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Over 30 missing Ukrainian media workers: violence, humiliation, and obscurity in occupation

In the occupied territories of Ukraine, Russia systematically persecutes journalists. As of today, MIHR knows of 31 Ukrainian media workers held captive by Russia. Among them are those abducted back in 2014, as well as those captured during the full-scale invasion. According to the Institute of Mass Information, as of May 8, 2024, due to Russian aggression, 80 media workers have died, 10 of whom while in the line of duty. In many cases, the fate of Ukrainian media workers captured by Russia remains unknown.

Neither Ukraine, nor their families, nor human rights advocates can obtain information about their whereabouts or health condition. For example, there is still no clear information about Dmytro Khyliuk, a journalist from one of the country’s largest news agencies, UNIAN. He was abducted on March 3, 2022, near his home in the village of Kozarovychi in the Kyiv region. Russian troops occupied the village at the end of February 2022. Witnesses, who spoke to MIHR journalists, indicate that these were military personnel from the 83rd Separate Air Assault Brigade of the Russian Federation. On March 1, 2022, the invaders conducted a search in the Khyliuks’ home, and the following day their house was hit by artillery fire. The family moved to a neighbor’s house.

Dmytro Khyliuk, a UNIAN journalist, was kidnapped by Russia in March 2022 during the occupation of the Kyiv region

On March 3, when Dmytro and his father, Vasyl Khyliuk, went to check their house, they were captured by Russian military: their hands were tied, jackets were put over their heads to cover their eyes, and the men were taken away to an undisclosed location. Later, it was revealed that they were placed on the premises of the former Sprinter wholesale depot, where civilians were held hostage in offices.

A witness of these events, a fellow villager, Serhiy Horhol, who was captured by the Russians on March 5, 2022, recalls:

“We were thrown into a small room about 1.5 by 3 meters. There were 13 of us in that room. We lay there side by side, like herrings in a barrel. Then it turned out that there were two smaller rooms for storing mops, brooms, etc. And there were also 2-3 people in each of those.”

Horhol explains that throughout their detention, their eyes and hands were tied. Construction ties were fastened on their hands in a way that made them impossible to rip off: first each hand separately, then the ties were connected together. For some, the hands were bound with several ties at once.

“We asked them about our status,” recalls Serhiy Horhol. “They told us that we were temporarily detained pending clarification of circumstances, that we were not prisoners of war, so no conventions applied to us.”

Witness Serhiy Horhol shows the rooms in the wholesale depot building where Russians held hostages

MIHR journalists visited the site. In the administrative building of the commercial depot, where the accounting department was once located, there are several small rooms. One of them is without windows and light. According to Serhiy Horhol, it is here that he, Dmytro Khyliuk, and more than ten others were kept. It was only possible to lie curled up or with legs up against the wall, as it was not possible to lie down fully extended. Nearby are two other small rooms, presumably for storing items and documents, one of them with barred doors. Plastic tie remnants, which could have been used to bind hostages, still lie on the floor. One of the rooms contains a carpet under which MIHR found brown stains visually similar to blood.

Torn plastic ties in the room where Russians held the abducted Ukrainians. Photo by MIHR

“They brought us food twice a day, one biscuit for two and a cup of water. Sometimes, if there was water, then two cups. At that time, they themselves had a severe shortage of provisions, they were afraid to take water from local water supplies and wells,” adds Horhol. He recounts that on Sunday, March 6, 2022, all the hostages were transported by truck to the town of Dymer to the Viknaland factory, where they were held in the compressor room of the foundry. On March 10, journalist Dmytro Khyliuk and several other hostages were taken outside. No one has seen them since. Serhiy Horhol and Dmytro’s father, Vasyl Khyliuk, were released on March 12, 2022.

It is now known that from Dymer, Dmytro Khyliuk along with other civilian hostages were transported to Russia, where they were initially held at the Novozybkov Detention Center in the Bryansk region. Journalist Nataliya Bohuta, a friend of the Khyliuk family, recounts:

“In early 2023, a guy who was released from captivity called me. He said that Dmytro was kept in solitary confinement and was severely beaten.”

