Journalists in Ukraine, especially those covering the armed conflict in the east, often put their safety on the line to get their stories out. But in recent months their job became even riskier, and not because of bullets and mortar fire. They are increasingly a target for Ukrainian nationalist groups that enjoy the explicit support of some government officials.
Last week, unknown hackers leaked an archive of emails belonging to an official of the rebel-held self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). The archive contained personal information of foreign and local reporters and human rights monitors: copies of passports, reporters’ accreditations, email addresses, and correspondence between journalists and DPR officials. Now anyone who’s interested can find online copies of passport scans belonging to journalists and human rights defenders.
Some reporters told Human Rights Watch that they started receiving threats via social media immediately after the leak. This isn’t surprising. In May 2014, Kiev designated the two self-proclaimed republics in eastern Ukraine – the DPR and Luhansk People’s Republic – as terrorist organizations. Some Ukrainian officials see any contact with them as harmful to Ukraine, even an act of treason. This leaves Ukrainian journalists particularly vulnerable.
This is not the first time hackers exposed and attempted to tarnish reporters working in eastern Ukraine. In May 2016, a pro-government website, Myrotvorets, leaked hacked documents, containing names, email addresses, and phone numbers of journalists accredited by the DPR. Some journalists reported receiving threats following the publication of the documents. Although Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, publically condemned Myrotvorets’ actions, the Interior Minister Arsen Avakov supported them. The authorities launched an investigation into the Myrotvorets website, but so far it hasn’t produced any results.
This time, no senior politician or official has clearly condemned the hackers’ actions, putting the exposed reporters and activists at further risk.
The recent leak is an affront to important work being done by reporters and human rights defenders in Ukraine, and especially in the war-torn Donbas region, where they risk their lives to do their job.
It is reprehensible that some government officials and nationalist groups conflate getting access to rebel-controlled areas with supporting the rebels. Such irresponsible comments and actions jeopardize the safety of journalists and human rights defenders and violate their right to privacy. Critical reporting is a healthy sign in a democracy, and Ukrainian authorities should protect journalists, not demonize them.