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Investigative Stories From Ukraine: Increasing attacks on journalists signal weakening state of freedom of speech

by Anna Myroniuk January 23, 2024 4:19 PM 5 min read
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky is pictured during a press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine on Dec. 19, 2023. (Kaniuka Ruslan / Ukrinform / Future Publishing via Getty Images)
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Kyiv Independent’s exclusive

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Apparent Russian disinformation group posing as ex-president Poroshenko targets foreign fighters in Ukraine

Prankers allegedly aligned with the Russian state stole the identity of Ukraine’s former President Petro Poroshenko to target the country’s International Legion soldiers in a disinformation campaign aimed at undermining President Volodymyr Zelensky, the Kyiv Independent uncovered in its recent investigation.

Those impersonating Poroshenko lured foreign fighters into a conversation by making them believe that Zelensky’s predecessor and political rival was building a personal security battalion and wanted to hire them as officers. The pranksters soon shifted the conversation to try to make soldiers give away Ukraine's army’s front-line weaknesses and insult Zelensky personally.

Suicide missions, abuse, physical threats: International Legion fighters speak out against leadership’s misconduct
Added on Dec. 1, 2022: In November, the Kyiv Independent ran a follow-up to this investigation. This second story looks into other alleged misconduct of the leadership of the International Legion, including light weapons misappropriation and physical threats toward soldiers. Read it here. Disclaime…

The email address used to communicate with the fighters had already popped up in another disinformation attack, which was allegedly orchestrated by provocateurs Alexey Stolyarov and Vladimir Kuznetsov, known as Vovan and Lexus.

The two have made a career of tricking famous people into making damaging statements on phone and video calls, which they record and release to the public. Though they deny allegations of links to the Russian government, Vovan and Lexus receive substantial media support from the Kremlin, such as airtime on state TV.

In a series of Zoom calls with foreign fighters that took place in early January, the pranksters used old doctored footage of Poroshenko from 2022, Kyiv Independent found. During the call, the host – posing as Poroshenko – called Zelensky a “dictator” and encouraged the foreign fighters to make incendiary statements against the president, according to the recording of the call.

Investigation: International Legion soldiers allege light weapons misappropriation, abuse by commanders
Editor’s Note: This is the second part of the Kyiv Independent’s investigation into the International Legion – a military formation created for foreign fighters dedicated to defending Ukraine. Published in August, the first part of this story unmasked alleged endemic abuse of power in the leadership…

This attack highlights a disinformation threat in Russia’s war against Ukraine, as well as potential operational security vulnerabilities among foreign fighters.

Three legionnaires the Kyiv Independent spoke to admitted that morale issues and low pay in some units have made the International Legion more susceptible to such attacks.

Read the full story here.

Crackdown on press freedom

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Increasing attacks on journalists signal a weakening state of freedom of speech in Ukraine

Investigative journalists in Ukraine came under two attacks in just the past week. Both violated privacy and aimed at discrediting media workers who routinely watchdog officials and expose corruption and abuse of power.

In one case, on Jan. 14, strangers paid a visit to the home of a prominent journalist, Yurii Nikolov, best known for flagging corruption in Ukraine’s public procurement in the defense sector. Aggressively banging on the journalist’s door, the visitors demanded Nikolov to open, shouting insults like “traitor,” “Kremlin’s bitch” and “draft dodger.”

Upon leaving, the attackers left stickers with insults on the journalist’s door. Footage from the scene immediately appeared on the anonymous Telegram channel Kartochnyy Ofis, allegedly linked to the Presidential Office, according to the journalist.

On Jan. 16, two days after the incident at the doorstep of Nikolov’s apartment, another attack on a Ukrainian media outlet took place. A little-known website posing as a news site released a video featuring a few staff members of Bihus.Info, a prominent investigative media outlet, apparently using drugs at a company party in a hotel near Kyiv. The video featured recordings of the staffers’ phone calls.

Bihus.Info later said that hidden cameras had likely been installed in every hotel room they used, as well as in the hotel’s sauna that the team rented out. Unknown men rented out the rooms for the nights before and after the team’s party, according to the hotel. Bihus.Info also said that judging from the released recordings, their phones had been tapped for months.

Both incidents evoked public outcry and are generally perceived as an attempt at a crackdown on the media to discredit investigative journalists.

Law enforcement started investigations into both incidents.

Recent campaigns against journalists raise concerns about press freedom in Ukraine
Investigative journalists in Ukraine came under two attacks in just the past week, one involving a threatening home visit and another using covert surveillance. The two incidents are the latest in a series of discrediting campaigns against independent Ukrainian media, often supported by anonymous p…

On Jan. 19, the National Police said it opened criminal proceedings into obstructing journalist work over the threatening visit to Nikolov’s home, the penalty for which ranges from a fine to four years in prison. Two days later, the Kyiv City Prosecutor’s Office said it identified the individuals who threatened Nikolov, without naming them, and searched their homes. No one has officially been named a suspect in this case yet.

As for the surveillance of the team members of Bihus.Info, both the National Police and State Security Service (SBU) opened criminal proceedings into the matter. The SBU investigates the alleged illegal use of surveillance while police probe interference in the private life of journalists.

On Jan. 18, President Volodymyr Zelensky called pressure on journalists unacceptable.

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