(Kyiv) – A Ukrainian journalist who wrote about the alleged influence of far-right groups on a fact-checking organization is receiving death threats, and her personal information has been published online, Human Rights Watch said today.
The journalist, Katerina Sergatskova, co-founder of the online media outlet Zaborona, was targeted in Facebook posts in which people posted information, including her home address, a photo of her home, and photographs of her five-year-old son. Sergatskova told Human Rights Watch that she has contacted a lawyer to file a police report about the posts.
“Journalists should not have to fear for their lives because of what they report,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Ukrainian authorities should immediately investigate these threats and ensure that Sergatskova and her family are safe.”
On July 3, Zaborona published an article detailing alleged friendships between the leaders of far-right or neo-Nazi groups and the directors of StopFake, a nonprofit organization that aims to stop the dissemination of false information about Ukraine. The Zaborona article quoted several commentators who suggested that these friendships had influenced StopFake’s editorial choices, which they said had become more nationalistic and sympathetic to far-right causes in recent years.
StopFake responded with a statement disputing the claims, contending that they were part of a wider trend of “harassment and intimidation from pro-Russian media.” But the spat was soon picked up by online commentators, who threatened Sergatskova over what they said was pro-Russian propaganda.
On July 11, 2020, a Ukrainian journalist with over 130,000 followers on his social media account posted a picture of Sergatskova with her son, published details about her personal life, and suggested that she was working for Russian intelligence services. In the comments responding to the post, users threatened her with death and physical violence, and posted her address, as well as photos of her home. While the post appears to have been deleted, the journalist continued to write other insults and falsehoods about Sergatskova that were widely shared.
A large number of the posts mentioned Sergatskova’s nationality as grounds for threats and accusations. Sergatskova, originally from Russia, gave up her Russian citizenship to become a Ukrainian citizen in 2015. She has received several awards for her reporting on the conflict in eastern Ukraine and elsewhere.
Sergatskova said she had been subject to online harassment before, particularly for her investigations into the work of the Ukrainian security services. But she said the individual nature and extent of the harassment this time made her more fearful.
Online harassment, threats, and doxing – the publication of personal information on the internet – of journalists or other figures perceived as “pro-Russia” has become more prominent since the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014 and subsequent fighting by Russia-backed armed groups in eastern Ukraine.
In 2016, the website Myrotvorets published the names and personal data of hundreds of journalists and others who had been accredited to work by Russia-backed armed groups, who are the de facto authorities in parts of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and accused them of “cooperating with terrorists.” Little progress has been made into a criminal investigation that was opened in 2017 into the website, despite ongoing public pressure from the United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
“The Ukrainian government should protect journalists when they are threatened and harassed, including when that harassment takes place online,” Williamson said. “Ukraine should stand up for free speech and protect Sergatskova and others who are repeatedly targeted for legitimate journalism.”