Separatists in eastern Ukraine target journalists in all-out information war

They came at 3:30 in the morning, with bats and molotov cocktails, smashing windows and trying to burn the newspaper office down. A few days later, someone spray-painted graffiti on the building warning the handful of journalists who work here to leave the city.

Finally, a van carrying about half the newspaper’s weekly 7,000-copy print run was seized at a checkpoint manned by pro-Russian militants. Every copy was confiscated because the paper did not toe the separatist line.

But Galina Razput’ko, the feisty owner of the weekly Provintsia newspaper in the small industrial city of Konstantinovka in eastern Ukraine, was not so easily cowed. She went back to the printers and asked for more copies.

“Of course we are afraid, but we have some dignity inside us,” she said in an interview in the Soviet-built apartment where she lives with her 87-year-old mother.

Since pro-Russian militants have taken control of several areas in eastern Ukraine, and as a referendum on independence from Ukraine looms, journalists say there has been a systematic campaign to shut down opposing ­voices and substitute pro-Russian propaganda.

The fight for the eastern Ukrainian city of Slaviansk continues to unfold, despite mounting losses, mostly on the side of pro-Russian separatists. (Reuters)

It has become an all-out information war, waged by both sides but particularly, and most violently, by the separatists. Vladimir Berezin, a journalist, environmentalist and human rights activist who writes for Provintsia, fled town when the social media campaign against him grew increasingly abusive, with one Facebook post warning, “You won’t have to wait much longer — you’ll be the first one to be executed.”

In the nearby separatist stronghold of Slovyansk, freelance photo­journalist Yevhen Hapych was among several people taken prisoner by the rebels. He was blindfolded and, as a knife was held to his throat, told he had two hours to live. Hapych, under suspicion because he came from the more pro-Europe western Ukraine, was released after three days in a cold, damp cell, he said in a TV interview.

At least two other journalists have disappeared into the same cells: Andrey Deyneka, a freelance video journalist, and Sergey Lefter, a reporter from Lviv in western Ukraine. “Still we have no information about them,” said Oleg Zontov, editor of the Slavinfo news Web site in Slovyansk.

One of Zontov’s reporters, 20-year-old student Roman Guba, hid in a dark room when armed men came looking for him in his university dorm. He later fled town.

Zontov has stopped issuing his newspaper, although the Web site remains active.

“The so-called authorities are following everybody who does not write the truth as they understand it,” Zontov said. “Already there are phone calls and visits to local journalists to not name these guys as separatists, terrorists or militants — to provide only the information they wanted to be published. And it’s just the beginning.”

The big prize is control of the airwaves. In the eastern city of Donetsk, armed activists wearing balaclavas seized a television building last month and replaced Ukrainian news broadcasts with Russian ones. A week or so later, the Ukrainian army seized control of the TV towers outside Donetsk, Kramotorsk and Slovyansk: Off went Russian broadcasts and back came Ukrainian news.

But these days, most people seem to be consuming just the news that reinforces their prejudices.

On Russian media, western Ukraine is reported as a hotbed of fascists determined to oppress Russian speakers in the east. When a pro-Russian mob attacked a peaceful pro-Ukrainian rally in Donetsk on April 28, the Itar-Tass news agency turned the news on its head. A peaceful crowd had been singing Russian patriotic songs and chanting anti-Nazi slogans, the Russian report alleged, when they were attacked by Ukrainian extremists armed with bats, chains and hand grenades. It was a breathtaking inversion of the truth, but many in eastern Ukraine believe that Russian media are the only source of honest reporting.

“The idea that information has value is clear to both sides,” said Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch. “On both sides, the effort to prevent objective journalism has been quite obvious. When you are fighting a PR war, the people who are reporting the truth are your first targets.

Some of those facing violence and threats are expressly pro-European, pro-Ukrainian journalists who supported the protests that ousted pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych in February. They are people like Tatyana Zarovnaya, who fled Donetsk after police tipped her off that separatist thugs were about to visit her home. “In Donetsk, the only journalists that are left are those who do not interest the separatists,” she said. “They have my pictures and personal data, and [those] of my colleagues, at the checkpoints.”

But other targets of intimidation say they simply favor democracy and free speech. That, they say, is enough to put them at odds with the separatists.

“I have friends from both sides and luckily received information that armed people are going to my flat,” said Kirill Sazonov, editor of the Doneskie.com Web site. “I ran away the same second, took my kids from school and my wife from her work, and drove to another city.”

Neistat said the campaign to intimidate journalists dates to the anti-Yanukovych Maidan protests, when more than 70 journalists were hit by rubber bullets or stun grenades or beaten up, largely by police.

But evidence has emerged of violence directed toward reporters by pro-Ukrainian activists as well. Two journalists were shot during clashes in the Black Sea port of Odessa on Friday. Anton Dotsenko, a reporter for the pro-Russia Timer magazine, said he was shot in the arm and the leg as he stood by a road taking photos and videos of the tumult. “I saw the people shooting me were pro-Ukrainian activists,” he said.

A few minutes after the attack on Dotsenko, Oleg Konstantinov of the news Web site Dumskaya suffered a shrapnel wound in his leg. “Just when two men were carrying me away from the scene, I was shot in my back and my arm,” he said, adding that Dumskaya had not supported the Maidan protests but had become pro-Ukrainian after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March.

“My assailants were from the pro-Ukrainian crowd, but I don’t think they had intentions to shoot me personally. Aggression and hate are boiling over in Odessa on both sides, and reporters with cameras have now become the target,” Konstantinov said.

In Konstantinovka, Razput’ko reported the theft of her newspapers to police, who shrugged off her complaint. “They didn’t take your newspaper for personal profit,” they told her. “They just have these political beliefs.”

The self-appointed separatist mayor of the city, a former driver named Roman Surmay, was even less polite. “Next time, we will act more roughly with you,” he said.

Anna Nemtsova in Odessa contributed to this report.

Simon Denyer is The Post’s bureau chief in China. He served previously as bureau chief in India and as a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, India and Pakistan.
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