SLOVYANSK, Ukraine—Russian-backed insurgents in this eastern Ukraine town, a flashpoint in the tug of war between Moscow and Kiev, seized American journalist Simon Ostrovsky on Tuesday, claiming that under the “laws of war” they had the right.
“He was not reporting in a correct way,” said Stella Khoraeva, a former journalist and spokeswoman for the separatist leader Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the pro-Russian militant leader in Slovyansk, a rust belt industrial town on a tributary of the Donets River an hour’s drive from the Russian border.
The Vice News journalist was grabbed at a checkpoint in Slovyansk on Tuesday afternoon.
Initially Ponomaryov, a former Soviet soldier, denied that the Vice News journalist, who holds dual American and Israeli citizenship, had been kidnapped, saying, “Nobody is holding him hostage, he’s with us now at the SBU [intelligence service building], preparing material and working.”
But Khoraeva told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that Ostrovsky’s apprehension was planned. “We knew where he was going, and the men manning the checkpoint were told to look out for him,” she said. She added that Ponomaryov himself was carefully examining the video footage Ostrovsky had with him.
She accused Ostrovsky of reporting in an “incorrect way,” but added he might be released shortly.
Later in the day, though, hopes of a quick release were dashed when Ponomaryov told an ABC News journalist that Ostrovsky’s reporting was one-sided and that he needed to be taught a lesson. He accused Ostrovsky of being an informer for Ukrainian ultranationalists, heightening Western media anxiety about the plight of the reporter.
Ostrovsky is one of several reporters who have been grabbed in recent days in Slovyansk. On Monday, masked gunmen detained Dmitriy Galko, a Belarusian journalist, and Italian and French reporters Paul Gogo and Kossimo Attanasio. The reporters were released shortly after being questioned and having their documents checked.
The seizing of an American reporter was only a matter of time, and the bespectacled and disheveled Ostrovsky was a prime target. He has specialized in provocative and gutsy video reporting the last few weeks in eastern Ukraine and Crimea of separatist militants as they capture government buildings and establish checkpoints. He was briefly held in Crimea.
An American reporter described Ostrovsky’s reporting style as “poking the bear with a video camera and seeing what reaction he gets.”
Tensions have mounted between primarily Western and Ukrainian reporters and the separatists since the weekend. In an hour-long press conference on Monday with Ponomaryov, Slovyansk’s self-declared mayor, reporters were harangued and threatened with retribution if they fail to report the “truth” as far as the militants see it.
“We know who you are; we have taken your names so we can follow who reports the truth and who doesn’t,” announced town councilor Vera Kuprichenko, a stout, unsmiling middle-aged woman.
Ponomaryov stressed, chillingly, that reporters’ coverage was being monitored along with their Twitter feeds and Facebook postings. As a media management approach, the threats and monitoring may be contrary to normal PR strategies, but they are having an unsettling effect, with some Western journalists deterred from entering Slovyansk.
While Western journalists are treated at best with a cold shoulder and denied entry into government buildings controlled by pro-Russian militants, reporters from Russian outlets such as Russia Today and Life News are greeted with open arms. And relations between Russian and Western journalists are anything but cordial, with the Russians upbraiding Americans and Europeans about their coverage.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has called for the immediate release of Simon Ostrovsky.
“I remain deeply concerned about the ongoing negative pattern in relation to journalists’ safety in Ukraine,” said Dunja Mijatović, OSCE representative on freedom of the media. “I call on all those responsible to stop harassing and attacking journalists, and let them do their job. Simon Ostrovsky should be released immediately.”
A Vice News spokesman said via the media outlet’s Twitter feed that it is working to secure Ostrovsky’s safety: “VICE is aware of the situation and is in contact with the U.S. State Department and other appropriate government authorities to secure the safety and security of our friend and colleague, Simon Ostrovsky.”