New York, July 14, 2017--Ukrainian authorities should cease harassing journalists and employees of the Vesti media company, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. National police and military prosecutors today raided the Kiev office of Media Holding Vesti, which includes Radio Vesti, the daily newspaper Vesti, and the news website Vesti-ukr.com, according to its editor and Ukrainian officials.
Vesti's editor-in-chief, Oksana Semchenko, wrote on her Facebook page that security forces briefly knocked the radio station's live broadcast off the air. She wrote that the soldiers gathered 30 journalists in a conference room for questioning and searched their mobile phones, including their contacts and messaging applications. Pictures from the raid Semchenko posted on Facebook showed military vehicles outside the building and security forces wearing armor and facemasks searching journalists' bags. The Ukrainian TV station Hromadske reported that 80 officers with machine guns participated in the raid.
"When a military prosecutor sends elite forces with machine guns to raid a radio station's office and search its journalists' mobile phones for contacts and text messages, there can be but one interpretation: This is an attempt at intimidation and a serious threat to press freedom," CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said from Paris. "We call on Ukrainian authorities to cease harassing Radio Vesti journalists and to cease violating the integrity of their communications with sources."
Chief Military Prosecutor Anatoliy Matios, who led the raid, said at the press conference that security forces would today search 183 properties, including the Vesti media group, owned by former minister of income and taxes Oleksandr Klymenko, seeking evidence in a fraud investigation into the former minister. Klymenko fled Ukraine for Russia after former President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from power in 2014. The Ukrainian online news agency UNIAN quoted Minister of Interior Arsen Avakov as saying that Klymenko's assets in Ukraine, which he valued at the equivalent of U.S. $12 billion, were blocked today. The independent Ukrainska Pravda daily published a list of Klymenko's property based on the information Avakov provided to journalists.
Avakov, the interior minister, denied that the media group was targeted for its coverage. "This raid is not about journalistic reports published in various media outlets. It's only about fraud," he said in remarks published by UNIAN.
Klymenko wrote on his Facebook page that he was "surprised" by the raids, calling them an attempt to take over his property for "political reasons."
Today's raids came days after CPJ's Simon and Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova on July 12 launched in Kiev a special report on the July 20, 2016, murder of investigative journalist Pavel Sheremet, who worked at Radio Vesti at the time of his death. Ognianova and Simon met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on July 11. At that meeting, Poroshenko reiterated his commitment to bringing those responsible for Sheremet's murder to justice. He also said the Ukrainian investigators would soon hold a press conference to make the results of their investigation public, according to a statement on the presidency's website.