KYIV -- At a bustling Kyiv intersection lined with storefronts selling coffee and pastries, a pile of red roses surrounds a black-and-white photograph of Pavel Sheremet, an intrepid journalist who was killed by a car bomb here on July 20.
The simple, solemn memorial to Sheremet is also a symbol of a wave of attacks on journalists -- online and in the streets -- that has raised stark questions about power, patriotism, and the freedom of speech in Ukraine, and clouded the country's chances for normalcy.
In a nation struggling with economic troubles and Russian aggression, media professionals suspect they are being targeted in a far-reaching campaign of abuse whose perpetrators, like Sheremet’s unidentified killers, have so far acted with total impunity.
Journalists who have challenged the authorities, veered from the government’s narrative on the conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the east, or reported from separatist-held territories have found themselves in the crosshairs of coordinated online attacks carried out by hypernationalist trolls and bots -- attacks that in some cases have been supported, at least verbally, by high-ranking government and security officials.
The barrage of criticism has inspired public contempt for journalists as well as hacks and leaks of their personal data, including e-mail addresses, phone numbers, and passport information, and their correspondence with sources. Some journalists have faced death threats and physical assaults.
According to the Kyiv-based Institute of Mass Information (IMI), a media watchdog that tracks attacks on reporters in Ukraine, the Prosecutor-General's Office logged 113 criminal offenses -- including physical attacks, damage to property, and obstruction of activities -- committed against journalists in the first half of 2016.
For a quarter-century, muckraking journalists in Ukraine have faced harassment, intimidation, and worse from powerful people in government and business. The media landscape is still scarred by the grisly killing of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, whose headless corpse was found in a forest outside Kyiv after he disappeared in 2000.
The Kyiv Post newspaper has compiled a list of more than 50 Ukrainian journalists who have been killed or who died under suspicious circumstances since the country gained independence in the Soviet collapse of 1991. Others have gone missing, been beaten, or threatened with violence.
The new wave of attacks presents a crucial test for Ukraine in the wake of the “Euromaidan” protests that drove Viktor Yanukovych, a president compromised by corruption allegations and strong Kremlin influence, from power in 2014.
How the government handles it, observers and insiders say, will play a powerful role in determining whether Ukraine will tread a path toward greater democracy and Western integration or slide back into authoritarianism and crony capitalism.
That second route would leave it all the more vulnerable to pressure from Russia, which has destabilized Ukraine by seizing the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and supporting separatists in a war that has killed more than 9,500 people in the eastern Donbas region since that April.
So far, it doesn’t look promising.
Resigning in frustration and anger on August 3, Deputy Information Policy Minister Tetyana Popova condemned what she called the government’s lack of will to investigate abuse against journalists and defend freedom of speech.
“I do not support attacks on journalists and attacks on freedom of speech by political organizations and individual political officials,” Popova wrote on Facebook. “I cannot tolerate the absence of a proper reaction to these kinds of attacks.”
The assaults that bookended Sheremet’s assassination occurred in broad daylight in the country’s capital, but nobody has been prosecuted for them -- or even arrested.
The same goes for his killing. A flurry of details about the mechanics of the attack and theories about a motive in the hours afterward have given way to something close to silence from law enforcement, and there is little sign that a solution is imminent.
Colleagues view the fact that a high-ranking police official who reportedly assigned surveillance to Sheremet weeks before his death was allowed to enjoy a long summer vacation before being questioned as evidence that Ukraine’s leaders are not taking the case seriously. The official returned to Kyiv on August 6 and wrote a statement about the alleged surveillance, but has not yet been formally questioned.
What many journalists find more disturbing is the ambivalent, sometimes supportive stance the Ukrainian authorities have taken toward a newer brand of attacks on journalists -- one that is thriving in the Internet age.
Oksana Romanyuk, the director of IMI and Ukraine representative for Reporters Without Borders, told RFE/RL that authorities still account for some of the attacks against journalists. But this year, she says, she has noticed a startling shift: Most threats and attacks, including those online, have been carried out by civilians.
