Ukraine Tries to Terrify Journalists Who Cover the War

Government-backed hackers publish information about reporters supposedly aiding the enemy by talking to people on both sides of the war.

Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

A website affiliated with the Ukraine Security Service (SBU) has published the names, email addresses and phone numbers of all the journalists and media workers who had received press accreditations from the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine.

Since the publication late last week, dozens of war reporters on the list—professionals who have done their jobs through two long, grueling years of conflict, risking abduction, humiliation, and murder—began to get abusive phone calls and messages via email and social media. But Ukrainian security service officials continue to insist that there is nothing wrong with publishing the list.

The published list includes 4,508 journalists from all over the world. Some of those mentioned have suffered in Donetsk detention centers during the conflict, as even the accreditations they had did not help keep them safe. At least six journalists have been killed since the conflict began in 2014.

The first targets for the trolls unleashed by the SBU were Ukrainian journalists. Freelance reporter Roman Stepanovich received a message on his email: “Let you die, a separatist beach! Glory to Ukraine!”

Yekaterina Sergatskova, an anchor at Hramadske TV, felt frustrated: "Now they accuse us of ‘helping the terrorists,’” she told The Daily Beast. “This is a project curated by the SBU and praised by Anton Geraschenko [at the Interior Ministry]. He was the one who originally initiated that project, as far as we understand.”

The principle of press freedom is supposed to be protected by Ukraine’s constitution. Several international groups, including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), condemned the leak and denounced the support it received from Ukrainian state officials.

From the first days of the conflict in Ukraine in April of 2014, each of the media assigning reporters had to apply for an “ATO card,” issued by the Ukrainian security service and a “DPR accreditation,” issued by the self-proclaimed and Russian-backed Donetsk administration.

The paperwork allowed thousands of Western, Russian, and Ukrainian journalists to travel across checkpoints to interview soldiers, officials and devastated, deeply traumatized civilians caught in the crossfire on both sides of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. But many in Ukraine disagreed with the idea that journalists were supposed to cover the war on both sides of the front line.

This new scandal has divided Ukraine’s politicians and law enforcement officials into those who felt ashamed about the published list and those who praised the group, called Myrotvorets (Peacemaker), which brings together dozens of Ukrainian hackers backed by state officials.

Myrotvorets insists that those on the list have been “collaborating with terrorists.” Myrotvorets hackers claim the news coverage of the self-proclaimed DPR supported the agenda of the separatists’ propaganda.

On Tuesday this week, Anton Gerschenko, an adviser for Ukraine’s Ministry of Interior, praised Myrotvorets “patriotic hackers” in a post on Facebook: “Thank you, guys, for everything you have done and will do,” he said.

The CPJ report cites the Geraschenko’s statements along with his recommendations for Ukrainian law enforcement to “impose control over broadcast programming and cable networks, to prevent distribution of information that could destabilize Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity,” as well as “impose control over accreditation of reporters, specifically those from Russia.” Geraschenko was also in favor of “deportation of reporters found in breach of national laws,” and “developing legal and technical resources to block online content that incites to violence and destabilizes Ukraine’s national security.”

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Another senior SBU official, Yuriy Tandit, declared that Ukrainian authorities were planning “to check” some journalists willing to work on the opposite side of the front line. “Such a leak is not dangerous,” Tandit said. “I do not think that it endangers these people, at least not by Ukrainian authorities or law-endorsement structures.” The SBU spokesman also said that Ukraine was not planning to impose sanctions on “honest journalists who tell the truth.”

The outrage among advocates of a free press could be heard around the globe.

“Journalists are not partisans. They are there to cover all sides of stories and conflicts and they must remain free to do so,” said David Weisbrot, the chair of the Australian Press Council. “These kind of acts will have a chilling effect on the willingness of journalists to risk their lives and cover this important story. Just as in the aftermath of World War II we needed international treaties and efforts to allow humanitarian efforts in war zones, it seems that, unfortunately, we need to make the same kind of efforts for journalists who are doing their job today.”

On Wednesday, a group of Ukrainian and international journalists, including Hromadske TV, Novaya Gazeta, Gazeta Wyborcza, the BBC, The New York Times, The Daily Beast, and The Economist, published a statement condemning the release of the private information.

What Ukrainian officials referred to as “not a dangerous leak” was a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, a serious issue for a country planning to join European Union. The petition had a positive effect: Ukrainian prosecutors began to investigate the persons who violated the country’s constitution.