Opinion: Reporters targeted on Ukraine witch-hunt site | Opinion | DW | 14.05.2016
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Opinion: Reporters targeted on Ukraine witch-hunt site

A Ukrainian site has leaked personal details of journalists working in Donbass and put them under general suspicion of collaborating with separatists. The scandal points to official involvement, DW's Bernd Johann writes.

The Ukrainian website Mirotvorets (Peacemaker) has often attracted attention and caused scandal. Now the online forum has initiated a witch hunt for journalists who have covered the civil war in the separatist territories of eastern Ukraine. Those include employees of Russian state media, as well as journalists from around the world. Most of those targeted, however, are Ukrainian journalists.

As a result of international protest, the Mirotvorets organization announced that it would shut the website down. The group has not shown a trace of remorse in its statements, and the scandal lingers. In a sweeping accusation, journalists in general were criticized for supposedly cooperating with separatists in Donbass. The website leaked the names of 4,000 journalists working in the region. The list includes the names of companies the reporters work for, phone numbers and email addresses. Most of the information is private rather than professional.

Johann, Bernd

DW's Bernd Johann

Not only has the privacy of these people been grossly violated, but all journalists have been put under suspicion because they have been accredited by separatist authorities. That is enough reason for the "peacemakers" and their followers to speak of "treason" and "collaboration." Worse still, many Ukrainians and political figures in Kyiv agree with them.

In Ukraine, media are increasingly viewed as an instrument for state interests. Many of the implicated journalists in Donbass, including Deutsche Welle reporters, must now endure coarse insults on social networks. Threats have been made. An anti-journalist campaign is underway.

Accreditation isn't 'collaboration'

The journalists were just doing their jobs: They were working on assignments for media companies and meeting the legitimate public demand for coverage of the conflict. Reporters must always go where the action is. Accreditation is an internationally recognized procedure - even when such documents are issued by organizations that are not politically recognized. For safety reasons, journalists have a set of standards and rules to adhere to.

Covering governments or governing bodies is not the same as collaborating with them; by accrediting the journalists, the separatists do not gain formal international recognition. But, without the journalists' work in Donbass, the world would know much less about what is going on, much less about Russia's massive military involvement in Ukraine's civil war.

It is extremely cynical of the website to accuse thousands of journalists of cooperating with terrorists or to call them "enemies of the state."

Ukraine's general prosecutor is examining the case. Hopefully, the office will also ensure that those who published the journalists' personal information will be held legally accountable. They do not act as "peacemakers": They divide society, question the need for freedom of speech and put people's lives at stake.

The scandal goes all the way to Kyiv. Anton Herashenko, a member of parliament, supported the publication by bitterly reproaching the journalists. The politician and his connections to the dubious internet platform should also be examined by the judiciary. But he is also adviser to Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who is not known as someone who appreciates press freedom. It is highly likely that inner government circles play a part in the scandal.

The reporters on the list have risked their lives in the Donbass war zone. Now they have been targeted on the internet and will ask themselves whether Ukraine's government is willing to guard their personal safety and protect the freedom of the press.

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