MOSCOW — Reporters covering the conflict in Ukraine are in constant danger. At least six journalists have lost their lives in the two and a half years since the “hybrid” war there began. Dozens have been abducted, dragged away by masked men, and threatened with executions.
On one of the early days of the war, on May 24, 2014, three journalists—Italian photographer Andy Rocchelli, his co-author, a human rights defender and journalist Andrei Mironov, and French reporter William Roguelon drove up the road outside of Andreyevka village, known for almost daily firefights between Ukrainian and pro-Russian rebel forces.
They were seasoned correspondents. Mironov, 60, was a veteran of Afghan and Chechen wars.
A few minutes after they stopped their car to interview civilians living on the front line, there were bursts of gunfire followed by the blast of a grenade launcher and a mortar barrage that left Roguelon wounded and Rocchelli and Mironov dead. The mortar had torn off Mironov’s head.
Those of us covering the war then said “his number came up” in Ukraine as we cried over our friends, whose bodies were found in a ditch on the following day.
More than two years later, the war in Ukraine goes on and on. And in the last couple weeks it has intensified: dozens of soldiers die or are injured in fresh clashes every week. Journalists are the witnesses to this carnage, documenting the casualties both among the military and civilians suffering from the conflict.
But in the last few days journalists have been horrified, if not entirely surprised, to discover that many people in the Kiev government were out to intimidate them, or worse, for doing their jobs.
A group of hackers known to be supported by Ukraine’s police and secret service leaked a digital archive containing personal photographs, copies of passports, accreditations, and other documents, as well as email addresses and personal correspondence between journalists covering the war in the Russia-backed part of Donbas, or Eastern Ukraine.
Hackers called the leaked archive “The Dump.” It included private information about journalists from more than 30 international media outlets, including CNN, the BBC, the Associated Press, Al Jazeera, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and The Daily Beast.
Ukrainian nationalists and officials supporting the leak—and, disturbingly, there are many—claimed that for the last two years journalists covering the war on the rebel side were “collaborating with terrorists.”
The hacked email inbox in question belonged to Tatyana Yegorova, a rebel administrator from the self-proclaimed Donetsk republic’s security service. Most of the leaked emails were asking Yegorova to give journalists accreditations and press passes. Without such credentials a reporter cannot pass through checkpoints at all, and even with that piece of paper issued by the rebels there were few guarantees of protection for reporters, who crossed checkpoints dozens of times every day, facing staring down the barrels of Kalashnikovs, facing detentions, abductions, and interrogations.
An attempt by some factions in the Kiev government to blacklist so-called “collaborating” journalists did take place once before. In May a group affiliated with security agencies and Ukrainian nationalists, Myrotvorets, targeted the reporters by drawing up blacklists.
Minister of Interior Affairs Arsen Avakov excused the actions by the Myrotvorets group, saying, “Those journalists passed their personal data to bandits from the occupiers’ regime.”
Minister Avakov’s adviser, Anton Geraschenko (widely alleged to be the mentor of Myrotvorets) thanked it for leaking the personal data of dozens of journalists. But in May, unlike now, the reaction to the blacklisting was immediate and sharp: Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko condemned Myrotvorets and all its supporters. The Committee to Protect Journalists supported President Poroshenko and also supported the investigation by Ukrainian prosecutors into the website that put journalists at risk.
This time the country’s top leadership remained silent, and by Sunday the silence had become very loud indeed.
According to an article by the Associated Press it was the same group, Myrotvorets, that published the personal data of dozens of journalists. And as a result of this week’s leak, reporters have received numerous death threats on social media.
In some environments, that might seem like just another troll-fest, with creeps coming out of the woodwork on their own, or on commission from others. But in Ukraine, this truly is a matter of life and death.
“This attack on the media is very dangerous for local journalists, because after every publication we can see a wave of hate speech—local journalists already got messages with threats,” Polish journalist Paweł Pieniążek, who covered Ukraine for Political Critique told The Daily Beast. “These kinds of lists are creating an atmosphere of mistrust. I have already heard questions from Ukrainian soldiers about the leaks and my presence on these lists.”
The Daily Beast interviewed journalists from nine intimidated publications who have watched in consternation as a group of Ukrainian state officials have waged a deliberate campaign against the freedom of press, inspired public hate against journalists, and jeopardized the security of reporters working in Ukraine.
But it’s not just the collection of government trolls in Kiev who present a problem. If one downloads The Dump, a 2.2. GB file, one could find among the emails there many revealing comments among administrators in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic as they talk with contempt about journalists and make lists of those denied press accreditation.
There is even something in those emails about the U.S. presidential campaign of Donald Trump (who has been accused of late in the United States of being far too cozy with Russian President Vladimir Putin).
One of the intimidated journalists, Piotr Andrusieczko from the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza, said that Dump was part of a larger campaign “by Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies and nationalists, who did not like it that journalists from all over the world covered both sides of the conflict.”
Reporters who had been risking their lives crawling in trenches with both Ukrainian government and rebel soldiers, believed they were doing their jobs, being witnesses, telling the true story about the devastated areas during the two-year-long crisis. Many journalists had begun to report from Donetsk long before Kiev started referring to it as “terrorist controlled” territory.
What Myrotvorets has done in recent days is to distribute the leaked emails while lambasting journalists for “cooperation with terrorists” just because they received press accreditations on the enemy side of the front line.
Reporters and advocates for freedom of speech are concerned that this hate mongering could endanger journalists on either side of the front line.
But to many in Ukraine, who clearly are not concerned about the future of freedom of the press, the condemnation and endangerment of journalists seems somehow appropriate.
