April 25 2014

In Ukraine, Journalists in Peril

National Review

Jillian Kay Melchior

An American journalist reporting in Ukraine was freed on April 24 after being held hostage by Russian separatists. Simon Ostrovsky, a reporter for Vice News, had been in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk on April 22 when masked men abducted him at gunpoint.

Ostrovsky is a fairly well-known journalist, and his kidnapping garnered lots of media attention. But Russian separatists and militants continue to abduct lesser-known reporters, conducting an escalating campaign of intimidation against the independent media in eastern Ukraine. As the international press stays largely silent about these abductions, journalists remain in captivity and in danger.

Right now, at least two Ukrainian journalists, as well as a writer-activist, are missing in eastern Ukraine, almost certainly in the hands of pro-Russia militants. And in the past week, journalists from Belarus, France, and Italy were also abducted by pro-Russia separatists and then released.

Nina Ognianova, the program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), tells me, “These attacks on the media are clearly intended not just as a message to the victims of these attacks but also as a warning to all journalists not to report independently on the region.”

Sergiy Lefter, a 24-year-old journalist from Vinnytsia, Ukraine, went missing on April 16. He was traveling throughout eastern Ukraine freelancing for ipress.ua and working as a voluntary observer and correspondent for the Warsaw-based Open Dialog Foundation, his friends say.

Agnieszka Piasecka, one of Lefter’s colleagues, tells me through Facebook that she found out about his abduction when “an incognito witness contacted us. This person is too scared to speak at the police station but saw [Sergiy] kept by the separatists and contacted his friends; they alerted us. . . . We know that he is being kept in the basement of a local [Security Service building] in Slovyansk and kept together with other abducted journalists. He allegedly is fine and was not beaten, but it is very hard to get any credible information about him.” Piasecka adds that people have been killed in the region where Lefter was abducted. “It was very hard to us to wait for the identification” of one unrecognized body, though it doesn’t appear now that it was Lefter, she says.

Andriy Gumenchuk, a close friend of Lefter, says that the missing journalist is an “active person,” a vegetarian, and a man who “doesn’t accept manifestations of any [discrimination] (ageism, Nazism, racism, etc).” That’s notable given that pro-Russian insurgents have justified their kidnappings in recent weeks by implying that the reporters seized were extremists, fascists, racists, and ultra-nationalists.

Today, Gumenchuk says he’s deeply concerned about Lefter. “He was seen on March 15 by [another] kidnapped journalist,” he says. “In that moment, Sergiy was tied to the [chair] by sticky tape. His eyes also [were blindfolded]. Now we have the information that he is in tolerable condition. [But] we are all afraid for his safety.”

Lefter’s friends are leading a social-media campaign to call for his release, collecting signatures from journalists around the world.

Also missing is Yevgeny Gapich, a journalist who was working on a story for the Ukrainian newspaper Reporter, as well as his brother Gennady, who was traveling in Horlivka, Ukraine, with him. The CPJ reports that the two men disappeared on April 22, and “[Yevgeny] Gapich had used a code word on the phone that he and his wife used to signal being in danger.”

Meanwhile, earlier this week, unknown assailants burned down a newsroom in the Donetsk region using Molotov cocktails. The CPJ noted that local media have reported that one of the publication’s journalists fled after pro-Russian agitators threatened him.

The increasing harassment and targeting of journalists in Ukraine deserves more attention than it has received. Russian troops or pro-Russian separatists are attempting to control the story from eastern Ukraine. That’s hardly surprising, given the outsize role Putin’s propaganda has already played in the crisis in Ukraine, and given Russia’s record as one of the worst places in the world for press freedom. Nevertheless, Russia’s willingness to resort to violence and terrorize journalists reveals exactly the ugliness it is trying to mask.

— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

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