Russian forces detained former journalist Iryna Levchenko in Melitopol, Ukraine, in early May. (Photo: National Union of Journalists of Ukraine)

Russian soldiers detain former journalist Iryna Levchenko in southeastern Ukraine

Paris, June 2, 2023 – Russian authorities should immediately release Iryna Levchenko and stop detaining current and former members of the press in occupied areas of Ukraine, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

In early May, Russian forces detained Levchenko and her husband, Oleksandr, in the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol, in southeast Ukraine, according to multiple media reports and reports by the Institute of Mass Information local press freedom group and the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine, or NUJU, a local trade group. Levchenko’s relatives lost contact with her on May 5 and asked not to publicize her detention until May 30, as they hoped she and her husband would be released, those reports said.

Levchenko worked for years as a reporter for several Ukrainian news outlets, and retired from journalism after Russian forces occupied Melitopol in late February 2022, according to those reports and NUJU head Sergiy Tomilenko, who spoke to CPJ. She had not worked in any capacity since then, and her husband is also retired and did not work as a journalist.

Tomilenko told CPJ that Levchenko had stopped her work for “security reasons” and that the NUJU “connect(s) her detention exclusively with her journalistic background.” He said she and her husband face extremism charges and their whereabouts were unknown.

CPJ emailed the Russian-controlled Melitopol administration for comment about their detention and for information about the charges against Levchenko and her husband, but did not receive any reply. Russian authorities have repeatedly detained journalists in Ukraine since first occupying Crimea in 2014.

“Russian forces have already crushed any independent reporting in the territories they occupy in Ukraine, and by abducting retired journalist Iryna Levchenko they are escalating this repression,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Russian authorities must disclose Levchenko and her husband’s whereabouts at once, release them, and ensure that journalists do not become victims of arbitrary detention under their rule.”

Both Iryna and Oleksandr have health issues, according to those reports, which did not specify the nature of those issues.

According to NUJU’s branch in the region of Zaporizhzhia, which includes Melitopol, the pair were held in “inhumane conditions, almost without food, in a cold basement, on a concrete floor” and were “subjected to physical and psychological torture.” Iryna was later transferred to an undisclosed location, according to that report.

Tomilenko told CPJ that Levchenko worked as a reporter covering local news and social issues for the Noviy Den local newspaper, local news website Mltpl.City, and national newspaper Fakty i Kommentarii.

“I know Iryna Levchenko personally; she is a professional journalist with a good reputation,” Tomilenko told CPJ.

CPJ emailed the Russian Ministry of Defense for comment but did not receive any reply.

Russia held at least 19 journalists, including seven Ukrainian journalists, in detention when CPJ conducted its most recent prison census on December 1, 2022.