KYIV -- An apparent arson attack against a popular television news channel is underscoring fears that jingoism-fueled hostility toward journalists could extinguish free speech in Ukraine.
Journalists for Inter television, whose Kyiv studios were set alight on September 4 during a violence-marred protest against the channel's purported pro-Russian stance, described the incident as an attack on freedom of speech and "an attempt to shut up inconvenient journalists."
Government officials have asserted that the fire was a "provocation" meant to tarnish Ukraine's reputation and create fodder for Russia's state-run propaganda outlets, which have painted the country as a failed state. Some even accused Inter of setting its own building alight after the channel reportedly refused to hand over security camera footage from its offices.
"The events that happened at the TV channel can't be understood by any normal person," Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroysman told a briefing on September 5, according to Ukraine's Interfax news service. "So, today, an important task for law enforcement is to find those who did it, those who benefited from it."
The events unfolded at about 4 p.m., local time, when a group of around 20 camouflage-clad protesters gathered outside Inter's National Information Systems building and began burning tires. According to the National Police spokeswoman for Kyiv, Oksana Blyschyk, the building was set on fire when a smoke grenade was thrown through a window.
State emergency services painted a starker picture, saying a preliminary investigation showed that one incendiary device started the first floor on fire, while a flammable substance caused a fire on the second floor as employees were being evacuated.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, in an interview with the 1+1 TV channel, alleged that most of the protesters were former military servicemen from Ukraine's 30th Brigade. They brandished signs protesting what Avakov described as Inter's pro-Russian stance. Scuffles broke out when police detained several of the demonstrators. Video footage shows them wrestling on the street in front of the building.
Avakov said six people were taken into custody and charged with hooliganism and intentional destruction of property.
Several Inter employees were treated for carbon-monoxide poisoning, while one employee suffered a broken leg, according to an Inter statement. A tweet posted by Hromadske television showed a journalist it claimed had suffered a spinal injury.
Ukraine's UNIAN news agency reported that 30 people were evacuated. The fire was extinguished within two hours, according to the Kyiv fire department.
Inter appealed to President Petro Poroshenko "to intervene to restore the rule of law and protection against such unlawful acts." It also called on law enforcement agencies, including the Interior Ministry and Security Service, "to conduct an objective investigation and to ensure the safety of media."
Dangerous Climate For Journalists
The fire follows a spate of verbal and physical attacks this summer against journalists who have investigated officials, challenged the authorities and the official government narrative of the ongoing conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the east, or have reported from separatist-controlled areas.
Many have been scorned by high-ranking government and security officials and found themselves the targets of coordinated online attacks by pro-Ukrainian trolls. Other journalists have been beaten, mugged and, in one case, killed.
Prominent Belarusian-born journalist Pavel Sheremet was killed by a car bomb in Kyiv on July 20. Ukraine's head of police said on September 3 that there had been no serious progress in the investigation into Sheremet's assassination and the perpetrators remained free.
Observers have questioned the authorities' dedication to democracy and protecting freedom of speech, and have voiced concerns over the culture of impunity that existed under the regime of former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and remains more than two years after the Euromaidan revolution replaced him with a pro-European government.
Mustafa Nayyem, a pro-European former journalist turned lawmaker representing Poroshenko's party, said that under no circumstances should media offices be targeted for attacks. "I'm against burning TV channels. It does not matter who, what, or for what reasons it is done," he wrote in a post on Facebook. "Just like the beatings of human rights defenders and the harassment of journalists in general. This is a boomerang that pushes society into a vicious circle of endless mob justice."
Human rights campaigner Halya Coynash echoed Nayyem's sentiment in a blog post. "Irresponsible protesters who attacked the offices of TV Inter on Sunday afternoon have done Ukraine no favors," she wrote.
She also described recent accusations against Inter made by Interior Minister Avakov as "ill-timed."
In a Facebook post on August 31, Avakov urged Ukraine's domestic security service to deport the channel's director, Igor Shuvalov, a Russian national. He described Inter as having an "anti-Ukrainian, antistate" position, and asked: "How much more facts and evidence do you need?!"
Cries Of 'Traitor!'
Inter's work came under heightened scrutiny from Avakov last month following the emergence of a leaked e-mail from an official from the Russia-backed separatist group calling itself the Donetsk People's Republic (DNR). The e-email appeared to show Maria Stolyarova, a Russian national and former Inter journalist, seeking approval from the separatist leadership of a story reported from Donetsk before it was aired in summer 2015.
The group that promoted the e-mail leak online was an anonymous, pro-government hacker collective called Myrotvorets, or Peacemaker. The group, backed at least verbally by Avakov and hard-line populist lawmakers allied to him, has leaked the personal data of journalists who have received accreditation from and reported in the separatist-held territories. Both the group and Avakov have labeled those journalists as "collaborators of terrorists" and "traitors" of Ukraine.
Inter was the target of several protests and attacks earlier this year due to its alleged pro-Kremlin editorial stances and ties to Russia. The channel is owned by Ukrainian billionaire Dmytro Firtash, a businessman who profited greatly from key contracts to import Russian natural gas to Ukraine. Accused of bribery by the United States, he is currently fighting the charges and extradition in Vienna.
In January, protesters spray-painted "Kremlin mouthpiece" on its offices and hurled rocks through the windows. In February, volunteer Azov Battalion fighters blocked journalists' access to its offices after the channel aired a story criticizing fallen Euromaidan demonstrators known as the Heavenly Hundred. The reporter responsible for the story, Stolyarova, was subsequently fired and deported by the Ukrainian authorities to Russia. In June, protesters burned tires at the entrance to Inter's offices.
As the smoke settled on September 5, tempers flared again. Dozens of protesters gathered once more outside the Inter offices, carrying with them signs that read, "Burn Inter burn" and "Inter out."
On social media, some anonymous pro-Ukrainian trolls celebrated. "I support the arson on Inter! [retweet] to show how much the oligarchic power is corrupt," wrote one user who attached an image from the Euromaidan revolution showing protesters burning tires.
In contrast to the belligerent statements made by the protesters, online trolls, and Avakov, Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine's permanent representative to the Council of Europe, wrote on Twitter that no matter what one's stance might be on Inter, "arson is not the answer, because [it's the building], not the editorial policy that burns."