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British Reporter's Diatribe At Maimed Captive Rankles Kyiv

Controversial British reporter Graham Phillips (file photo)
Controversial British reporter Graham Phillips (file photo)

As Graham Phillips tells it, back in the late 1990s as a Dundee University dual major in philosophy and history and a thespian performing under the stage name Brandon Reed, he saw his "career either as journalism, or writing for the theater."

He appears, after stints in state-sector marketing and communications, publishing, and teaching, to have opted for both.

A British expat reporter and videographer who fancies himself a "truth speaker" out to redeem independent journalism in the fog of the Russia-backed war in eastern Ukraine, Phillips' critics describe him as a propagandist, plain and simple.

In his latest clip to have sparked outrage, Phillips uses his stilted Russian and two minutes of exclusive access (apparently granted by the separatists) to berate a badly disabled Ukrainian man moments before his handover to Kyiv authorities as part of a prisoner swap.

Subtitled in English, the video features Phillips climbing into a minivan marked with a red cross before Volodymyr Zhemchuhov is exchanged for several separatists.

WATCH: Graham Phillips Taunts Volodymyr Zhemchuhov

Phillips accuses Zhemchuhov -- who lost both hands and his sight in a mine blast in September 2015, then spent a year in separatist custody -- of speaking "like a brainwashed zombie" and being "not such a smart guy" whose injuries came in a failed effort at sabotage. The latter charge echoes allegations made by separatists that Zhemchuhov was wounded while acting as a saboteur.

He also tells the prisoner that no one needs him anymore because he lost his arms.

Zhemchuhov, who describes himself as "an educated man" who is familiar with Phillips' work, responds to the Briton's taunts by calling him a "traitor, pro-Putin propaganda scum."

"Who made you come here to my Motherland? How much does [Russian President Vladimir] Putin pay you? Go home," he tells Phillips.

Phillips' YouTube clip, from September 17, eventually drew the attention of officials in Kyiv, who have responded with a request via the Ukrainian Embassy in London for British authorities to rein in Phillips to keep him off Ukrainian territory.

Ukraine's ambassador to Britain, Natalya Halybarenko, made the appeal in an open letter on September 22, threatening Phillips with criminal prosecution.

Halybarenko called on British authorities to "take all possible measures including with regard to his travel documents to stop Mr. Phillips’s propaganda work for the Russian occupation authorities in Ukraine and for him to leave our country for good."

There was no immediate reaction to the letter from Britain's Foreign Office.

Deported Twice

Phillips has gotten under the skin of Ukrainian officials before. They have twice expelled him and sought to ban him from the country for three years -- but their lack of control over Crimea, which was forcibly annexed by Russia in 2014, and separatist-held swaths of Ukraine's Donbas region have left him free to travel there with Russian or other connivance.

Phillips, who blew onto the international media scene 2 1/2 years ago with the start of hostilities in Ukraine, has made his name on social media and video-sharing sites for brash and sometimes foolhardy reporting around the front lines with pro-Moscow separatists.

He has worked for Russia's state broadcaster RT and its military channel Zvezda and toes the Kremlin line, alleging Kyiv's responsibility for the conflict and shaming its troops and accusing them of the "murder [of] civilians," as well as asserting Moscow's narrative that part of eastern Ukraine "is Novorossia and not Ukraine." He has routinely posed with separatist or Russian weapons in hand and in Russian military uniform, and even cheered separatists' tactical victories on the battlefield.

Phillips' critics call his war coverage mere Russia-sponsored theater with the aim of legitimizing Moscow's designs in Ukraine.

But the results are more than 39,000 followers on his Twitter account, 78,000 subscribers and millions of views on his YouTube channel, and even a crowdfunding effort.

Zhemchuhov's release was announced by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who welcomed him and another prisoner personally upon their return to Ukrainian-controlled territory:

Phillips responded to the Ukrainian diplomatic letter in a series of Twitter posts on September 22, suggesting simply that "#Ukraine hates the truth being reported!" and that the country had gone"into hysterics" out of "hate for one freelance journalist."

The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, a well-known Ukrainian activist group, called on journalist organizations in the West and elsewhere to condemn Phillips for the interview with Zhemchuhov, saying his aggressive questioning was a form of torture.

"There are doubtless different tasks that Phillips is there to perform, but one advantage to pro-Kremlin sources is quite simply in being able to describe him as 'a British journalist'," the group said in a letter. "It is surely time for both UK and international journalist organizations to publicly put an end to this lie and clearly state that torture, abuse and flagrant distortions are not what journalism is about."

Phillips got into trouble in Latvia earlier this year by accusing Latvian authorities of countenancing Nazism while he was covering a controversial demonstration of right-wing nationalists whose past rallies have drawn criticism from the Kremlin.

A video of the March rally shows Phillips yelling in Russian, "Aren’t you ashamed of propagandizing fascism?"

He was detained and later expelled.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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