The leaked data was “a good thing,” said Alya Shandra, the managing editor of Euromaidanpress, an online magazine founded as a grassroots resource after the pro-EU revolution in 2014.
Euromaidanpress media “strives to be the go-to bridge between Ukraine and the English-speaking world,” the magazine’s web site says.
Shandra told us: “What Myrotvorets has done is very valuable. They showed how the propaganda machine works in Donetsk— that is much more important than any personal data of journalists,” she said. “Besides, journalists are not as endangered as Ukrainians attacked by the separatists army in the east,” Shandra said.
What Shandra does not understand, it seems, is that her publication broke the country’s law, violated the rights of journalists it also humiliated the president of Ukraine, who very clearly condemned Myrotvorets at a news conference in Kyiv on June 3, for publishing the data of more than 4,000 journalists and for attacking reporters.
What international media expected from President Poroshenko was to protect reporters, who clearly are under attack.
Last month, somebody assassinated one of Ukraine’s most respected reporters, the founder of a school for journalism, Pavel Sheremet, right in the center of Kiev, a few meters away from the German embassy.
Sheremet worked for a local radio and Ukrayinska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth), a newspaper.
Earlier this month another Ukrainskaya Pravda journalist, Yekaterina Sergatskova, received threats from notorious right-wing nationalist Dmytro Korchinsky: after she published an interview about Ukrainian Security Services torturing prisoners. Sergatskova came to live in Ukraine from Crimea in 2014; the journalist renounced her Russian citizenship.
President Petro Poroshenko personally granted Sergatskova her Ukrainian citizenship. “I received threats from Korchinsky, after I published an interview with a man about SBU torturing him in their prison in Kramatorsk; that was when somebody wrote to me on Facebook: ‘Die, creature,’” Sergatskova told The Daily Beast.
“Korchinsky, who cooperates with state security agencies, threatened me on his Facebook page,” Diane Sergatskova said that the president should have not have granted me my citizenship, that I should not be working as a journalist in Ukraine.” Hramadske TV editor-in-chief Natalia Gumenyuk also expressed concerns: “We constantly receive threats and insults from officials.”
A Ukrainian journalist, Anton Skiba, and Polish reporter Piotr Andrusieczko spent hours downloading and studying the leaked correspondence. Some of the emails they found are dated as late as July this year.
“It is clearly a well-staged campaign to discredit the independent press in Ukraine so nobody would criticize state policy,” says Skiba, who worked in Donetsk as a fixer for CNN, Al Jazeera, and several other media groups.
But a look at the dossiers shows the press under as much pressure and as great a threat from the rebels as from the government in Kiev.
In one of the files Janus Putkonen, a Finnish rebel supporter in Donetsk, suggests to the rebel administration a method for grading and banning reporters, marking in red all those deemed “Russophobe,” or who have been “blaming Russia for participating in the Ukrainian war,” or who can be considered “a NATO propagandist warrior.”
One of the leaked letters sent from Irina Buria, another DPR employee, is addressed to the Donetsk rebels’ security agency with a recommendation on behalf of U.S. citizen Alexander Erdey, a Cleveland resident.
“He is actively promoting Trump, works with Art McCoy radio station,” Buria wrote, suggesting to use Erdey in propaganda efforts to promote the views by self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk separatist republics at Trump’s convention in Cleveland.
The letter was sent to Tatyana Yegorova, the same employee of the security service of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, earlier this year.
Interestingly, as The Daily Beast and others have reported, Trump’s supporters and staff played a critical role watering down a plank in the Republican Platform that used strong language opposing Russian intervention in Ukraine.Trump himself has repeatedly, awkwardly, tried to claim Russia never moved into Ukraine—conveniently ignoring and then downplaying the annexation of Crimea. And Trump’s top aide, Paul Manafort, used to lobby in Washington on behalf of Ukraine’s deposed pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich.
It remains unclear what Erdey’s connection to the Trump cabal actually is, if any. But it’s perfectly clear the people who leaked the documents were not interested in pursuing it. Instead, they focused on discrediting journalists, whose emails currying enough favor with the rebels to get credentialed were widely distributed on social media.
“We know that several reporters have received threats since the release of their personal information,” Human Rights Watch monitor Tatiana Lokshina told The Daily Beast.
On Friday, Euromaidanpress republished a link to the entire leaked archive on their website, again.
“The leak is another example of how oblivious some individuals and groups are when they put journalists at risk in the conflict zone,” an AP journalist who asked not to be named told The Daily Beast. “The publication is a disgusting attempt to divide reporters into good and bad.”
Human Rights Watch defenders recommended that journalists whose personal data was leaked fight for their rights through the legal system. “We are considering taking the abusers who published the leaked data to court,” says Timur Olevsky, a presenter at Current Time, a part of Radio Free Europe media group based in Prague. “The Ukrainian government is silent because the ministry of interior affairs obviously is involved this campaign against freedom of speech.”
Clearly, nobody in Ukraine was serious about punishing the group intimidating journalists by distributing their personal information. The prosecutors’ investigation was forgotten and Myrotvorets was given a green light to continue attacking journalists working in Ukraine.
Earlier this week, interior ministry advisor Anton Gerashchenko declared that from now on Myrotvorets would be a “registered media” outlet.
“Minister Arsen Avakov and his advisor Gerashchenko are the worst representatives of Ukrainian officials,” said Oliver Carroll, a reporter who has covered the war extensively. “They are creating a smoke screen between the country’s society and government, and that smoke is the journalists.”