She said that “71 attacks against journalists, two-thirds of the total so far in 2016, have been committed by private persons, 50 by officials, and six by law enforcement."
The attackers are tech-savvy hackers, Internet trolls, and in a growing number of cases media employees known as “patriotic journalists,” who align themselves with the state.
Members of this group tend to display unconditional support for what they see as Ukraine’s interests, view issues such as the war in eastern Ukraine though a filter of black and white and good and evil, and suspect a Russian-orchestrated conspiracy behind anyone even remotely critical of Ukraine.
“This is a new phenomenon,” said Katya Gorchinskaya, chief executive officer of the Kyiv-based Hromadske.TV, told RFE/RL. “The particular split [among journalists], as well as an alliance of ‘patriotic citizens’ and government, is new.”
Hromadske.TV has experienced the movement’s harassment firsthand. Earlier this month, the online public TV company, created at the start of the Euromaidan protests in 2013, found itself the subject of a well-organized online attack carried out by an army of trolls and bots after it published a video report that showed fighting in the flash-point eastern town of Avdiyivka that authorities complained gave away Ukrainian military positions.
“Though we don’t know who commissioned the attack, we do know that their position was strongly pro-government,” Gorchinskaya wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian in July.
Those who stand up against the attacks themselves often face threats and criticism.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Popova said that the actions of the Ukrainian authorities – and what she termed their lack of action in prosecuting those who attack journalists -- “sow hatred and encourage others to indulge in similar attacks.”
“There are many politicians in the government who do not understand the importance that…journalists and free speech play in democracy,” she said.
Popova continues to serve in the ministry until parliament can vote to approve her resignation. She said she hopes it will be done before the end of August.
Her resignation was a rebellion against the government’s “silent approval of violence and trolling of journalists,” Gorchinskaya said.
From ‘I-Army’ To Myrotvorets
Romanyuk said she noticed a spike in such trolling of journalists following the creation in February 2015 of a Ukrainian “Internet army” headed by Information Policy Minister Yuriy Stets, a close ally of President Petro Poroshenko who once worked at Channel 5, a TV news company controlled by Poroshenko.
“Each of your information messages is a bullet in your enemy’s conscience,” read the website of the ministry’s ‘i-army,’ which said its goal was countering Russia’s formidable propaganda machine.
It invited “patriotic” Ukrainian Internet users to submit their names and e-mail addresses to join other “information warriors.” Weekly e-mails were then sent to the “i-army” with information about stories and reporters it disagreed with and what must be done to counter them. For instance, if a reporter used the term “rebel” to describe Russia-backed separatists or “civil war” to describe the conflict, members were urged to hound the publication and the reporter on their social-media accounts. For the “i-army,” the preferred terms are “terrorists” and “Russia’s war.”
Romanyuk says the “i-army” seems to have paved the way for the more serious trolling and cyberattacks against journalists that began last May, when a Ukrainian nationalist website called Myrotvorets, or Peacemaker, hacked and published the personal data of more than 5,000 Ukrainian and foreign reporters and fixers who applied for press passes issued by separatists who hold territory in the Donetsk region and branded them “terrorist collaborators.” The information was gleaned during a hack of the separatists’ servers.
There is widespread suspicion that the hack was conducted by employees of the Security Service of Ukraine, known as the SBU, or perhaps by close allies contracted by the organization. Myrotvorets is said to be directed by an elusive Ukrainian who goes by the name Roman Zaytsev. Zaytsev’s Facebook page, on which his face is masked, lists his occupation as director of the site and his past occupation as “department head” at the SBU.
Zaytsev did not respond to requests for comment, which were addressed to the Facebook page. In a written statement to RFE/RL, SBU chief of staff Oleksandr Tkachuk said that “the Security Service of Ukraine has no relation to the creation of the website Myrotvorets, and it is not cooperating with persons associated with its operation.”