In May of the same year, the detainees in that detention center were transferred to other facilities. Khyliuk was moved to Correctional Colony No. 7 in Pakino, Vladimir region. This fact was confirmed to the family by the International Red Cross. But in January 2024, the family received a message that Khyliuk was no longer in that colony; he had been moved to another location. Where exactly remains unknown.

Serhiy Tsyhipa, a journalist from Nova Kakhovka, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for “espionage” by a so-called court in occupied Crimea. His last known place of detention is Detention Center No. 2 in Simferopol. Tsyhipa was abducted on March 12, 2022, as he was delivering humanitarian aid from Nova Kakhovka to the neighboring city of Tavriysk. At a checkpoint near the bridge over the North Crimean Canal, he was kidnapped by Russian military. Later it was found that the man was held in the seized building of the Kherson Regional State Administration, after which he was transported to Crimea.

His wife, Olena Tsyhipa, notes that Serhiy has always fought for justice, is very active and freedom-loving. Initially trained as a teacher of Russian language and literature, he has been involved in journalistic activities from his youth. He was the author and organizer of festivals such as “Tavriysk Rock-n-Roll,” “Kakhovka Bridgehead,” and others. He was repeatedly elected as a local council deputy and was a political analyst. In the last two years before the full-scale invasion, he worked as a freelance journalist, ran his own Telegram channel and Facebook page, covering city events.

“Serhiy wrote about the socio-political life of the city. He attended sessions of the local council, listened to what was happening, what was being voted on, and what decisions were being promoted or, conversely, obstructed, and he reported on it. He was indifferent to positions and statuses, he considered justice to be the most important, so he openly expressed his position,” says Olena Tsyhipa.

With the beginning of the full-scale invasion, he renamed his Facebook page to “Information Self-Defense of Nova Kakhovka” and there he informed people about the distribution of humanitarian aid, the operation of stores, pharmacies, as well as the actions of the occupiers and the organization of protests against them.

Journalist from Nova Kakhovka, Serhiy Tsyhipa, kidnapped by Russian military on March 12, 2022

“The reason he was captured was due to his activities — both what he wrote and his active participation in the rally on March 6 in Nova Kakhovka. He was inconvenient because he showed by his example that you should not be afraid, you need to show your resistance, your pro-Ukrainian stance. And people listened to him,” believes Olena Tsyhipa.

According to her, in the last six months before being kidnapped, her husband wrote two fairy tales for children, one of which was “A Night on Ivana Kupala.” Serhiy chose his family as the prototypes for the characters.

“After Serhiy’s arrest, I read this fairy tale and realized that it was prophetic. One of the characters, who was Serhiy, was kidnapped by the Water Spirit. To get Serhiy back, it was necessary to find seven keys and give them to the Water Spirit. I am very glad that the fairy tale has a happy ending, that eventually friends found these seven keys, gave them to the Water Spirit and he released Serhiy. I also hope that Serhiy’s captivity will soon end and he will return to his family.”

In April of this year, Serhiy Tsyhipa was transferred from Simferopol Detention Center No. 2 to the territory of the Russian Federation. Recently, his wife received news that her husband is being held in a correctional colony in Skopin, Ryazan region.

“What can be those keys for Serhiy’s release, I don’t yet know. But I’m doing everything in my power. I prepare publications, meet with journalists. I was at OSCE conferences in Warsaw, PACE conferences in Strasbourg. Everywhere I tell Serhiy’s story and about civilians like him, who have been illegally imprisoned, deported, and against whom illegal sentences have been passed,” notes Olena Tsyhipa.

Another journalist from Nova Kakhovka, Oleksandr Hunko, survived three days of Russian captivity. He is the editor of the website “Nova Kakhovka.City.”

“I was arrested on April 3, 2022. Russian Guard troops and Federal Security Service (FSB) officers, about 20 men, came directly to my home,” recounts Oleksandr. “Around 3 PM there was a knock at the door. I opened it and saw Russian military on the landing, fully equipped. One of them stood in front with a large shield and shouted: ‘Come out here!’”

Hunko went out and was immediately grabbed by two soldiers, led to a window in the hallway, while the rest entered the apartment, conducted a search, and checked the information on the computer. Outside, there were two minibuses and a Jeep marked with the letter Z. Oleksandr was put in a minibus and taken to the captured Kakhovka police department.

