A court in the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk has ordered the arrest of a local freelance journalist on charges of espionage and high treason after he published a video on YouTube calling on Ukrainian citizens to boycott the mobilisation of Ukrainian men to fight a ‘fratricidal war’ in Ukraine’s east.
Ruslan Kotsaba, a freelance contributor to various Ukrainian TV channels, was arrested in the early hours of Sunday 8 February, according to Ukrainian media reports quoting the journalist’s wife. The court ruled on the same day that he should be held on remand for two months until his trial. Media representatives were reportedly barred from video and audio recording in the courtroom during the session.
Markiyan Lubkivsky, an adviser to the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) said in a comment posted on his Facebook page on Sunday that materials have been seized from Kotsaba’s house, ‘which may indicate the commission of crimes’ under Article 111 (treason) and 114 (espionage) of Ukraine’s Criminal Code.
If convicted Kotsaba, 48, faces up to 15 years in prison.
Referring to the video that Kotsaba posted on YouTube, the court said in its ruling that his anti-mobilisation calls ‘hampered lawful activities of Ukraine’s Armed Forces’ and that they constituted ‘subversive activities’ against Ukraine.
In the video, Kotsaba, who has travelled to the eastern regions where government troops are waging a war against Russia-backed separatists, called on Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko – whom he says he had voted for in last year’s elections – to stop the fighting in the country’s restive Donbas region. A father ot two children, he proclaimed that he would rather go to jail for dodging mobilisation than agree to kill his own compatriots ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ he exclaimed at the end of the video.
‘Trials during the reign of Stalin’
The court established that Kotsaba had given interviews to Russian state television channels, travelled to Moscow to participate in an ‘anti-Ukraine’ television programme, and helped Russian journalists prepare reports about anti-mobilisation protests in Ukraine.
Kotsaba's 13 minute YouTube address has landed him in court on charges of treason. image via YouTube.
Since the fall in February 2014 of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, following a protest movement of several months, Russian state TV channels have persistently portrayed the Kyiv government as an illegal junta waging a punitive war against the country’s Russian-speaking population in Donetsk and Luhansk.
The court ruling also said that Kotsaba’s anti-mobilisation video was picked up by the Russian website LifeNews (a private Russian channel widely rumoured to have close links to Russia’s intelligence services) as well as online resources run by the self-proclaimed separatist ‘people’s republics.’
Kotsaba maintains his innocence. Speaking in the courtroom on Sunday, he compared his prosecution to ‘trials during the reign of Stalin’ and called it a violation of his right to freedom of speech. He insisted that his anti-mobilisation statements aimed to put an end to a war in which ‘supermen’ of the nation are killing each other.
The Ukrainian government says the separatist Luhansk and Donetsk regions are flooded with Russian troops and arms being supplied across the border to fuel the conflict. The Russian leadership denies any involvement.
Kotsaba argues that support for the separatist cause is overwhelming among the local population in the two eastern regions, and that ‘almost no regular Russian troops’ are involved in the fighting.
‘Both sides of the story’
In late January, reports emerged that the SBU opened a criminal case against Kotsaba after an activist in Ivano-Frankivsk reported him to the authorities. An SBU official dismissed the reports.
Kotsaba argues that the mobilisation campaign – which is currently in its fourth stage – is unlawful since a state of war has never been officially declared in the country. The Ukrainian authorities have officially designated the military action in the east an ‘anti-terrorist operation.’
Kotsaba’s reporting from the Luhansk region has sparked controversy in Ukraine. Speaking in June on Ukraine’s private 112 TV channel (owned by Vitaly Zakharchenko, fomer minister of the interior) he criticised the conduct of military operations by government troops, accusing them of using indiscriminate fire against residential areas, which have reportedly led to many civilian deaths. For their part, the Ukrainian authorities accuse separatist fighters of using civilians as human shields.
Kotsaba said it was his duty as a journalist to draw a balanced picture by showing ‘both sides of the story.’
Speaking of his decision to travel to the east and interview separatist leaders, Kotsaba said it was his duty as a journalist to draw a balanced picture of events by showing ‘both sides of the story.’ He said he had earlier interviewed members of Aidar, a volunteer battalion that was fighting against the separatists at the time.
He called on Ukrainian journalists to follow his example and go to the conflict zone to gain their own insights instead of relying on information from Russian media. He also described separatist leaders he was talking to while in the conflict zone as ‘normal’ and ‘motivated’ people.
Reaction to Kotsaba’s arrest
Kotsaba’s public remarks have earned him a mixed reputation among the media community and online users. Various comments on social media refer to the journalist both as a supporter of Ukrainian ultranationalist groups and a ‘traitor.’ Some describe him as a ‘provocateur.’ Оthers said he was ‘a Ukrainian patriot who simply has an opinion, which is different from the one that is commonly held.’
Following Kotsaba’s arrest, his Facebook page was flooded with calls for his release. Some commentators have interpreted his arrest as an attempt by the authorities to silence critical voices; and called for more transparency regarding his trial.
'Kotsaba is as much a spy as I am a Chinese pilot.'
‘One may disagree with Ruslan Kotsaba … I personally think that sometimes he makes things up. But it seems to me that he is as much a spy as I am a Chinese pilot,’ wrote Ukrainian artist Aleksander Roitburd.
'To be honest, there are quite a few people in our great country who can be jailed for a reason – but those are safe and sound,' he added. Ukraine is yet to press charges against any official from the Yanukovych government for corruption or the deaths of over 100 protesters in February 2014.
One commentator said that although he ‘completely disagreed’ with Kotsaba’s calls for boycotting mobilisation, the journalist’s description of the fighting as a ‘civil war’ is ‘true to a large extent’ as ‘local residents fooled by Russian propaganda are among those who have been waging war against Ukraine.’
‘I consider calls for dodging mobilisation, provocative and harmful to the state. This goes along with my critical view of the authorities, and my understanding that they are responsible for much of what has been happening in the ATO [anti-terrorist operation zone],’ Natalia Ligachyova, head of the Ukrainian media watchdog Telekritika, was quoted as saying by the Ukrainian website Dusya.
‘Now that a journalist has been arrested, Ukraine and I, we finally feel completely secure. Thank you, vigilant authorities and Ukraine’s Security Service,’ quipped Anastasia Beryoza, a journalist with the Ukrainian daily Ukrainska Pravda and the magazine Novoye Vremya, as quoted by Dusya.
Kotsaba’s arrest came amid a diplomatic push to put an end to the fighting, which has claimed the lives of more than 5,350 peoplе, according to the United Nations, and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. It also comes in the wake of a case in Russia where a mother of seven is being charged with treason for allegedly phoning the Ukrainian embassy to warn them about Russian troop movements.