The Leak Of Ukraine’s War Correspondents’ Details Was A Stupid, Reckless Act

May 11, 2016
Journalist on the Maidan in Kiev on February 18, 2014. Many of the journalists who covered Euromaidan then deployed to the Donbass |Photo: Mstyslav Chernov

Last night the ‘Peacekeeper’ website, founded by Ukrainian MP and Interior Ministry adviser Anton Herashchenko, published a cache of documents purportedly hacked from servers used by the Russian-backed self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR).

According to Herashchenko, more than 7 terabytes of data were extracted a month ago by hackers affiliated with Peacekeeper, all of which were passed on to the Ukrainian security services for analysis.

But the first batch of documents released last night concerned not the internal machinations of the Russian-backed military force occupying much of the Donetsk region, but the identities of journalists who had obtained DNR ‘accreditation’ in order to work in separatist-controlled territory.

In the cache, titled “scoundrels,” Peacekeeper published names, affiliations, phone numbers and email address relating to thousands of journalists. This included not only reporters from Russian state media, but journalists, film crews, photographers, drivers and translators from hundreds of foreign papers and news agencies, including the BBC, CNN, ZDF, AFP and many more.

While Peackeeper accuses the journalists named in the documents of “collaboration” with the DNR, great numbers of them have actually produced very critical coverage of the Russian-backed separatists.

Among those are the BBC’s Natalia Antelava and Abdujalil Abdurasulov, who produced perhaps the most devastating report on Russian use of propaganda of the whole war.

In April last year, the pair reported from Donetsk on how DNR spokesmen and Russian state media had colluded to fabricate the story of a 10-year-old girl, supposedly killed by Ukrainian shelling. After the BBC could not find any trace of the girl, Russian reporters eventually told Antelava that the girl had never even existed.

Another reporter named in the list, Simon Ostrovsky of VICE news, not only reported on his detention and abuse by Russian-backed fighters, but also returned to demonstrate, in the most tangible way possible, the veracity of geolocations proving the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine.

Right back in May, 2014, CNN filmed fighters from the Vostok Battalion, a military unit that played a vital role in the early stages of the war, telling correspondent Nick Paton Walsh, who is also on the Peacekeeper list, that they were Chechens – an important piece of evidence pinning Russia to the war effort.

Shaun Walker of The Guardian and Roland Oliphant of The Daily Telegraph even reported live as they watched a column of Russian armoured personnel carriers cross the Russian border into Ukraine in August of that year.

Heorhiy Tikhiy, working for Germany’s ARD, documented the Russian encirclement of Ukrainian forces at Ilovaisk and escaped, under fire, with several Ukrainian journalists, filming the same journey that cost hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers’ lives.

Novaya Gazeta‘s Yelena Kostyuchenko and Pavel Kanygin conducted incredible, in-depth interviews with Russian fighters in the Donbass, at even greater risk to themselves as Russian citizens for an independent paper that has seen several of its reporters assassinated under the Putin regime.

Meanwhile photographers for Reuters and AP as well as dozens of freelancers documented Russian tanks either operating or knocked out in the fields of eastern Ukraine — images that were then analyzed by The Interpreter in our report on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

This is just a tiny sample of the reporters and film crews named by Peacekeeper who provided invaluable material from inside the zone controlled by Russian-backed fighters. Without their efforts, conclusively proving that Ukraine was invaded by Russian forces would be a far, far more difficult effort.

To brand all of these people as “scoundrels” and collaborators is ridiculous.

Furthermore, including the details of drivers and translators, many of whom may be locals at risk of reprisals, is criminally irresponsible.

Strangely, Peacekeeper also queries why so many of the employees of the BBC, AFP or CNN have Russian names, fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of an international news agency.

As should be expected, the release has drawn widespread condemnation form journalists both within Ukraine and world wide.

Journalists from Ukraine’s Ukrainska Pravda, Hromadske TV, and Kyiv Post have signed, together with dozens from international news outlets, a letter of protest, demanding that the leak of personal data be investigated by law enforcement. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, has also expressed concern at the “alarming development which could further endanger the safety situation for journalists.”

Just as stupid on Peacekeeper and Herashchenko’s parts, however, is that the release of the details on journalists was released to the public before the release of a cache of documents purportedly detailing the interior workings of the DNR ‘ministry of information.” If any of the data in these files or the remainder of the large cache is of any interest or use to media, then it will only be overshadowed by the attack on the press.

Herashchenko, never a man known for his tactfulness, and Peacekeeper have done little but harm Ukraine’s interests by behaving in this manner. The release will be seen as an attack on the free press at a time when Ukraine has been falling out of the media limelight, despite the ongoing, daily casualties in the war. Turning on those reporters who have covered the war in the Donbass first-hand right now is hardly going to help this situation.