“One of the policemen grabbed me by the collar, bent me almost to the ground, and led me to the second floor to the last office. There were two desks, several chairs, and a safe. I was seated on a hard chair near the window and handcuffed my left hand to the radiator. There I sat alone for three days,” recalls the journalist and states that he was interrogated daily by three FSB officers. “They were in balaclavas. One of them immediately ran up to me and started punching me in the head, in the face, yelling, ‘You’re an American lackey. Admit it, where were you trained? In Baltimore? Look, if you don’t talk, I’ll kill you”.

After that, according to Oleksandr Hunko, another officer recorded something on a tablet, asked the journalist personal information, inquired about the Ukrainian government in Nova Kakhovka and neighboring cities, and was interested in the work of the editorial site, which was created with the support of the American Institute of Democracy. Also, the FSB officer showed Oleksandr photos of activists.

“These were people who held an active civic stance: an architect who fought for the preservation of the city’s historical monuments, a press secretary for an environmental organization, a craft teacher who defended teachers’ rights through the teachers’ union, and an investigative journalist who exposed the corrupt schemes of the mayor and his team. I told them that these are not Nazis, but people who fought against the arbitrary actions of the local authorities,” recalls Oleksandr Hunko.

Journalist from Nova Kakhovka, Oleksandr Hunko, was handcuffed to a radiator by Russians for three days

The man was only given food on the second day of his kidnapping, and on the third day, he was released on the condition that he give an interview to a Moscow TV channel in which he would apologize for calling Russian military personnel orcs and occupiers in his publications.

“They said to me: ‘We can release you, but where’s the guarantee that you won’t run away and tell everyone that we tortured you here?’ To which I replied, ‘What guarantees can I, handcuffed to a radiator, give you other than my life?’ ‘We would not want to shoot you,’” Hunko recalls the dialog with the FSB officer.

That same day, he was brought home, seated at his desk, and he apologized for his publications on camera under the muzzles of rifles.

“In front of me sat a journalist and a cameraman, behind them sat two officers with rifles, another one stood in the corridor behind my back. The ‘interview’ lasted over an hour. Then they made a three-minute segment with the headline: ‘Preventive conversation conducted with the editor of a newspaper from Nova Kakhovka”.

Sometime later, representatives of the FSB called Oleksandr again and offered him a job at a local newspaper, which they organized: “We will pay you well, you can write as you did before, even criticize the local administration. No one will know about it, you will write under a pseudonym.” Oleksandr Hunko asked for time to think and ultimately declined. In August, he left Nova Kakhovka.

The fate of journalist Viktoriya Roshchyna, who collaborated with various media and is a recipient of the “Courage in Journalism” award, remains unknown. The woman was first kidnapped in March 2022, while she was in occupied Berdiansk, Zaporizhzhia region. A few days later, she was released, forced to record a video statement saying that photos of Russian military equipment were found on her phone and that she had no complaints against the Russian military. Later, she moved to a territory controlled by Ukraine, and in July 2023, she went back. The fact that the journalist had disappeared only became widely known in October. “Roshchyna disappeared on August 3, 2023, from the Russian-occupied territory, where she was reporting. Since then, nothing has been heard about her,” reported the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) at the time.

On April 22, 2024, Russia officially confirmed for the first time that it is holding journalist Viktoriya Roshchyna in captivity

For a long time, the whereabouts of the journalist were unknown. However, on April 22 of this year, her father, Volodymyr Roshchyn, received a letter from the Russian Ministry of Defense confirming Roshchyna’s detention. Her family also submitted a request to the occupation prosecutor’s office in Mariupol, but they reported that no case had been initiated against the journalist. Meanwhile, letters to the Russian General Prosecutor’s Office, the Investigative Committee, and the Ombudsman remained unanswered.

In the occupied territories, not only professional journalists but also social media administrators, former Ukrainian media workers, and even journalists’ relatives are subjected to persecution.

