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No way out for bloggers in Ukraine’s Donbas

In Ukraine’s occupied Donbas region, bloggers — some of the only reliable sources of information left — are feeling the pressure from all sides. RU

 

The fate of the Donetsk blogger Stanislav Vasin remains unknown. He was last seen on 2 June. Image courtesy of the OSCE. Some rights reserved.

The situation with press freedom in the territories not under Ukraine’s control hasn’t been surprising for a long time. The new authorities liquidated independent local and commercial media offices for their lack of loyalty to the new formation known as the “Donetsk People’s Republic”. The region’s main newspapers, such as Donbas, Evening Donetsk, Donetsk News, and the television channels Donbas, First Municipal and K61 left Donetsk back in 2014. Since then, the city’s media environment has been chilled by censorship overseen by the “Ministry of Information of the Donetsk People’s Republic” (which employs over 100 people). 

Today, censors read all newspapers before publication. Television channels agree on their broadcasts with a controlling body, and bloggers have to be registered with the “Ministry of Communication”. This leaves just two relatively reliable sources of information in these two territories in eastern Ukraine: foreign journalists who come to Donetsk for a short trip and local citizen journalists — those bloggers and professional journalists who lost their job during the initial stage of the conflict. 

There is, it should be said, one more source of information: the local opposition to Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the “DNR”. While these people are ideological supporters of the “Russian world” idea and the separation of Donbas from Ukraine, they criticise the actions of the current leadership in Donetsk. You can trust their information, but only so far. This category of bloggers have their own agenda and are fighting to increase their own power in the region.

Many involved in media in the “DNR” have no alternative. They are forced to revolve around the circle of spin and propaganda without any hope of help from the outside world 

At the end of summer 2017, we saw the publication of different coloured lists for journalists working in Donetsk. If a media professional appears on the yellow list, they’re neutral; on the orange list, they require the attention of “state security”; and if they’re on the red list, they need to be detained or deported. This logic is also applied to the region’s bloggers. There are different methods (described back in 2015 by “DNR” officials) for dealing with political activists and those who criticise the Donetsk authorities. Every district had to send lists of critical individuals to higher authorities. But it’s not completely clear whether this practice of searching for dissenters is still in operation today. 

Journalists who work in media outlets supporting the breakaway authorities do not admit that censorship officially operates in the uncontrolled territories. For example, this is what Valery Gerlanets, editor of the DNR Herald, says

“According to the law, we don’t have censorship in our republic. But there is internal censorship, which requires newspaper pages to look good, high quality illustrations — censorship that works towards a result, a quality product for readers… If there are some cases [of censorship] — and they are inevitable because of personal interference — I and a series of other comrades from the department of print media look at the newspaper pages to avoid these cases [of censorship] and give readers a quality product.” 

When Gerlanets talks about “comrades”, he is referring to employees of the “Ministry of Information”. There is a special department inside this “Ministry” that controls “state media” (and in Donetsk that means practically all media). 

Despite the high level of loyalty among employees of this “state media” to power structures in Donetsk, we still saw the appearance of the different lists earlier this year to keep tabs on them, too. And it seems that Stanislav Vasin, a blogger from Donetsk who disappeared in June 2017, was placed on one of these lists. His fate still remains unknown. In Kyiv, representatives of the United Nations recently presented a report on human rights in the “DNR” and “LNR”, but the only thing they could say with confidence about Vasin was that he was imprisoned by “DNR” militants. Despite the fact that the “DNR” has placed him on a list for prisoner exchange with Ukraine, the authorities refuse to give access to his family, nor rights defenders. A letter from Vasin was published online in September, but it has not yet been verified. 

Luhansk blogger Eduard Nedelyaev was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment for messages sent over Telegram. Image still: YouTube. Some rights reserved.

Facebook blogger Eduard Nedelyaev also ended up on the separatists’ lists. In August, Nedelyaev, who was living in Luhansk, was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment for “state treason”. According to the separatists, Nedelyaev “reported negative information on residents of the LNR [“Luhansk People’s Republic”] which disparages the honour and dignity of citizens, and tried to spread hate and hostility towards the Russian nation.” 

Separatist authorities have suspected Gennady Benitsky, another Ukrainian citizen from Luhansk, of “spreading extremist materials” via Facebook. He was also suspected of “committing actions aimed at whipping up hate and humiliating human dignity”, as well as espionage on behalf of Ukraine. Benitsky was held in pre-trial detention from November 2016 to March 2017. He was then released

Gennady Bennitsky. Image still via YouTube. Some rights reserved.

The cases against Benitsky, Nedelyaev and Vasin became public only recently, and only thanks to the independent press. Personal conversations with fellow journalists does give us some information regarding media freedom in the two Donbas territories, and on what the “DNR” and “LNR” demand of journalists still working there.

However, we cannot circulate this information in its entirety as doing so would put our colleagues in danger. Suffice it to say, there are various ways of pressuring journalists in the “DNR” — from financial incentives (for sticking to the pro-separatist line) to beatings and arrests. 

Unfortunately, today the possibilities for media organisations, unions and and journalists’ associations in the uncontrolled territories are highly limited. Those structures created in Donetsk with the title “trade union” are trade unions in name only, and include the “DNR” leader Alexander Zakharchenko among their members. The website of the Union of Journalists of “DNR” hasn’t been active for a long time, and it’s unclear to whom and how journalists who have suffered there can make complaints. 

It feels as if journalists in Ukraine’s occupied Donbas remain locked in a small, stuffy room without windows or ways out

Indeed, it feels as if journalists in Ukraine’s occupied Donbas are locked in a small, stuffy room without windows or ways out. On the one side, they are pressured by the separatists’ security services, on the other, the Security Service of Ukraine, which suspects them of cooperating with “terrorists”. Then, there’s the pressure from the FSB, the Russian security services. And last but not least, there is an audience who wants a one-sided interpretation of the ongoing conflict

Many of those involved in media in the uncontrolled territories have no alternative to the current situation. They are simply forced to revolve around the circle of spin and propaganda without any hope of help from the outside world — an outside world which, to them, appears hostile.

Translated by Tom Rowley.


About the author

Oleksiy Matsuka is a Ukrainian journalist. He is the editor-in-chief of Novosti Donbassa, a Donbass news website. In 2013, he launched Donetskaya Pravda, which focuses on investigating public officials. He has also reported on Donetsk for Hromadske.TV and for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Ukrainian Service.

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