Friday, September 30

Working as a journalist under the Russian occupation in Ukraine: “I could only expect a Kalashnikov blow or torture”

The day the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, on February 24, Vladyslav Hladkyi felt the impulse to record the start of the fighting in Kherson – a southern city where he lived with his partner, also a journalist, which was occupied by the Army of Vladimir Putin shortly after – but says it was impossible to access the area. It was the beginning of five months of clandestine work, in which he constantly hid to continue his informative work.

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At the beginning of March, he says, several armed men went directly to his apartment and knocked on the door, which, in his opinion, shows that they were “in the crosshairs”. “I waited 20 long minutes without moving, in silence. In a panic, I reset one of my work phones to erase all the data,” says the 44-year-old. in one of the three testimonies compiled and published this Tuesday by the organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF). After this episode, they left there. “But the Russian soldiers came back four times to question the neighbors and try to find out where we were.”

According to Hladkyi, from the beginning of the invasion, the city “was looking for journalists, as well as activists or elected officials, or anyone who could hinder the propaganda efforts of the Russian state.” “Our names, our faces, were relatively well known in Kherson, we were afraid of being denounced.” He says that, after implying on his social networks that he was in Poland, he actively worked in the city for his medium, collecting information, verifying it and publishing summaries on Telegram, but the hardest part came when communications were cut off. .

He denounces a “permanent harassment” that put them to the test. “Sometimes I was tempted to drop everything, to stay in a corner and start crying. I felt that I was not doing enough and that my work was pointless. The only response she could hope for was, at best, a Kalashnikov strike from the Russians, and at worst, torture. But to hold on, I had to keep writing.” Already at the end of his strength, Hladkyi managed to get out of Kherson in early July by crossing some 40 checkpoints.

RSF spoke earlier this month by phone with journalists from three regions in southern and eastern Ukraine who have described what it is like to work under Russian occupation. The entity explains that it has verified its trajectory with its colleagues and other local sources and that it is documenting these cases “to hold the Russian authorities accountable for their war crimes against journalists.”

“Those who remain in the occupied territories are systematically persecuted by the Russian forces, in their eagerness to spread their propaganda and eliminate professionals who can counter the official discourse of the Kremlin. They brutally try to reproduce in these areas the disinformation bubble built in Russia”, says Jeanne Cavelier, RSF Eastern Europe and Central Asia Area Manager in a note.

forced to cooperate

Among the testimonies released by RSF is also that of Olena (not her real name), a 37-year-old journalist in the Lugansk region – in Donbas, in the east of the country – who explains that, after February 24, she stopped going to the newsroom and started working from home. In early March, the Russian Army occupied her city and mobile communications were cut off. She says that she felt “very scared” and hardly went out. “In a small town like ours, when you are a journalist, everyone knows you. Can’t work like before. Impossible not to fall into self-censorship. I avoided everything that could sound anti-Russian.”

Olena recounts how she was arrested in April as she left her home, taken blindfolded, interrogated for six hours, and forced to collaborate with the Russians. Next to her were her partner and the head of the newsroom. “The occupiers offered us three options: prison, ‘deportation’ or collaboration. For me, ‘deportation’ was not an option, because I don’t know what it meant, where they were going to release us (…). The director, she could only ‘choose’ between collaboration and life imprisonment or the death penalty. With fear in our stomachs, we ‘accept’ the collaboration”.

The journalist says that, a few days later, three uniformed men went to the newsroom. “It was a real intimidation commando. We had to publish three ‘articles’ a day from the information agency of the [autoproclamada] Lugansk People’s Republic – separatist territory recognized by the Kremlin. We are forced to spread this propaganda that celebrates the occupier’s ‘successes’, such as the opening of any administrative service. A military man validates our words through a common Telegram chat.”

“We live in fear of taking a wrong step and being arrested. Unbearable pressure.” After another man came to her neighborhood looking for her, she decided to run away from her and now works as a copywriter in another Ukrainian outlet, according to her testimony.

Under fire in Mariupol

Finally, the specialized organization collects the case of Yuliia Harkusha, 42, who worked in the devastated port city of Mariúpol, now under Russian occupation after weeks of intense fighting. She recounts the difficulties of working offline, but she wanted to document the horrors in the city at all costs.

“I have worked seven years for a television news program. I thought I had seen it all (…) I thought that this professional cynicism, this shell, would help me endure the horrors of war. But it is impossible to prepare for what the Russians did to us,” he says. “The mass graves in the patios of the buildings, the neighbors burying their neighbors, the destruction, the looting… Despite the risk, every minute, of being murdered, for three weeks I observed, photographed and recorded, running under fire, accompanied by my six-year-old son on a scooter”, she says.

Harkusha says all her neighbors knew she was a journalist and was “a priority target for the Russian Army.” “Because of my work, I know many local soldiers, my articles can be easily found on the Internet, and I also work as a fixers (editorial assistant) for foreign journalists. The Russians could get a lot of sensitive information out of me and put me in jail to make a splash.” He managed to get out of besieged Mariupol on March 19. “In order to leave, I had to destroy everything when I left the city, but those reports will remain etched in my memory.”

RSF has recorded that eight journalists have been killed during the first six months of the invasion of Ukraine, “some deliberately, by Russian forces” and has filed six complaints at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office. The Committee to Protect Journalists, for its part, denounces the death of 12 reporters while covering the war.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has also documented the arbitrary detention and possible forced disappearance of journalists in areas under the control of the Russian Army, while experts designated by the UN, including the special rapporteur on freedom of expression, have expressed concern about the risk these professionals run in the country, citing “numerous reports” that they are being “attacked, tortured, kidnapped, assaulted and killed, or denied safe passage from besieged cities and regions.”

“During armed conflicts, journalists are considered civilians and must be protected as such. An attack to kill, injure or kidnap a journalist constitutes a war crime. it’s a statement last May. “We remember that it is precisely in times of war and armed conflict that the right to freedom of expression and free access to information must be vigorously defended, as it is essential to promote lasting peace, understand the nature of the conflict and guarantee the accountability”.