For example, on May 6, 2023, the Levchenko couple from Melitopol stopped making contact. Iryna had previously worked as a correspondent for many publications — from local to nationwide. Two years before the full-scale invasion, she retired. Her husband, Oleksandr, had worked as a mechanic at a factory and retired two years earlier than Iryna. Together, they were engaged in gardening at their summer house.

“Iryna didn’t think she would be in danger. She said that retirees are of no interest to anyone,” says her sister, Olena Rudenko.

Shortly after the kidnapping, Oleksandr managed to send a note to friends, stating that they were being held in a building on Chernyshevskyi Street under very harsh conditions, sleeping on the concrete floor, with almost no food. The current whereabouts and condition of Iryna Levchenko and her husband are unknown.

Journalist Iryna Levchenko and her husband, Oleksandr, stopped making contact on May 6, 2023

The 75-year-old father of the editor of the website “RIA-Melitopol,” Svitlana Zalizetska, was also taken hostage. Russian military personnel looking for Svitlana stormed into her parents’ home on March 23, 2022. By that time, the woman had already left the occupied territory. They conducted a search of the house and took the computers.

“After the search, they told my father: ‘Well, get ready.’ They put a sack over his head, seated him in a car, and took him away. Later, they called me from my parents’ number. He said he was in some basement. I asked, ‘What do they want from you?’ Then the military man next to him said, ‘Tell her to come here.’”

Svitlana replied that she would not come. The next day, they called her again and offered to return her father if she provided all the passwords for the website and stopped writing.

“Аt that point, I didn’t have any passwords. Still, I agreed to write a statement that I had no connection to the “RIA-Melitopol” site. By morning, the post was up.”

After that, Svitlana’s father was returned home, although Russians conducted several more searches of his house afterwards.

On August 20, 2023, during a raid on Ukrainian media workers in Melitopol, the occupiers kidnapped the administrators of the Telegram chat “Melitopol — This is Ukraine,” Yan Suvorov, Oleksandr Malyshev, Maksym Rupchov, and Vladyslav Hershon, as well as the administrator of the Telegram channel “RIA-Melitopol,” Heorhiy Levchenko. Criminal cases were initiated against them for public calls for terrorism.

Detained Heorhiy Levchenko, screenshot from a Russian propaganda TV report

Along with them, Russians captured former journalist of “RIA-Melitopol,” Anastasiya Hlukhovska. Since the beginning of the occupation of Melitopol, the girl had stopped working in the editorial office and even registered at the local employment center, says her sister Diana Fomenko. According to her, on the morning of August 20, Anastasiya was supposed to meet her mother.

“Mother arrived around eight in the morning to Melitopol, rang the intercom, but Nastya didn’t open the door. Neighbors informed that people in uniform without insignias had come around six in the morning and took her away,” explains Diana.

Later, a Russian television broadcast featured a report on the detention of Ukrainian media workers, showing the moment when people in uniform burst into Hlukhovska’s apartment and led her away in handcuffs. However, neither in any occupation structure in the Zaporizhzhia region nor in the Russian Federation is the fact of Anastasiya Hlukhovska’s arrest confirmed.

“We still don’t know where she is and whether she is all right. We only know that on that day, according to various sources, between 30 to 50 people were captured. Some have already been sentenced to 15-20 years in prison,” notes Diana Fomenko.

Journalist Anastasiya Hlukhovska was kidnapped by Russians on August 30, 2023. Photo: SPILKA News

The hunt for Ukrainian media workers in the occupied territories continues. Svitlana Zalizetska notes that recently, a message appeared on one of the pro-Russian Telegram channels of occupied Melitopol calling on the administrators of the Ukrainian Telegram channel “RIA-Melitopol” to surrender.

“They wrote for the administrators who are in occupied Melitopol to come out to the square, where a meeting with the commandant will be arranged, who will offer them a job with a good salary. They even posted a photo where Soviet soldiers are taking Germans prisoners, implying these Germans are the administrators of “RIA-Melitopol,”” says Svitlana.

A message on one of the Russian Telegram channels of occupied Melitopol calls on the administrators of the Ukrainian Telegram channel “RIA-Melitopol” to surrender

A particular category of hostages is the media workers of “Crimean Solidarity.” They were the first to be persecuted by the Russian occupation authorities in 2014. The abduction of media workers in Crimea continues even now. Specifically, on March 5 this year, invaders in Bakhchisaray captured Rustem Osmanov and Aziz Azizov, media workers of “Crimean Solidarity.” Since 2014, they have attended court sessions in politically motivated criminal cases and reported on human rights violations in Crimea.

