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Mission Journal: Attacks on journalists in Ukraine lead to information vacuum

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"There are no [independent] Ukrainian journalists left in Donetsk," said Aleksei Matsuka, chief editor of the regional news website Novosti Donbassa (News of Donbass). "They have fled the region since pro-Russia separatists started targeting and kidnapping reporters," Matsuka told CPJ during our brief meeting in Kiev.

Matsuka said that separatists--particularly those from among the local population--know many regional reporters, and have threatened and targeted them in retaliation for their coverage of the conflict with Ukrainian forces. Matsuka knows this firsthand. On an April night, he says, a security camera at Matsuka's apartment building in Donetsk recorded an unidentified man approaching his car, pouring liquid on it, and torching it. Prior to that attack--which prompted Matsuka to flee Donetsk for Kiev--the journalist says he received numerous death threats and one attempt on his life in connection with his reporting.

I visited Ukraine's capital in early July on a CPJ fact-finding mission, and met Matsuka and more than a dozen other local and international reporters to learn firsthand of the press freedom conditions in the country. Since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis in November 2013, CPJ has documented frequent and wide-ranging press freedom abuses, including wholesale attacks on journalists in Kiev by anti-riot police; blocked broadcasting and targeting of local and international reporters during the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea; and numerous cases of obstruction, attacks, abductions, and even killings of journalists in the volatile eastern regions of Ukraine.

As is usually the case with press freedom violations, the ultimate victim is the public. I found that the ongoing attacks on journalists have resulted in a lack of information, leaving people on the ground--especially in the conflict areas and Crimea--in the dark about developments nearby. Those outside the conflict area often receive a distorted picture of the human toll of the ongoing conflict, and have limited understanding of people's needs. Important news, including agreements to establish humanitarian corridors for refugees and progress in peace negotiations, might not reach people in the war zone.

In the eastern part of the country now, Matsuka told me, there are virtually no Ukrainian television or radio broadcasts; most of it was switched off and replaced by Russian television after separatists wrested control of the regional broadcasting center in April. Russian TV, meanwhile, has been accused of spreading lies about Ukraine, carrying Kremlin propaganda, and comparing Ukraine's government to Nazis.

"They [the separatists] have thoroughly wiped clean the media, it was one of the first steps in the ongoing information war," Matsuka said.

His testimony was endorsed by other journalists with whom I spoke in Kiev.

"Separatists see Ukrainian reporters as enemy number one," said another local journalist, who was briefly detained by separatists while reporting in eastern Ukraine, and did not wish to be identified for security reasons. He is one of several journalists to be held by the separatists. Shortly before my trip to Kiev, journalist Anastasiya Stanko and cameraman Ilya Bezkorovainy, both with the Kiev-based online broadcaster Hromadske TV, were detained for two days in the eastern Lugansk region. Speaking about that incident, journalist Mustafa Nayem, their colleague at Hromadske TV, told me, "The separatists knew precisely who they were holding."

While the attacks and detentions on local reporters have kept Ukrainian journalists away, international correspondents can access both sides of the conflict, provided they obtain the required accreditation--denied to Ukrainian journalists--from the self-styled information ministries of the self-declared people's republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, freelancers working for international outlets told CPJ. This unequal treatment of reporters became most visible after the crash of Malaysian Airlines MH17; only a limited number of Ukrainian journalists were able to access the site where the plane was shot down by a suspected missile, and in most cases they concealed their affiliation, local journalists told CPJ. (Last week, separatists in Donetsk issued a wholesale ban on journalists in the conflict area, including the MH17 crash site, and abducted a CNN fixer, though international broadcasters were still reporting from Donetsk on in the following days).

But while international journalists have better access, they told me that Americans are watched closely. In April, Simon Ostrovsky, a reporter with the New York-based news website Vice News, was detained by separatists for two days in the eastern city of Sloviansk. Following his release, Ostrovsky told CPJ that at the time of his detention at an improvised separatists' checkpoint he saw a leaflet with his photograph on it.

Ukrainian authorities have also detained journalists, CPJ research shows; reporters and rights activists agree it's a problem on both sides. But whereas, when dealing with detentions by Ukrainian authorities, journalists and activists know which state official to contact, there is not much clarity on how to address and deal with separatists. Another journalist who traveled to eastern Ukraine described conditions in the ranks of the separatists as anarchy, with armed men behaving according to their mood.

And Ukrainian authorities did not get much praise for their response to abductions by the separatists. Both local and foreign journalists told CPJ that the government does not seem to have a strategy for dealing with such cases. Many described it as "a complete mess," with no agency taking responsibility. According to various accounts, including official statements, separatists hold close to 400 hostages from among local residents. (The official statements say the hostages include three journalists, but they are not named; according to the Kiev-based press freedom group Institute of Mass Information, one journalist being held is Yuri Lelyavsky, a special correspondent for the Lviv-based ZIK media holding company.) There is little understanding of what is being done to free the hostages. A representative of Ukraine's Council on National Security and Defense declined to comment; the National Security Service did not follow up a spokesman's promise to respond to CPJ by email.

