Ukrainian journalists, civil servants, civil rights activists and even civilians who speak out against the invasion of their country are being arbitrarily detained by Russian forces. The tactic is being used to instill fear in local communities, some say, with forced detentions lasting anywhere from one day to two weeks.
It was a freezing morning on March 23 when Russian forces knocked on Svetlana Zalizetskaya’s front door in Melitopol, southeastern Ukraine. Hoping to find her inside, they came face to face with her elderly parents instead. “I wasn’t home at the time,” she told FRANCE 24. The three gunmen searched the scene, “tipping” the house over and taking her 75-year-old father to a place unknown.
Zalizetskaya, director of the local newspaper Holovna Gazeta Melitopolya and the RIA-Melitopol news site, had fled the city a few days earlier. “I was intimidated by Galina Danilchenko,” she said, referring to the pro-Russian acting mayor who replaced Ivan Fedorov, himself kidnapped on March 11 and finally released in exchange for nine Russian conscripts.
“[Danilchenko] asked me to become a propagandist for Russia and start reporting for the occupation. She tried to convince me by promising me a good career in Moscow,” said Zalizetskaya, who refused the offer and packed her things to leave the city for fear of reprisals. A few days later, she received a call and discovered that her father had been taken hostage.
“Their request was clear: he would be fired if I surrendered.” But Zalizetskaya again rejected the Russian proposal, “so they demanded that I close RIA-Melitopol.”
On March 25, two days after her father’s abduction, Zalizetskaya posted on Facebook announcing the transfer of her news site to third parties “in exchange for evacuation” and “in territory controlled by Ukraine” which , according to her, “provide objective information”. . She still shares RIA-Melitopol articles on her Facebook page and said she did not personally consent to cooperation beyond the statement.
His father was released later that day, relatively unharmed but deprived of the medication he needed and badly shaken by his abduction. Although Zalizetskaya is relieved, the anger she feels is palpable. “I consider such actions by the occupying forces as terrorism,” she said, adding that she is determined to continue working as a journalist to document the horrors Ukrainians face in the occupied territories. by Russia.
#Ukraine: The father of RIA-Melitopol editor-in-chief Svitlana Zalizetska was released last night after being taken hostage by Russian forces earlier this week. Zalizetska refused to cooperate with Russian authorities and instead transferred control of its news site to third parties. pic.twitter.com/w23Vog6X2M
— RSF (@RSF_inter) March 26, 2022
It was not the first time that a journalist or relative had been detained by Russian forces in Ukraine. The UN observation mission on the ground, which is document abductions, revealed that 21 journalists and civil society activists have been arrested since Russia began its invasion on February 24. Family members are often kept in the dark about the whereabouts of their loved ones, with no idea what is happening to them. Of the 21 captured, only nine were “released”, according to the UN.
The international association Reporters Without Borders has also published a handful of alarming accounts of the detention, torture, intimidation and threats faced by media workers in Ukraine.
Consequences of speaking out
The UN says many kidnappers come from the Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions, which are home to self-proclaimed “republics” allied with the Russian Federation and pro-Russian armed groups. Cases have also been reported in parts of Kyiv, Kheron, Donetsk, Sumy and Chernihiv.
“It is becoming more and more dangerous for journalists and editors to stay in Russian-occupied regions,” Sergiy Tomilenko, president of the Ukrainian National Union of Journalists, told FRANCE 24. “They are isolated in these territories. They can’t leave.
Local officials are also targeted for detention. Kidnappings have also been reported in northern towns, including Nova Kakhovka, where city council secretary disappeared, and in Bucha, where six local council members were arrested and later released following a raid in Russia, according to the bbc.
the UN found that 24 public officials and local government officials were detained in Russian-controlled regions. Thirteen were reportedly released, but the location and status of the remaining 11 are unknown.
Political analyst Mattia Nelles, who is normally based in Kyiv but now lives in Germany, has been tracking kidnappings in eastern and southern Ukraine. He said Russian forces would target “anyone who actively speaks out against the occupation” and are particularly quick to arrest those calling for protests.
“I even heard of two cases in Kherson where people were randomly stopped at checkpoints after Russian forces searched their phones and found many pro-Ukrainian channels open on their Telegram. [app],” he explained. “My friend who lives there says he never takes his phone with him when he goes out now.”
“You Could Be Next”
Nelles, his Ukrainian wife and his parents managed to flee the country at an early age, although much of their family still lives in Svatove, a town in Lugansk Oblast. On March 26, neighbors informed his uncle that Russian forces had come for him. “We didn’t know why, but we assumed it was because he was an army veteran. He served as a medic in 2016 and 2018 for the Ukrainian army in Donbass.
His uncle went into hiding, but Russian forces found him soon after and detained him for questioning. “It lasted three hours,” Nelles said. “And it turns out they were looking for his son-in-law, who is an active soldier in the army and is also registered with my uncle. Hence the confusion. »
Nelles’ uncle was released and, despite his deep distress, he was not injured. Others, like the Ukrainian fixer from Radio France who was tortured for nine daysweren’t so lucky.
“There are different degrees of severity in terms of how [Russian occupiers] treat people,” Nelles explained. “I imagine it’s a case-by-case situation. It depends on the resistance of the person, his involvement in the Ukrainian army or the problem he posed to the occupying forces.
It also depends on what the Russian forces want to get out of their detainees. Speaking about the kidnapping of Zalizetskaya’s father, Tomilenko explained that the case was a clear example of Russia’s attempt to neutralize Ukrainian media using the carrot and stick method. “First they arrest local journalists and editors, [and] try to bully them into saying they support the occupation,” he said. If that fails, Russian forces “simply demand that they stop covering the news.”
The purpose of the abductions is clear. They are an effective means of instilling fear in local populations, thus facilitating the control of Russian forces. And for some, it seems to work. Tomilenko hears about new kidnappings daily, and a growing number of fellow journalists are afraid to leave their homes. “Two colleagues from Kherson haven’t been out for two weeks,” he said.
In a crackdown, human rights organizations in Ukraine are setting up missing person lists and to make a campaign shed light on what is happening on the ground. The Ukrainian National Union of Journalists has also issued guidelines for journalists and editors in the occupied territories, urging them to refrain from posting anything on social media and to use pseudonyms if they work as local correspondents for international or national media.
But the feeling of intimidation left behind by abductions can be felt by even the bravest souls. “The message sent is, ‘If you dare to speak out, you could be next,'” Nelles explained. “It’s terrifying. Especially for those in official positions.