Ukraine: Journalists “Are Russia’s First Target”

Numbers of dead and wounded media workers mount as conflict continues.

Ukraine: Journalists “Are Russia’s First Target”

Numbers of dead and wounded media workers mount as conflict continues.

A rally and a street exhibition in memory of the journalists who died in the war, Lviv, March 31, 2022.
A rally and a street exhibition in memory of the journalists who died in the war, Lviv, March 31, 2022. © IWPR
A rally and a street exhibition in memory of the journalists who died in the war, Lviv, March 31, 2022.
A rally and a street exhibition in memory of the journalists who died in the war, Lviv, March 31, 2022. © IWPR
Friday, 22 April, 2022

Two months since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, at least 20 journalists have been killed in the line of duty, while reporting, filming and photographing the war. Others have been wounded, abducted or have lost their lives in other circumstances, including while fighting as volunteers.

“They died [due to] the war and the Russian occupation. In other circumstances, they would be alive,” Serhiy Tomilenko, the head of Ukraine’s National Union of Journalists, told IWPR. “Russia does not abide by global conventions according to which journalists have the same rights as unarmed civilians.”

He added, “Russian troops do not recognise this status. On the contrary, journalists are their first target.”

Yan Dobronosov, a photojournalist with Ukraine’s Telegraph news site who has been covering the conflict in Donbass for years, said that the invasion had added a whole new layer of security concerns for journalists.

“While in the area of Mykolaiv, in southern Ukraine, we had to go to a village retaken by Ukrainian forces, but on the frontline the situation changes constantly, and we ended up at a Russian-controlled checkpoint,” he recalled. “They were 70 metres away when we saw the red ribbons on their sleeves. We turned around rapidly and escaped.

“We were lucky that by some miracle they did not shoot at our vehicle. We were told that the checkpoint had been under Russian control for three days.”

Dobronov, who is currently in Kramatorsk in the Donetsk region, where Russia has concentrated its troops, received a bulletproof vest and a helmet at the beginning of the conflict, but said that demand was far greater than supply. The NUJ has assessed the need for about 700 sets of vests and helmets.

Reporters have described being shot at even after identifying themselves as journalists, prompting speculation that they were targeted on purpose. On March 4, Sky News journalists were evacuated back to the UK after the crew’s vehicle was attacked by a Russian ambush squad near the capital Kyiv.

The first journalist to die on the line of duty was in southern Ukraine. On February 26 the Russians shot Dilerbek Shakirov, a journalist for the news weekly Around You, at a checkpoint in a suburb of Kherson, which remains in Russian hands.

On March 1 a Russian missile hit a TV tower in the capital Kyiv, killing Yevgenii Sakun, cameraman at the LIVE TV channel.

The body of renowned Ukrainian photographer Maks Levin was found on April 1 in the village of Huta Mezhyhirska, north of Kyiv, two weeks after the 40-year-old had gone missing.

The office of Ukraine’s prosecutor general stated that Levin had been killed on March 13 by servicemen of the Russian Armed Forces with two shots from small arms near the village of Guta Mezhigirska, in Kyiv region. His body was found only after Russian troops had withdrawn completely from the area.

The photographer and documentary filmmaker had contributed to various outlets’ coverage of the country, including Reuters. He followed the Maidan events of 2014 and covered some of the fiercest fighting in eastern Ukraine, including for the control of the city of Ilovaisk, in the region of Donetsk. 

“Max miraculously got out of the Ilovaisk cauldron,” his cousin Olga Poddubnaya told IWPR. “He loved life very much, but he loved the truth and his work more. He wanted to convey the pain of Ukraine to the whole world, so he was not afraid of death and confidently rushed to the hottest spots.”

Other journalists also appear to have been targeted as they carried out their work.

On March 13, Brent Renaud, an experienced war reporter and a former New York Times correspondent was shot and killed as he filmed the evacuation of civilians in Irpin, near the Romanovsky bridge which connected the town to the capital. The 50-year-old filmmaker was in a car with US journalist Juan Arredondo, who was wounded.

The following day, Irish cameraman Pierre Zakrzewsky and Ukrainian producer Olexandra Kuvshinova died when the vehicle they were traveling in was stuck by gunfire in the village of Gorenka, Kyiv region. A Fox News correspondent who was with them was injured.

Russian forces have also intimidated, threatened, kidnapped and tortured media workers in areas under their control, including the southern port city of Kherson and the besieged city of Mariupol.

On April 6 the body of Ukrainian film technician Roman Nezhyborets was found in a grave in Yahidne, a village in the northern region of Chernihiv. He was last seen on March 5, when he left Chernihiv for Yahidne with his family.  Tatyana Zdor, director of the TV station Dytynets where Nezhyborets worked, stated that Russian troops caught Nezhyborets talking on the phone with his mother on March 5 and took him away. She added that his body was found with gunshot wounds to his knees and his hands tied.

“For the Russians the press is the enemy. They do not want their crimes to be recorded and known to the whole world,” Oksana Romanyuk, executive director of the Kyiv-based Mass Media Institute, told IWPR. Ukraine has become the world’s most unsafe country for reporters, she continued, warning that unexperienced journalists need to be prepared for the risks involved in covering active conflict.

The Geneva-based Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) said journalists were key witnesses, contributing to collect evidence, which may be used in court at a later stage. PEC turned to the Human Rights Council to adopt a binding international convention for the protection of journalists with mechanisms of accountability and inquiry. 

Other media workers have died after being caught up in Russian shelling of towns and villages.

Viktor Dedov, operator of Sigma TV, died after his house in the besieged city of Mariupol was shelled on March 11. His wife Natalya Dedova said that two mortar shells hit their apartment, killing Dedov and injuring herself and other family members.

Mariupol also saw the death of Lithuanian film director Mantas Kvedaravicius. He died on 2 April as he was trying to leave the city, whose fate he had documented for years. In 2016, his documentary Mariupolis premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.

Russian journalist Oksana Baulina who worked for the independent Russian news site The Insider and the Anti-Corruption Foundation, founded by Putin critic Alexei Navalny, was killed in Kyiv on March 23. The 42-year-old had arrived at the shelled Retroville shopping and entertainment centre to record the consequences of missile strikes. She was killed after the centre was hit again by Russian mortars. 

On April 13 the National Union of Journalists (NUJU) stated that the body of Zoreslav Zamoysky, a freelancer working with the news website Hromada Priirpinnya, was found dead in a street in Bucha after Russian troops withdrew from the town outside Kyiv.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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