Sergei Lefter, a Ukrainian reporter with the Warsaw-based Open Dialogue Foundation, spent 17 days in the separatists' custody in Sloviansk. He told me in Kiev that to his knowledge, the Ukrainian government played little role in winning his release--it was made possible by activists, he said. Neither did the authorities rush to take his statement. Security services eventually got in touch with Lefter, he said, but to his surprise they asked him about the fate of other detainees, not his own case. He also encountered Ukrainian bureaucracy when trying to restore his passport, which had been confiscated by the separatists. "[Corrupt] generals were removed from power, but the system they built is still there," Lefter told CPJ.

Meanwhile, with the Ukrainian media subsumed by the conflict--local journalists often said they know someone fighting the separatists or killed in the conflict--and drawn into an information war with Russia, government actions, or lack thereof, are not receiving critical coverage in the press, journalists told CPJ. Instead of holding the Ukrainian government accountable for its actions, journalists said that many of their colleagues are siding with the authorities under the banner of war. While, unlike under the previous regime, there is no direct censorship, patriotic sentiment is affecting news coverage, local journalists and press freedom defenders told me.

The Institute of Mass Information and news website Telekritika are monitoring Ukrainian media and both highlighted the problem of partiality during our meetings. So did activists with StopFake--a website run by a few journalists who volunteer their time to expose falsehoods spread by Russian and Ukrainian media about developments in the country. But while the watchdogs can discuss professional ethics and standards with local reporters, they said they lack the reach and power to counter the well-funded, wide-reaching propaganda machine of Russia, where independent media has been all but obliterated by the Kremlin.

I do not think they exaggerate the problem: During my stay in Kiev, Russian state-funded broadcaster Pervyi Kanal (Channel One) broadcast a story (still available on its website), featuring what they called a "refugee from Sloviansk." The woman allegedly told Russian journalists that she witnessed how Ukrainian soldiers, just after they recaptured Sloviansk from separatists, crucified a three year old boy and killed his mother by tying her to a tank and dragging her through the city's main square. The soldiers forced Sloviansk residents to the square to witness the crime, the woman allegedly told Channel One. The Moscow-based Novaya Gazeta, one of the few remaining independent newspapers in Russia, sent a correspondent, who interviewed Sloviansk residents on camera and could find no evidence or testimony to back up the woman's claims. But the paper says its circulation is 231,700, and its online reach 12,437,491 visits a month; in contrast, Channel One boasts of an audience of 250 million people worldwide.

The plethora of Russian news outlets available in Ukraine and other countries, including the U.S., through Internet and cable networks, have been producing such stories since the protests in Kiev started in November, and there are no active media watchdogs in Russia to call out lapses in journalistic ethics. As such, pro-Kremlin outlets quickly jumped on the Malaysian Airlines plane crash to misinform their audience, Western journalists reported. Journalists I met in Kiev, both local and foreign, called on the international community to help counter this problem.

They also asked for close monitoring and reporting on the worsening climate for the media in Crimea, where attacks on the press that followed Russian annexation of the region in March pushed independent journalism to the brink of extinction. As a result of raids and attacks on local journalists and broadcasters, documented by CPJ, many reporters fled the region, often leaving relatives and belongings behind, CPJ was told in Kiev.

For example, staff members of Chernomorskaya Teleradiokompaniya (Black Sea TV), an independent, popular broadcaster that aired programming throughout Crimea from its newsroom in the regional capital Simferopol, were forced to pack and leave for Kiev after pro-Russia authorities issued shutdown orders in early March, one of the journalists who fled told CPJ in Kiev. Like exiled reporters everywhere, the journalists were forced to leave behind property-including some reporting equipment in the old Simferopol newsroom, which they don't expect to be able to retrieve, journalists said.

Ukrainian TV channels shared a similar fate--the new authorities shut off their broadcasts, and allocated their airwaves to Russian state TV. Seeing no prospects for doing business under a Russian government, many Ukrainian cable operators have closed their local offices and stopped serving the region. The few left behind, including ATR, a broadcaster owned by Crimean Tatars, and a few newspapers are forced to be cautious in their reporting, journalists said.

And, they said, this is just the beginning of a media and human rights crisis in Crimea: the multitude of draconian laws adopted by the Kremlin since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012 will take effect in Crimea on January 1, 2015. They will choke both the remaining media and civil society groups. "There is a need to monitor violations of all types of civil rights, not only press freedom, in Crimea, and the international community must do so on the ground," another exiled journalist exiled from the region told CPJ.

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