Journalists on the frontline of Ukraine’s worsening crisis are no longer just observers.
Increasingly, they are finding themselves targets for both sides in the unrest — set upon by frustrated groups confusing a reporter’s origin, language or media with bias or partisanship.
Thus newsmen and women have in recent days been beaten, taken prisoner, threatened with guns, harassed and generally subject to rising hostility.
Much of the friction has been reported in rebel-held territory in Ukraine’s east, specifically in and around the flashpoint town of Slavyansk.
There, AFP journalists have observed pro-Kremlin militants manning checkpoints become increasingly agitated. On Sunday, one of them vigorously told reporters near the town’s occupied SBU secret services building to “Get out of here!”
Journalists have also had weapons drawn on them at roadblocks as the crisis wore down nerves of insurgents under siege from Ukrainian forces.
On Thursday, an American journalist for the online outlet VICE News, Simon Ostrovsky, was freed after being held captive by Slavyansk’s rebels, who had publicly called him a “spy” and a “provocateur”.
He said he was initially beaten and had his hands tied and eyes blindfolded before conditions were relaxed and “then they treated me normally” until his release.
He said during his captivity he met other journalists who had been held longer, kept like him in the cold basement cells of the occupied SBU building in Slavyansk.
– Attacks, abductions –
A western Ukrainian journalist/activist, Irma Krat, remained in captivity, as did several other Ukrainian reporters, according to local media.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has more than 100 monitors in Ukraine, highlighted recent attacks and abductions on Ukrainian and foreign journalists.
It said a Ukrainian who freelanced for foreign media was beaten and his equipment damaged in the southeastern port city of Mariupol and a journalist for Russian television station NTV had gone missing.
The OSCE itself, meanwhile, was trying to free eight European members of its military verification mission who were being held as “prisoners of war” by rebels in Slavyansk.
The potential dangers to those abducted were underscored by the discovery last week of two bodies — not of journalists, but of a local politician and a university student — who had been tortured and dumped in a river near Slavyansk.
The politician, a member of acting President Oleksandr Turchynov’s party, was seen accosted by pro-Russian militants days earlier.
A pro-Kiev newspaper in the east, Pro Gorod, has been the victim of an arson attack, and its director, Igor Abyzov, had one of his legs broken in an assault two weeks ago by a couple of thugs. The offices of another newspaper, Provintsia, were also torched.
– Movements hindered –
With the situation becoming more and more perilous, journalists are finding their movements increasingly hindered.
The rebels in Slavyansk on Sunday took steps to further control access for media crews, demanding they obtain locally issued accreditation to continue to work there.
Journalists from west Ukraine, which is largely pro-Western in its outlook, were being treated with mounting aggression. Foreign crews were viewed warily. Only Russian reporters, especially those working for Moscow’s state outlets, were being warmly accepted.
Several reporting teams working for Western outlets said rebels at roadblocks around Slavyansk — which is under siege from the Ukrainian military — had stepped up vehicle searches and were demanding journalists show them photos on cameras and mobile telephones.
At Ukrainian military checkpoints further away, the treatment was somewhat reversed, with Russian media cars scrutinised.
But the Ukrainian soldiers, who allowed themselves to be photographed if at a distance, were acting more professionally and without overt hostility.
Several international organisations have highlighted the increased risks for media on the ground in east Ukraine.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, this week issued a statement urging “armed groups” to immediately release “journalists, local leaders and ordinary citizens”.
Germany’s foreign ministry warned on Sunday: “In light of the latest developments, it must be assumed that media representatives face a particular risk of being held or seized.”
Amnesty International has called the abductions in and around Slavyansk “worrying”.
“The ongoing detention of journalists, municipal officials and residents by an armed group in Slavyansk speaks volumes about the lawlessness that has crept into parts of eastern Ukraine and raises fears the detainees could be at risk of torture and other ill-treatment,” the rights group’s Ukraine researcher, Heather McGill, said in a statement Thursday.
“Taking hostages and using them as bargaining chips for political gain is as abhorrent as it is unlawful.”