Ukraine's SBU security service officers are seen in Kyiv on May 11, 2021. SBU officers have recently questioned journalists seeking accreditation from the country's military. (AFP/Anatolii Stepanov)

Ukraine journalists say opaque accreditation process hampers war coverage

Paris, June 9, 2023—Ukrainian authorities should ensure that journalists covering the war are not pressured over their reporting and must set clear and transparent qualifications for press accreditation, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

Since March, officers with Ukraine’s SBU security service have repeatedly questioned journalists seeking accreditation from the country’s military and others have been pressured to take certain approaches in their reporting, according to multiple media reports and six journalists who spoke to CPJ.

“Articles and broadcasts from outlets including NBC News, The New York Times, CNN, The New Yorker, and the Ukrainian digital broadcaster Hromadske have led to journalists having their credentials threatened, revoked, or denied over charges they’ve broken rules imposed by Ukrainian minders,” wrote Ben Smith in Semafor.

In at least two cases, SBU officers asked journalists to take lie detector tests. CPJ is aware of one journalist, Ukrainian freelance photographer Anton Skyba, who as of June 8 had not received an accreditation decision after being interviewed twice by the SBU since April.

Journalists told CPJ that they could not cover the frontlines of the war or many other topics in the country without accreditations.

“Ukrainian authorities should renew journalist Anton Skyba’s accreditation immediately and allow him to continue covering the war in the country,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Asking journalists to take lie detector tests is an intimidatory practice and should be stopped at once. Authorities must establish a more transparent process for granting accreditation to members of the press seeking to cover the conflict.”

Under new accreditation rules adopted by the military in March, journalists were required to reapply for a six-month accreditation by May 1.

Skyba, who reports for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, told CPJ that he applied for accreditation for himself and eight Canadian-citizen coworkers in early March. His colleagues all received their accreditation, many within a week.

Skyba told CPJ that during his first interview on April 28, SBU officers asked him about his previous travel to Russia, Belarus, and Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine, his connections to those areas, and whether his parents, who live in the occupied area of Donetsk, had Russian passports.

Skyba described the meeting as “easy-going” and said the SBU officer told him that “everything is fine” and he would receive a response in a few days. However, after he had not received his accreditation by early May, the Globe and Mail sent a letter to the president’s office, which arranged a second meeting between Skyba and the SBU on May 19.

At that meeting, Skyba told CPJ, SBU officers were harsher and “started bombing” him with questions. Officers alleged that Skyba had a Russian passport, which he denied, and asked him about his contacts with officials of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic in charge of issuing accreditations to work from separatist-controlled territories. In 2014, Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk held Skyba hostage for five days.

“Of course I know those people, they are the only point of contact for journalists to get formal accreditation from the separatist side to perform journalist’s duties,” Skyba told CPJ. “It displays that they just don’t understand how the journalists work.”

SBU officers also told Skyba that they could not find tax records concerning his contract with the Globe and Mail and said they had no proof he worked for the outlet.

“My work is published every day in the newspaper,” Skyba said, who was nominated for Canada’s National Newspaper Awards in 2022 for his work in Ukraine. He said he planned to file his tax declarations as soon as possible.

“I don’t see you as an enemy, but I’m not sure that your job is aligned with the national interests of Ukraine,” Skyba said he was told by one of the officers. Skyba told CPJ he responded, “It’s not your job to judge my journalism.”

At the end of the May 19 interview, an SBU officer asked Skyba whether he would be willing to take a lie detector test, which the officer said was the SBU’s “standard counter-intelligence measure.” Skyba said he considered the request to be an attempt at intimidation, and did not take the test.

On May 27, the president’s office said it would organize a meeting with its representatives, Skyba, Global and Mail Ukraine correspondent Mark MacKinnon, and representatives from the SBU. That meeting had not taken place as of June 8.

CPJ is aware of at least one other Ukrainian journalist who was asked by the SBU to take a lie detector test. That journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, said he refused to take the test and later received his accreditation anyway.