Tkachuk added that nobody named Roman Zaytsev is or was an “employe[e] or officer or an adviser” in the SBU. The SBU’s position, he said, is that the Myrotvorets site “summarizes information on the Internet that is in the public domain, namely information voluntarily submitted to open and socially oriented public resources,” and therefore has operated legally.
In fact, however, much of the information Myrotvorets published was not shared publicly on social media; it was shared privately over e-mail. And documents included in the leak, such as passports, had not been made public by the journalists.
Rights groups and international observers warned of the danger of reprisals stemming from the leaks.
“Such irresponsible comments and actions jeopardize the safety of journalists and human rights defenders and violate their right to privacy,” Human Rights Watch said in an August 10 report.
Sure enough, in the days and weeks following the leaks, many journalists whose names appeared on the Myrotvorets list received death threats from anonymous social-media users or via text message from unidentified numbers. Dozens of journalists faced a barrage of negative comments on Facebook and Twitter.
Far from denouncing the distribution of personal data and the rhetoric used to describe journalists named in the leaks, some high-ranking officials and politicians have backed Myrotvorets. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov branded the journalists on the list as “liberal-separatists.” Anton Herashchenko, an Avakov adviser and lawmaker from the People’s Front -- part of the ruling coalition in parliament led by Poroshenko’s party -- told his more than 100,000 followers on Facebook that they were “traitors” and “terrorist collaborators.”
Poroshenko did condemn the Myrotvorets leak -- but not until several weeks later, when he was pushed to respond during his annual press conference in June. And he added a caveat that echoed the position of Myrotvorets itself: Journalists should not write “negative articles” about Ukraine.
For Romanyuk, Poroshenko’s remarks were too little, too late. And they have not put an end to the leaks or the threats.
On August 4 came a second leak of journalists’ data. It included private information about many dozens of journalists, including those from foreign media outlets such as the Associated Press, Al-Jazeera, the BBC, CNN, The New York Times, and RFE/RL.
It was also swiftly followed by a salvo of fresh criticism, with Ukrainian nationalists and officials quickly voicing their support and echoing previous sentiments that journalists reporting on the war from separatist-controlled territory were “collaborating with terrorists.”
One such critical remark came from Roman Donik, a volunteer who supplies soldiers with equipment and who issued a warning to journalists on the day of the second leak.
“If you don’t cleanse your profession yourselves, it will be cleaned up by kicking your face in,” Donik wrote on Facebook. “And, yes, I see nothing seditious in the fact that journalists have been beaten, especially if they’ve received accreditation in [separatist-controlled Donetsk]. It’s a professional hazard, like how a sanitation worker smells like shit.”
The latest leak is purported to have come from Tatyana Yegorova, a disgruntled former administrator of the Donetsk separatists’ security service who posted a link to a Dropbox folder containing the documents on Twitter. However, observers see the hand of Myrotvorets in the leak, particularly because the types of documents and details released resemble those in the first leak.
Many e-mails included in the second leak come from journalists asking Yegorova to provide them press passes to work in separatist-held parts of Donetsk region. These credentials have been required since the start of the war and are necessary for reporters to navigate through checkpoints and work on both sides of the front lines.
Accreditation with separatists is no guarantee of protection; in fact, many journalists who have received such credentials have been subjected to abductions, detentions, and interrogations.
Who’s Behind Myrotvorets?
Zaytsev is believed to be a figurehead, and who exactly is behind Myrotvorets remains unclear. There has been much speculation that Herashchenko directs the site’s operations and that a group of nationalist volunteers carry out its daily activities while online supporters promote their work. Asked in an interview with RFE/RL whether Myrotvorets is his brainchild, Herashchenko winked, chuckled, and replied: “No.”
