Kiev, February 15, 2018--The Committee to Protect Journalists urges Ukrainian authorities to ensure that journalists at Media Holding Vesti are able to access their office and continue their work without fear of retaliation. Journalists at Media Holding Vesti remain blocked from their newsroom in central Kiev one week after dozens of law enforcement agents raided the office, editor-in-chief Oksana Omelchenko told CPJ.
Omelchenko, head of the company's editorial division, which includes Radio Vesti, the daily newspaper Vesti, and the news website Vesti-ukr, told CPJ today that authorities still have not presented her with a court order or any other legal document authorizing the measures.
She also said that "unknown persons" in law enforcement attire, not police, have been blocking the office for the past week.
Media Holding Vesti has come under scrutiny by Ukrainian authorities for taking what they describe as a pro-Russian editorial line and has previously been raided by government officials, CPJ documented. The company's owner, Oleksandar Klymenko, a former tax minister under ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, is currently being investigated by Ukrainian authorities for fraud. Klymenko denies the allegations.
"We call on Ukrainian authorities to immediately clarify the reasons behind the hostile raid on Media Holding Vesti, ensure that journalists have access to their offices, and take action against whoever has been occupying the newsroom for a week," CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said from New York. "It is outrageous that the Interior Ministry and National Police are shrugging off responsibility for this ongoing obstruction of journalistic activity."
Asked about their presence and the role of the Interior Ministry and National Police forces in the raid and in the current situation at the Vesti newsroom, spokesman for both of those agencies Artem Shevchenko said, "It's not our issue." He added that control of the situation around Vesti had been passed to the National Assets Recovery and Management Agency (ARMA), and that police officers sometimes assist the agency by securing the area in which they operate.
Shevchenko referred CPJ to ARMA for answers to further questions. ARMA could not be reached for comment and did not immediately respond to emailed questions.
Omelchenko told CPJ that Vesti has critically reported on the activities of ARMA, which was created as part of the Ukraine's fight against corruption. But, she said, she did not believe any specific article was behind the authorities' actions against the media holding.
"The problem," Omelchenko said, "is that the authorities, in general, do not like Vesti as an opposition resource, which raises uncomfortable issues while the newspaper has one of the largest circulations in the country." She said the pressure on Vesti has increased in the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019.
Dozens of law enforcement agents from the National Police and main military prosecutor's office raided Vesti's offices on February 8, seizing equipment and destroying property in the process, CPJ documented. Omelchenko said many of the journalists have since been unable to recover personal belongings left inside the newsroom, and she fears much of the office property has been "destroyed and looted."
She said journalists are working from home but at least half of them are doing so without the equipment needed to perform their duties. Radio Vesti chief editor Andriy Blinov said that his journalists are able to broadcast from a reserve studio, the Institute of Mass Information reported.
During a press conference on February 14, Vesti's lawyer, Alexander Dulsky, declared his intention to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in connection to the raid against the media holding.