Conflict zones always pose extreme conditions for news gathering. International conventions aside, warring parties view journalists as in the way, at best, or partisans to be contained. Conflict coverage is and always will be in high demand. Proliferating news channels, neutral or not, send crews with cameras to scour through the rubble. Unsurprisingly, everybody gets a bit aggressive.
A young Ukrainian photojournalist abducted by pro-Russian militants last week was released Saturday. Anton Skiba, working as an interpreter, had accompanied a CNN news crew to the Malaysia Airlines flight 17 (MA17) crash site. On returning to a Donetsk hotel, he was seized by armed gunmen, taken away, accused of being a «Ukrainian agent.» The gunmen appeared to be waiting for the CNN crew.
With many years experience in conflict zone reporting and abductions of its associates - and worse – CNN kept the incident quiet while attempting to negotiate with leaders of the self-proclaimed Donbass People’s Republic. That going nowhere and after Mr. Skiba was «forced» to make statements recorded by Russian tabloid TV channel LifeNews, the international news network went public, unleashing swift condemnations from advocates of journalist rights as well as Western diplomats.
Leader of the group of militant gunmen, Alexandr Kalyussky, made several accusations against Mr. Skiba, recanting most, settling on questioning names on his identity papers. Mr. Skiba previously accompanied a BBC news crew to the MA17 site. The Council of the European Union added Mr. Kalyussky to its asset freeze and travel ban sanctions list earlier this month for «separatist activities.»
Coincident with Mr. Skiba’s detention, pro-Russian separatists issued a «decree» banning «journalists, cameramen and photoreporters» from «being in combat zones or near military installations,» noted Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF) (July 24). The decree was signed by «defense minister» Igor Strelkov, a Russian mercenary who was involved in the Crimean peninsula seizure by the Russian Federation. «The need to protect journalists cannot justify imposing absolute censorship on military operations,» said RSF spokesperson Johann Bihr in the statement. «The decree’s vague wording suggests that it will be applied selectively and that there will be more arrests with the sole aim of increasing the (Donbass People’s Republic) control of the media.»
Several reporters, mostly from international news organizations, were arrested (July 20) as they attempted to enter the Donetsk city morgue, where some remains of MA17 shoot-down victims were being contained. They were released several hours later after questioning. Polish photojournalist Piotr Andrusieczko was briefly detained (July 22) by the militant security services, who said they «had orders to arrest all foreign journalists,» said RSF. He had been taking photos of the Donetsk railway station.
Ukrainian authorities have also cast watchful eyes on media workers, mostly those sent by Russian television channels. British freelance contributor to Russian state channel RT (Russia Today) Graham Phillips was expelled from Ukraine and banned from re-entering for three years, reported Telekritika (July 25). Two days earlier, RT said it had «lost contact» with Mr. Phillips who was traveling to the Donetsk airport to report on military operations.
Reporting for RT from Sloviansk in the Donetsk region (July 22), scene of considerable fighting, Mr. Phillips expressed «shock» when local residents told him of their support for Ukrainian forces over the separatists.
An RT crew attempting to enter the Donetsk city morgue was also detained by the separatist militia and kept overnight. Expressing shock at the discomfort, an RT cameraman asked Donbass People’s Republic «prime minister» Alexander Borodai why they had been held. «You’re not a real journalist if you haven’t spent a night with us,» said Mr. Borodai, who was also added to the EU sanctions list this month.