As reported by Lutfiye Zudiyeva, a representative of “Crimean Solidarity,” on the morning of March 5, FSB agents conducted mass searches in the homes of ten Crimean Tatar Muslims in Bakhchisaray and Jankoy region. The first reports of these appeared at 3:57 AM. After the searches, the Crimean Tatars were taken to the “FSB directorate” in Simferopol. That same day, the occupation court in Simferopol held a closed session and issued a ruling to arrest Rustem Osmanov, Aziz Azizov, and other activists until May 5, 2024. They are accused of organizing the activities of a terrorist organization and participating in such an organization (Article 205.5 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation). On May 3, 2024, the occupation court in Simferopol extended the arrest of the Crimean activists — media workers until August 2, 2024.

On March 5, 2024, in Bakhchisaray, the occupiers captured Aziz Azizov (left) and Rustem Osmanov (right), media workers of “Crimean Solidarity.” Photo by CPJ

Serhiy Tomilenko, the head of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine (NUJU), notes that today no human rights organization can give an exact number of Ukrainian media workers persecuted by Russia.

“Russia considers both journalists and editorial offices as targets of its military offensive, hence it keeps journalists in captivity. Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed access for representatives of the International Red Cross, other international institutions, or lawyers to the imprisoned journalists. Information about them is very difficult to obtain; it’s hard to assist or provide any support,” says the head of the NUJU, emphasizing that drawing the international community’s attention is essential for the release of Ukrainian media workers. “We don’t have direct administrative leverage over the occupying country, but we have our voice. The main thing is not to remain silent!”

He adds that the issue of freeing Ukrainian media workers is raised by the NUJU through active partnerships with the European Federation of Journalists, the International Press Institute, the American Committee to Protect Journalists, the international human rights organization “Civil Rights Defenders,” and others.

“This issue is personal for us, as some of the media workers imprisoned by Russia are members of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine. This includes the well-known journalist from Melitopol, Iryna Levchenko, and journalists from Crimea, Vladyslav Yesypenko, and Iryna Danylovych.

We maintain contact with the families of our colleagues to provide legal consultations and material support in this difficult situation. We conduct solidarity actions so that imprisoned journalists and their families feel cared for and believe in the day when we will welcome every Ukrainian journalist currently persecuted by Russia to freedom,” states Serhiy Tomilenko.

Russia’s actions in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine demonstrate its deliberate persecution of Ukrainian media workers and their family members with the aim of suppressing freedom of speech, intimidating the civilian population, gaining complete control over the information space, and concealing the truth about human rights violations. Although journalists do not have a special status in international humanitarian law (IHL), if they do not take direct part in hostilities and find themselves under the authority of an occupying state, they are protected under the Geneva Conventions, particularly the Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War and its Additional Protocols adopted in 1977 and 2005. Article 79 “Measures for the Protection of Journalists” of Protocol I concerning the protection of victims of international armed conflicts states this.

Like any other civilian in an occupation, journalists and their family members, according to IHL norms, have the right to humane treatment and respect; they cannot be discriminated against based on race, skin color, sex, language, religion or belief, political or other convictions, national or social origin, property status, birth, or any other status or similar criteria.

Violence to life and person, including cruel treatment and torture, outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, the taking of hostages, and threats to commit any of the foregoing acts, are expressly prohibited.

If a civilian is accused of committing a crime on the territory of the occupying state, that person has the right to a fair trial. In such cases, they must be promptly informed of the details of the alleged offense, have the right to defense, and no one may be compelled to testify against themselves or to confess guilt; the accused has the right to a public trial, and the convicted has the right to appeal the verdict.

Russia does not adhere to all these norms. Thus, the actions of its officials in systematically persecuting Ukrainian media workers and their family members on the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine are at least war crimes. They also bear the hallmarks of crimes against humanity.

This article was prepared with the contributions from Anastasiia Pantelieieva.


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