The group operates in the shadows, its website does not have a masthead, and it never attaches a byline to its published articles or leaks, making it difficult to know who is in its ranks. But a document obtained by RFE/RL and examined by IMI has shined some light on that. The Google Sheets document indicates that Myrotvorets is getting professional assistance from a murky Kyiv-based public relations company called Internet Business Promotions, which is run by a man named Ihor Savchuk. Savchuk’s Facebook profile shows him dressed in camouflage and holding a rifle, and his timeline is filled with supportive words for Myrotvorets and links to the site.
Among the many services offered by Internet Business Promotions is “reputation building using online media…social networks and the blogosphere,” as well as “crisis PR” for the “neutralization of negative information.” That could translate as online trolling.
Savchuk did not respond to RFE/RL’s requests for comment on Facebook, though the messages were received. Asked whether he knows Savchuk personally, Herashchenko said that he “has made his acquaintance” but did not elaborate.
RFE/RL came across the document linking Internet Business Promotions with Myrotvorets on June 15, when a blogger named Myroslav Oleshko published a plea on Facebook for “patriotic citizens” to help with Myrotvorets’ work and boasting about having obtained leaked data from Russia-backed separatists in the Luhansk region.
Oleshko’s post included a Google Sheets attachment with some of the information. The properties of the attachment, when viewed on a mobile device, showed its creator to be a user called ihor108 with the email address email@example.com. A Google search quickly connected that e-mail address with Savchuk and another Internet marketing company headed by him.
To Popova, the rise of “patriotic journalism” is at least as chilling as the leaks. It’s a dangerous trend, she said, that is “leading to a narrowing of the space for freedom of expression, and it’s a real threat to the health and lives of journalists.”
But others are embracing it, creating a rift that critics of the practice say puts journalists, and the future of Ukraine, at risk.
“Journalists should never write something that would harm their country,” said a reporter who asked that she not be named because she did not want to be viewed as speaking for her company, a media outlet owned by influential tycoon Viktor Pinchuk.
In practice, that means the kind of hard-hitting reporting some believe can help Ukraine shed Russian influence and thrive -- by minimizing corruption, misrule, and the abuse of power -- is considered by others to be out of bounds, and even treasonous.
Yevhen Fedchenko, who has influenced generations of Ukrainian reporters as director of the Kyiv Mohyla School of Journalism and founded the website StopFake.org, which exposes Russian disinformation, said that the trend of “patriotic journalism” is worrying.
‘Only The Start’
But he also said that it is not hackers, nationalist trolls, or the authorities who are “responsible” for the fallout from the Myrotvorets leaks but rather the journalists who have been targeted, arguing that they brought attention to the site.
“Before journalists publicized the leak, nobody really knew about Myrotvorets. Then media started saying they were gathering signatures to prosecute Myrotvorets,” Fedchenko told RFE/RL.
In fact, it was not journalists who first drew attention to Myrotvorets but Herashchenko, who posted a message on Facebook about “traitor” journalists who “collaborate with terrorists” and linked to the leak on the Myrotvorets site. Journalists picked up the story only later, after the harassment began.
As for the recent spate of physical assaults on journalists, Fedchenko said: “What is happening today [to journalists] seems minor and inconsequential, blown out of proportion and pushed by many journalists because it is really more about self-importance and self-aggrandizement rather than pursuing journalism for the sake of journalism.”
For Romanyuk, this highlights what she sees as widening divide within Ukraine’s media community. “There is no solidarity or common values right now,” she said.
Gorchinskaya, the Hromadske.TV CEO, said that the authorities’ approach has made things worse.
“The government remains silent, and silent endorsement -- and sometimes open endorsement -- gives society the message that it’s normal to call journalists traitors and threaten them,” she said.
The online abuse has continued, and Herashchenko predicted it won’t subside anytime soon.
“My feeling is that this is only the start and soon many more leaks and information will be revealed,” he said.
* This story has been corrected to clarify that a high-ranking police official returned to Kyiv on August 6 from vacation but has not yet been questioned in Sheremet's death.