Bodyguards are seen while harassing journalists with the independent Ukrainian newspaper Ukrainska Pravda. (Screenshot: Ukrainska Pravda/YouTube)

Ukrainian journalist Yaroslav Bondarenko threatened by businessman’s bodyguards, footage deleted

Paris, February 17, 2022 — Ukrainian authorities should thoroughly investigate the recent harassment of journalist Yaroslav Bondarenko and ensure that members of the media can work safely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday.

On the afternoon of Sunday, February 13, a group of five men approached Bondarenko, a camera operator for the independent newspaper Ukrainska Pravda, at an airport in the eastern city of Dnipro, forced him at knifepoint to unlock his phone, and deleted months’ worth of photos and videos from his device, according to Ukrainska Pravda reporter Mykhailo Tkach, who was at the scene and wrote about the encounter on Facebook and posted video of it to YouTube, and Sevgil Musaeva, the newspaper’s chief editor, who spoke with CPJ in a phone interview.

The men did not identify themselves at the time, but Musaeva told CPJ that Ukrainska Pravda was able to confirm that they were bodyguards escorting Alexander Petrovsky, a well-known local businessman. She added that police officers nearby witnessed the attack but did not detain the men or react to what was happening.

Musaeva described the events as “a big stress” for her team and expressed her “hope for a clear investigation.” On the evening of February 13, authorities announced that criminal investigations had been opened into the suspected obstruction of journalists’ professional activities and threats or violence against journalists, according to the Dnipropetrovsk regional prosecutor’s office, which has jurisdiction over Dnipro, and a statement by the Ukrainian National Police, which CPJ reviewed.

“The harassment of Ukrainska Pravda camera operator Yaroslav Bondarenko is shocking, and must be thoroughly investigated,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “The criminal proceedings launched by Ukrainian authorities must proceed quickly and transparently, and all those responsible must be held to account.”

Bondarenko was filming near the airport’s VIP terminal, where he planned to cover the arrival of guests to an oligarch’s birthday party, when three armed bodyguards working for Petrovsky, one of the guests, confiscated his phone, according to Musaeva and Tkach’s video. Two other men then joined the scene, and one pulled out a knife and threatened to stab Bondarenko if he did not give his password to unlock his phone.

Once Bondarenko complied, the man with the knife deleted not just his videos and photos from that day, but six months’ worth of videos and photos, according to an interview Tkach gave with the local outlet AP News.

One of the other men twisted the arms of Ukrainska Pravda driver Sergiy Ishenko, according to reports, which said he did not sustain any significant injuries.

Commenting on the incident, Prosecutor General Irina Venediktova said on Facebook that the case was “under her control” and that “the reaction will be adequate.”

Dnipro Mayor Borys Filatov called for state leaders not to allow the case “to be silenced,” and promised to give Ukrainska Pravda all possible information from nearby surveillance cameras. Musaeva told CPJ that Ukrainska Pravda had not obtained access to that footage, adding that said she hoped it would be delivered soon, but that they have “received information that it will be a problem.”

On February 16, Ukraine Minister of Internal Affairs Denys Monastyrskyy announced that “all persons involved in the attack had already been identified and will be held accountable in accordance with the law.”

Tkach is the head of Ukrainska Pravda’s Department of Investigative Journalism, whose team is known for its work investigating Ukrainian elite. In August 2020, Tkach’s car was burned and he was allegedly surveilled, as CPJ documented at the time.

CPJ emailed the main Department of the National Police in the Dnipropetrovsk region for comment but did not receive any response. CPJ emailed Petrovsky’s Solidarnost charity group seeking comment from the businessman, but did not immediately receive any reply.