In Ukraine, another journalist missing, newsroom destroyed

New York, April 23, 2014–Three local and international journalists are missing or being held hostage in eastern Ukraine, while unidentified assailants burned down the offices of a newspaper. The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Ukrainian authorities to ensure the safety of journalists covering the crisis. 

“All sides in Ukraine’s continuing crisis are responsible for ensuring the safety and well-being of journalists. We call on anyone holding a journalist against his or her will to release them immediately,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “These attacks on the media are clearly intended not just as a message to the victims but as a warning to all journalists not to report independently on the region.”

Ukrainian photojournalist Yevgeny Gapich has not been heard from since speaking to his family on Tuesday morning from the eastern Ukrainian city of Horlivka, according to the independent Ukrainian news website Telekritika. Gapich had used a code word on the phone that he and his wife used to signal being in danger. News reports said the journalist was accompanied by his brother, Gennady Gapich. Both have stopped responding to phone calls.

Gapich had traveled to eastern Ukraine on Thursday on assignment for the independent Ukrainian newspaper Reporter. His assignment was funded by a grant from Telekritika. He was also contributing to the independent news website Vikna (Windows), reports said. In his latest report for Vikna, Gapich said that separatists from the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic had replaced Ukrainian flags with separatist flags in government buildings in the city of Artyomovsk in Donetsk region.

Two other journalists have been abducted or reported missing in eastern Ukraine. U.S. journalist Simon Ostrovsky of VICE News is being held by pro-Russian separatists in the eastern city of Sloviansk. Sergei Lefter, Ukrainian correspondent for the Warsaw-based Open Dialogue Foundation, has been missing since last week, according to the foundation.

Today, CPJ spoke to Stella Khorosheva, spokeswoman for the self-declared mayor of Sloviansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, who had earlier confirmed holding Ostrovsky in a pre-trial facility. Khorosheva told CPJ that Ostrovsky was detained by military units on suspicion of carrying out subversive activities and of covering the situation in Sloviansk from only one side.

Khorosheva told CPJ that Ostrovsky “is safe, alive, well fed, and working on an exclusive story” in detention. Khorosheva said Ponomaryov had vowed to release Ostrovsky “when the time comes.” She said the journalist has not been charged with a crime.

Also on Tuesday, unknown assailants threw Molotov cocktails at the newsroom of the local newspaper Provintsiya (Province) in the eastern city of Konstantinovka, in Donetsk region, Telekritika reported. The newsroom burned down. One of Provintsiya‘s journalists, Vladimir Berezin, was forced to leave the region today after receiving threats from pro-Russia activists, according to the Ukrainian news website Gazeta which cited one of Berezin’s colleagues as well as a friend.

Mikhail Razputko, Provintsiya‘s editor, told Gazeta that prior to the attack, an unidentified man called the paper and told the staff that they would face consequences if they continued reporting critically on the Donetsk People’s Republic. On Friday, the newsroom’s front door was painted with “Enough lying!” and “Here you can sign up for membership in Pravy Sector,” a reference to a Ukrainian far-right political party, news reports said.

In the last few weeks, armed pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine have raided and taken over government buildings, including police stations, demanded a referendum on the status of their region within the country, and called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to send troops. They are suspected as perpetrators in a series of attacks against local and international journalists and have been obstructing local broadcasters and cable companies.