Battles to win hearts and minds often start with successful PR campaigns. For self-declared authorities hoping to gain recognition of their separatist aspirations, a non-threatening, conciliatory press conference could be a great start.
Winning the hearts and minds of the media hardly seemed to be the rationale behind some pretty strange press conferences held by pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine lately.
On Monday, militias in Sloviansk paraded Irma Krat, a 29-year-old Ukrainian journalist and activist they have been holding since Sunday, before a crowd of journalists. The city was the setting of a deadly shoot-out during the weekend, which killed at least three people.
An armed, masked man led out a blindfolded Krat, took the scarf off from around her face and allowed her to address reporters, then blindfolded her once again, and escorted her away.
But, he claimed, the group was not holding her “against her will.”
The videos below show Krat speaking to reporters. Her expired press credentials are shown in the second video.
Ukrainian journalist Irma Krat was held by pro-Russia separatists.
Krat told reporters that her conditions are “okay.”
“It is a bit cold, but they are giving me food, water," she said.
Pro-Russia separatists have said Krat, a Euromaidan activist who runs an online publication, is suspected of being a “spy.” They claimed she might be involved in the mistreatment — and possibly torture — of a riot policeman and a Russian journalist seized by activists in Kiev earlier this year. They also said that they are investigating her involvement in the revolution.
'We saw it as our right to detain her, and she will be kept in detention until we figure out her involvement in these war crimes.'
"We are checking that information," an unnamed man said at the press conference. "If it turns out to be true, she will be handed over to the police." Krat herself said she was just being questioned.
According to some reports, the journalist was also accused of shooting at the Berkut — Ukraine's former riot police force.
Krat was reportedly a member of the Maidan’s “women’s brigade,” a group made up largely of journalists, lawyers, and intellectuals.
VICE News correspondent Simon Ostrovsky, who was at Monday’s presser, called it the “world’s weirdest press conference.”
“The guy in the mask said that she wasn’t being held against her will but he also said that they weren’t gonna let her go,” Ostrovsky said. “She sounded incredibly composed given the situation, and she was very confident about what she was saying. She stuck to her guns, said she supports a united Ukraine and that she considers the pogroms that are going on right now to be the fault of politicians on both sides.”
On Sunday evening, Krat also addressed reporters while blindfolded.
Irma Krat was blindfolded while speaking to reporters on Sunday night.
“We have gathered you here to announce that, in the town of Sloviansk, a diehard activist of the Maidan self-defense forces, Irma Krat, was detained today,” a man in camouflage fatigues told reporters that had been invited into the local headquarters of the state security services.
"She is suspected of many crimes on the Maidan, against the Berkut and against peaceful citizens. We therefore saw it as our right to detain her, and she will be kept in detention until we figure out her involvement in these war crimes.”
Krat had reportedly traveled to Sloviansk from Kiev, to report on separatist movements in the country's east.
Reports also circulated that a second journalist, freelancer Serhiy Lefter, had been missing since last week. Acquaintances believed he was also held in Sloviansk, but Krat said she was not aware of any other journalists being held there.
"They said they weren’t holding anyone and they appealed to us for info about missing persons,” Ostrovsky said, referring to the militias that had seized Krat.
The self-declared mayor of Sloviansk threatened to throw out a reporter whose questions he found 'provocative.'
Ostrovsky was also at another press conference, on Monday, by the self-declared “mayor” of Sloviansk, Vacheslav Ponomarev. That event also got a little weird.
There, a woman who identified herself as a local councilwoman accused journalists of being liars, and Ponomarev threatened to throw out a reporter whose questions he found "provocative."
"There was an AP reporter who asked the mayor a couple of times why they were holding the former mayor under guard, and the current, self-declared mayor was very unhappy with that line of questioning," Ostrovsky said. "He told him that he’d throw the guy out of the press conference if he asked another provocative question."
Sloviansk pro-Russia 'mayor' threatens to throw journalist out for
— Simon Ostrovsky (@SimonOstrovsky)April 21, 2014
Now he's not letting reporters leave the press conference:
— Simon Ostrovsky (@SimonOstrovsky)April 21, 2014
Earlier this month, activists who had occupied a government building in Luhansk held a press conference to declare that their intentions were “peaceful.” But that presser seemed rather intended to show just how well armed they were, as shown in the video and tweets below.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi