Kiev, February 25, 2019–The Committee to Protect Journalists today expressed concern for the safety of journalists working at Ukraine’s Schemes and Bihus.Info investigative journalism outlets after both reported being followed and surveilled last week, and called on authorities to swiftly investigate the matter.
On February 22, Schemes, an investigative journalism TV program within the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Ukrainian service, published a report detailing how reporter Mykhailo Tkach and his cameraman were followed in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev. Using a state vehicle registration database, the report identified the vehicles used in the surveillance as belonging to a security company owned by Rinat Akhmetov, a Ukrainian billionaire and former member of parliament. Schemes said that the surveillance likely stemmed from their reporting on the close ties between Akhmetov and the national leadership.
Also on February 22, Denis Bihus, editor-in-chief of the Kiev-based independent investigative news outlet Bihus.Info, wrote on Facebook that he and members of his reporting team noticed several unidentified people monitoring their activity from outside their Kiev office starting on February 20. Bihus wrote that the monitoring began after Bihus.Info sent requests for comment to law enforcement bodies in relation to an investigative article alleging corruption within Ukraine’s defense industry.
“Following and monitoring the work of journalists is clearly designed to intimidate the press and is unacceptable,” said CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, Gulnoza Said, in New York. “Those behind the surveillance of journalists from Schemes and Bihus.Info must stop, and Ukrainian authorities must conduct an investigation to find out who is responsible for it and hold them accountable.”
In its report published on February 22, Schemes interviewed Ukrainian media lawyers who reviewed video evidence of the surveillance and said it appeared to constitute interference in the group’s journalistic activities, a criminal offense under Ukrainian law. Schemes Editor-in-Chief Natalie Sedletska told CPJ that she and her team were making the surveillance public in the hope that it would reduce the pressure on the journalists.
In a statement broadcast on February 24 on the Ukraina television channel, which Akhmetov owns, the security company said it “denies any allegations of tracking” made by Schemes, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Ukrainian service reported. The statement accused the Schemes journalists of “interfering with the private life of a private person and collecting information illegally.”
CPJ’s attempts to reach an Akhmetov spokesperson by phone and email were unsuccessful.
Schemes was previously targeted by the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office, which obtained a court order in September 2018 to access Sedletska’s phone records in an attempt to discover source information, as CPJ reported at the time.
Bihus suggested in his Facebook post that the people surveilling the Bihus.Info office could be from the Ukrainian security services, the prosecutor general’s office, or the National Anti-Corruption Bureau; however, CPJ could not independently verify these claims. Those offices did not respond to CPJ’s emailed requests for comment.
Bihus did not respond to emailed requests from CPJ for further information.