Attacks on journalists persist amid protests in Ukraine

New York, February 5, 2014At least two international journalists reported being abducted and beaten while covering protests in Ukraine on Friday, according to news reports. The attack comes as two local press freedom groups each reported that more than 100 journalists have been attacked or briefly detained since the nationwide protests began in late November.

Nikita Perfilyev, a Russian journalist reporting for the news website Kazanfirst in Russia’s central Republic of Tatarstan, told CPJ that he and Anton Zakharov, a Russian freelance cameraman, had been abducted in Kiev after returning from covering a protest. Three unidentified assailants forced Perfilyev and Zakharov into an unmarked black SUV and took them to an unidentified location where they were beaten and threatened. They were released after a few hours.

Perfilyev told CPJ the assailants broke his front teeth, and told them to stop covering the opposition protests and leave Ukraine immediately. He said the attackers stole their documents and cash. The journalists told the press they had decided to stay in Ukraine and continue to report. They sought medical help immediately after the attack but did not have to be hospitalized.

The attack comes within the same week that two Kiev-based press freedom groups–Institute of Mass Information (IMI) and the National Union of Journalists–released reports on attacks against journalists covering the protests. The journalists’ union reported that more than 100 journalists had been subjected to physical attacks, detentions, and destruction of their property, while IMI put the number at a minimum of 136. IMI also said that in most cases journalists named a Ukrainian riot police unit known as Berkut as the source of the attacks.

“The abduction and beating of Nikita Perfilyev and Anton Zakharov is a brutal act of intimidation that must not go unpunished,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “We call on the authorities to respect the rights of journalists to safely cover the dramatic events unfolding in Ukraine and to hold those responsible for anti-press attacks to account.”

IMI’s report said that at least 54 journalists were directly assaulted by law enforcement agents and that 63 journalists had reported various injuries from rubber bullets, stun grenades, or tear gas. At least 11 journalists were detained, 31 had their reporting equipment damaged, and 21 were assaulted by a group of pro-government provocateurs, the report said.

IMI has consistently updated its report as new events unfold. At least 51 journalists were assaulted while covering the first wave of the protests in early December, and a month later, at least 42 others were attacked–in most cases by stun grenades or rubber bullets–while covering the second wave of demonstrations against government policies.

Protesters occupied the central Maydan square in Kiev in late November after President Viktor Yanukovych reversed his pledge to sign an association agreement with the European Union, and decided instead to build stronger ties with Russia. In mid-January, Yanukovych’s decision to sign a set of restrictive laws–banning protests and re-introducing criminal punishment for libel, among other measures–resulted in escalating violence across the country. Amid the backlash, Ukrainian authorities repealed the legislation on Friday.

“It is hard to see how this difficult period will be resolved if journalists are not able to freely report on all aspects of the dispute,” CPJ’s Ognianova said.

Facing domestic and international outcry over the first wave of assaults in December, Ukrainian authorities publicly announced they had opened a criminal investigation and promised to bring those responsible to justice.

However, according to the independent Kiev-based news website Ukrainska Pravda, local prosecutors are yet to start an investigation into the December 1 beatings. Citing a January 23 reply by the General Prosecutor’s office to the parliamentary inquest regarding the status of the probe, Ukrainska Pravda also said that prosecutors had agreed to investigate only 26 cases.