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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Arson, Apparent Surveillance Send Chilling Message to Ukraine's Investigative Journalists

By Jessica Jerreat August 27, 2020

Grainy surveillance video shows a person walking toward a car belonging to Ukrainian investigative news team Schemes moments before the vehicle ignites.

Police on Wednesday arrested two suspects in connection with the August 17 fire in Brovary, a city near the capital, Kyiv, and continue to investigate, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced on Twitter.

The arson was apparently the second attack this month on Schemes, part of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Ukrainian service that produces a weekly TV program in partnership with Ukraine's public broadcaster Pershiy Canal. On August 7, Mykhailo Tkach, a reporter with Schemes, said he found some drilled holes in his kitchen ceiling that he said he thought had been made during attempts to wiretap his apartment.

RFE/RL and VOA are both independent outlets funded by the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

'Annoying' to officials

Tkach posted images on Facebook of one of the holes in the ceiling of his top-floor apartment. In the post, Tkach said he had been warned by sources that his "journalistic activities are annoying high-level officials."

Journalists at Schemes said on social media that they thought the arson and alleged attempt to wiretap Tkach's home were carried out in retaliation for their reporting. The vehicle set on fire was used by Schemes in its reporting and investigations into allegations of high-level corruption.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called on law enforcement to find the attackers quickly. He added that journalists, including his critics, should be protected.

An Interior Ministry spokesperson told RFE/RL's Radio Svoboda that police were looking for at least two other suspects in connection with the arson.

In the alleged wiretap incident, police carried out a basic search but left without securing the scene, Natalie Sedletska, editor in chief of Schemes, said in a Facebook post.

The post added that to prevent evidence from being damaged or tampered with, members of the news team kept vigil until police could return. Ukraine's national police did not reply to VOA's email requesting updates in the two investigations.

Schemes showed video of the holes to independent experts who agreed they were evidence of an attempt to install a recording device. The experts differed on whether the device had been installed and later removed, or whether these marks were signs of preparation.

In a statement, RFE/RL's acting president, Daisy Sindelar, said she was distressed by the attacks.

"We are relieved that no one was hurt but concerned that this incident appears aimed at intimidating RFE/RL's reporters and contributing to a threatening environment for journalists across Ukraine," Sindelar said, and she called for a speedy investigation.

Other incidents

Schemes journalists have been targeted previously. They have been attacked, harassed and followed, and they have had personal information shared online.

Local and international journalism rights groups said they thought the latest attack was an attempt to silence investigative outlets.

Scott Griffen, deputy director of the International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of journalists, said investigative journalists are at risk of physical attack and intimidation through legal pressure.

"The attacks and surveillance witnessed by Schemes are reflective of a wider environment in which journalists are not sufficiently protected," he said.

Describing the incidents as "blatant acts of intimidation" aimed at watchdog journalism, Griffen told VOA via email, "Unfortunately, all too often these kinds of attacks go unpunished in Ukraine, resulting in a lingering climate of impunity for attacks on the press."

The Ukrainian journalism coalition, Media for Conscious Choice, also condemned the attack in a statement, saying it was "unacceptable to monitor and interrogate journalists," especially those reporting on high-level government corruption.

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Attacks and pressure on journalists, particularly those investigating endemic corruption in Ukraine, is common, U.S. based research group Freedom House said. The nonprofit, which ranks Ukraine only "partly free" on its Freedom in the World Index, noted a failure by police to investigate and bring to justice those who attack or kill reporters.

A fatal attack on an investigative journalist in the city of Cherkasy last year remains unsolved. Vadym Komarov, a reporter for a local publication, died from head injuries a few weeks after being found unconscious on a street. He was attacked the day after announcing on social media that he planned to publish an article on local graft, IPI reported.

The press freedom group said impunity in these cases sends a signal to attackers that they will get away with their actions, which further endangers reporter safety.

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