Another Ukrainian journalist working for a Western media outlet told CPJ on the condition of anonymity that he received his accreditation after being questioned by SBU officers about his previous trips to Russian-occupied territories and his contacts with Russian security services.

That journalist said an SBU officer implied that he could receive his accreditation if he agreed to become an informant for the security services.

“They said that as a good citizen, I should inform them about my contacts with the FSB [Russian security services] and the separatists,” the journalist told CPJ. “I replied that as a journalist, I should [only] inform my editors and my readers, and make public reports.”

Skyba similarly said that he believed the SBU officers were “trying to find any weak spots, someone who is weak can be convinced to cooperate with them.”

Jaanus Piirsalu, an Estonian correspondent with daily newspaper Postimees, told CPJ that he received his accreditation after an informal conversation with SBU representatives about his 2017 trip to Russian-occupied Crimea.

 “SBU thought that I was there via Russia and so I have violated the Ukrainian law. But in fact I had all the permissions from Ukraine and I went in and out via Ukraine,” he told CPJ. After he proved that he had entered Crimea legally, the SBU officers returned his accreditation in about three hours, he said.

Piirsalu told CPJ that he “welcomed the fact that the SBU admitted their mistake” in misunderstanding his trip, but said it took over a month to find the “right people” to ensure his accreditation was renewed. He said that, while it was “quite normal that sometimes the special services have questions to the journalist, especially in war time” he hoped that communications about renewing accreditations could be improved.

In an unsigned email to CPJ, a representative with the Public Affairs Department of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said that since the adoption of the new accreditation rules, “only one” accreditation was canceled “because of a rude violation of the rules of work of a media representative in the combat zone” and that the cancellation was “not related in any way to the report content.” The representative said the military had approved 90% of accreditation requests, and that accreditations were issued “as fast as possible.”

They referred questions about the SBU’s involvement in accreditation to the security service. CPJ emailed the SBU and the president’s office for comment but did not receive any reply.

The representative said that journalists “who do not perform professional tasks in the units of the defense forces and do not visit combat areas” could work in Ukraine without military accreditation.

However, the Ukrainian journalist working for a Western media outlet told CPJ that journalists were so frequently asked to show accreditation even outside of combat areas that it would be very difficult to work without one, saying it had become “sort of the new journalistic press card.” Skyba similarly said it was very difficult to perform his job without accreditation.

Separately, on May 15, a military press officer called Maxim Dondyuk, a freelance Ukrainian documentary photographer who reports for Time magazine, The New Yorker, and the German weekly Der Spiegel, and threatened to cancel his accreditation over his reporting from the frontline city of Bakhmut.

Dondyuk told CPJ that the officer said he would be “punished as a traitor of the motherland.” Dondyuk said he had not received any notification about changes to his accreditation as of June 8.

“Now press officers only want the international media and all Ukrainian media to do only Ukrainian propaganda,” Dondyuk said. “I think you should be able to talk not only about [the] good, but also complicated situations.”

Skyba told CPJ that military press officers sometimes interfered with reporting.

“If a soldier tells me ‘I hate this war so much,’ the press officer asks him to reply ‘yes the war is hard, but we are keeping our spirits up,’” Skyba said.

 “They are dying in the trenches, and [they] cannot share their experience?” Dondyuk added.

On June 7, Natalia Humeniuk, the head of the Joint Coordination Press Center for the Operational Command South, one of four regional commands, told the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine that journalists must have military accreditation to cover the June 6 collapse of a major dam and hydro-electric power plant in Kherson region.

“It sounds concerning that the process of accreditation is not transparent, because some of my colleagues received their accreditation very quickly and some have been waiting for months, without ability to work in the frontline or even in Kyiv on crime scenes,” Katerina Sergatskova, chief editor of Ukrainian independent news outlet Zaborona, told CPJ.

In August 2022, Matilde Kimer, a reporter with Danish public broadcaster DR was stripped of her accreditation with Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense for allegedly producing Russian propaganda. In late 2022, authorities stripped several Ukrainian and international correspondents of their accreditation over their coverage of the liberation of Kherson.