Russian actor condemned for wearing press insignia and firing weapons

Russian actor Mikhail Porechenkov has joined basketball star Dennis Rodman, who declared North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un his best friend, and Jennifer Lopez who sang “Happy Birthday Mr. President” to the authoritarian leader of Turkmenistan, on the list of celebrities who have made human rights faux pas.

On Thursday, the actor was filmed visiting pro-Russia rebels in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. His actions though, have far more dangerous consequences than those of Rodman or Lopez.

In a video released by the separatist television channel Novorossia (translated as New Russia), Porechenkov was seen wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet marked Press while visiting armed rebels on the front line–described in the video as the besieged Donetsk airport. Asked about the purpose of his visit, Porechenkov said he had come to express his support to separatists, and to witness the events there. Moments later, he accepted an offer to fire a heavy machinegun aimed at the other side of the conflict, his unnamed companion said during a press conference recorded and aired by another separatist mouthpiece, ANNA News.

While it is not clear from the video if Porechenkov was aiming at any target, the video of an actor wearing press insignia triggered outrage from journalists worldwide.

The Russian Union of Journalists and Dunja Mijatović, the freedom of the media representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) released statements today condemning Porechenkov’s actions, and demanding a public apology. We support them, and here’s why.

The Geneva Convention’s measures for protecting journalists in times of war designates them as civilians and requires their protection by all sides in a conflict. But for that safety to be ensured, the lines of who is and isn’t a journalist cannot be blurred.

This coming Sunday–November 2–marks the first United Nations-backed International Day to End Impunity in Crimes Against Journalists. To coincide with the event, the Committee to Protect Journalists released its report “The Road to Justice.” The report found that conflict was the backdrop to some of the most entrenched cases of impunity, and that journalists working in such environments are exposed to immense risks. Already this year six journalists and media workers–five Russian and one Italian–have died while covering the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Porechenkov has claimed that his front-line visit was staged, and that he was using blank cartridges–something that separatists and military experts denied. He also claimed that he was not aware of what protective gear he had been using.

The press corps were outraged by the incident, and Mijatović said that by dressing in press insignia and firing a weapon Porechenkov had put journalists in conflict zones at grave risk.

While the actor may not have been aware of how his actions would be interpreted, we agree with Pavel Gusev, editor of the Moscow-based newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, who said in an interview today that Porechenkov had no right to dress as a reporter and shoot an automatic weapon. As Mijatović said: “This is a deplorable and shameful abuse of press insignia. It puts journalists in conflict zones at grave risk and it is detrimental to all efforts made to protect members of the media. Journalists’ safety is paramount and press insignias are one of the few measures they can take to ensure their safety in conflict zones.”

Porechenkov should publicly apologize, foremost to the families of those journalist and media workers who have died while covering the conflict. And to those who will continue risking their lives to bring the public information from eastern Ukraine and other dangerous areas.