Ukraine - Journalists must be free to work without being threatened

Reporters Without Borders condemns an attack on Oleksandr Panteleymonov, acting CEO of the National Ukrainian Television Company (NTKU), on the evening of 18 March, when around 20 people led by parliamentary members of the nationalist Svoboda party stormed into his office, insulted and beat him, and forced him to sign a resignation letter.

“A full and impartial investigation must be carried out to ensure that this kind of unacceptable behaviour does not recur,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

“This entails lifting the parliamentary immunity of the legislators involved. And one of them, Igor Miroshnichenko, cannot continue to be a member of the parliamentary committee on freedom of expression and information.”

Bihr added: “Journalists must not be held hostage to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. They must be able to work in an impartial manner, refraining from any propaganda or disinformation, and without being forced to rally to the flag of any of the parties to the conflict.”

Video recordings show Miroshnichenko, the current vice-president of the parliamentary committee on freedom of expression and information, hitting Panteleymonov. Two other Svoboda parliamentarians, Bogdan Benyuk and Andriy Illenko, can be seen among the assailants.

They accused Panteleymonov, state-owned NTKU’s acting CEO since before President Viktor Yanukovych’s removal, of being “in Moscow’s pay” and blamed him for the fact that Pershy Natsionalny, one of NTKU’s channels, broadcast the 18 March signing ceremony in Moscow making Crimea part of the Russian Federation.

The incident has shocked Ukrainian journalists, who have issued protests and have called on the prosecutor-general’s office to investigate. Miroshnichenko has so far refused to apologize and has said his actions were justified by the “war with Russia.” He has nonetheless said that he is ready to renounce his parliamentary immunity in order to defend his actions before the courts.

Svoboda’s leader, Oleg Tyagnybok, and interim Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk’s government have both condemned the attack on Panteleymonov.

Continuing impunity in Crimea

The rapid evolution in the situation in Crimea has not so far led to any improvement in the climate of intimidation for journalists working in the peninsula or the impunity enjoyed by those responsible for acts of intimidation.

The Institute of Mass Information, a Reporters Without Borders partner organization, has reported no fewer than 89 cases of threats or violence against journalist or acts of censorship since the start of the Russian intervention in late February. At least three journalists have fled from Crimea to Kiev in the past few days following repeated threats.

In the latest case, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty journalist Levko Stek reported being kidnapped in Bakhchisaray on 18 March by unidentified individuals, who gagged him, put a bag over his head, took him away in their car and finally dumped him in an open field, warning him not to return to Crimea.

Ibrayim Umerov, a reporter for the Tatar TV station ATR, and his cameraman were detained in Simferopol on 18 March by a dozen armed men, who threatened them and then let them go.

There is still no news of Yaroslav Pilunski and Yuri Gruzinov, two citizen-journalist cameramen who are working on a documentary for the Babylon ’13 project. They went missing on 16 March when trying to pass a package to Ukrainian soldiers trapped in a military base in Simferopol.