Kharkiv region, on 15 April, and had to be hospitalized with head injuries and an open fracture to the hand.
Gunmen opened fire on the home of Roman Landik, the owner of local TV station IRTA and a Party of the Regions representative on the municipal council, in Lugansk on 6 May, after the station had been taking a pro-government position.
“Lugansk is completely controlled by pro-Russian gunmen, who have a negative attitude towards Ukrainian journalists, even if they are from our region,” Reporters Without Borders was told by Andrei Dikhtyarenko, the editor of the local newspaper Real’naya Gazeta. “The rebels only cooperate with Russian reporters.”
On 14 April, seven masked men forcibly escorted Oleksander Bilinski, the editor of the Horlovka.ua news website, to the police station of Horlovka, where several hundred people were gathered outside. Accused of describing the rebels as “terrorists,” he was released only after a tense public explanation. At least two local news providers, Serhiy Shapoval and Artem Deynega, were held hostage for three weeks by anti-Kiev rebels in the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Sloviansk.
Self-censorship and exile – is local journalism disappearing?
An increasingly suffocating climate of intimidation and self-censorship is taking hold in the Donbas (Donetsk and Lugansk) region and some media have chosen to temporarily close their offices in order to be less exposed to harassment.
In Donetsk, the news website OstroV’s journalists have been working at home since 12 May. In Horlovka, the head of the regional TV station Smena, Oleh Poplavski, decided to suspend its operations on 15 April.
As well as suspending their activities, some journalists have been forced to go into hiding or flee the Donbas region altogether for their safety’s sake. Most of the staff of Moi Gorod, a news website based in Severodonetsk, fled the region on 13 May because they were in danger of being kidnapped. One is reportedly still there, but in hiding.
Oleksiy Matsuka, the editor of the Novosti Donbasa news website, had to flee Donetsk in mid-April after his photo was circulated with the words “Attention, traitor” and his car was set on fire. The editor of the Horlovka.ua news site also reported at the time that many of his journalists had fled the city to escape harassment.