Pro-Russia separatists have been doing it for weeks already: arresting journalists they deem unsympathetic to their cause and locking them up to stop them from doing their jobs.
Several Ukrainian and foreign journalists — including VICE News' own Simon Ostrovsky — have been detained or beaten by the separatist militias that have taken over many cities in eastern Ukraine.
But on Sunday, it was the Ukrainian military doing the detaining, as it arrested two reporters with Russian TV channel LifeNews at a checkpoint near the city of Kramatorsk. On Tuesday, Graham Phillips, a British freelancer who had been stringing from Ukraine for the Russian government's RT network was also held.
Ahead of Phillips' arrest, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) condemned the detention of journalists by both parties in the escalating conflict.
“Journalists covering the Ukraine crisis are convenient targets of the conflicting sides. I reiterate my call to all sides to stop intimidating and threatening members of the media and to let them do their jobs,” OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic said in a statement on Monday. “Journalists must be free to do their job without fear for their safety. In times of conflict the plurality of voices and opinions are needed more than ever in order for the citizens to be informed.”
Vladislav Seleznyov, a Ukrainian military spokesman, didn't confirm or deny Phillips' detention to VICE News.
Phillips, a Ukraine-based schoolteacher who started documenting developments in the country during the Euromaidan protests, and later in Crimea, had last tweeted from Mariupol, where he was detained. While in the custody of Ukrainian forces he was however able to speak with RT.
“I’ve been here for over two hours and I’ve been described, my status, as being detained in terms of I can’t leave. I would also say I’m being treated OK by them. I believe that someone is coming,” he told them. “They’ve done checks on my documentation. They found my reports and clips I’ve done and they’re now looking through them asking me my position on things, asking if I’m a spy, and asking me quite thorough questions. They’ve checked all my documentation and photos, my laptop and the car — so that’s who I’m with at the moment.”
The video below includes the recording of that phone call.
Phillips’ coverage was unpopular with some pro-Ukraine activists, and the right-wing Ukrainian nationalist group, the Right Sector, had reportedly offered $10,000 for the capture of what it called a “Russian spy,” according to RT.
During Ostrovsky's detention, Phillips tweeted prolifically about his meetings with Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the self-proclaimed "mayor of Sloviansk," who is behind several abductions in the eastern Ukrainian city. Phillips was also accused of tweeting Ponomarev's claims as fact — even when they weren't.
Before Phillips’ arrest, Russian correspondent Oleg Sidyakin and cameraman Marat Saichenko were also detained, while they were traveling with a group of armed separatists in Kramatorsk. RT reported that Ukrainian forces had also opened fire on the two men and members of a RT crew last week.
Ukrainian authorities confirmed that the men — who identified themselves as journalists — were in custody.
“The people who identified themselves as Russian citizens and journalists have been detained and will be interrogated,” Ukraine’s interior ministry said in a statement.
The Ukrainian military released this video of the arrest, and said the detained men were “armed terrorists” and “Russian citizens.” The footage shows three men under detention, as well as several objects, including a rocket launcher and the detained journalists’ press passes.
This photo of the detained journalists was later circulated on the Euromaidan Twitter account.
Russian authorities condemned the journalists’ detention.
“Ukraine continues to illegally hold LifeNews journalists Oleg Sidyakin and Marat Saichenko,” Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Monday, calling for their release. “This kind of lawlessness directed against Russian journalists, which has become the practice, once again confirms the Ukrainian side ignoring the basic norms of democracy, in particular, freedom of speech.”
Phillips, Sidyakin, and Saichenko are the first three journalists reportedly detained by Ukrainian authorities, but several journalists believed to be in the custody of pro-Russia separatists are still missing.
Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker, was also detained by Russian forces in occupied Crimea and reportedly taken to Moscow, where he is being investigated on suspicion of "terrorism."
Ostrovsky, who was detained by pro-Russia militias in Sloviansk last month, called for Phillips' release.
"If he has confirmed to have been captured by Ukrainian forces, I think he should be released," he said. "And I think both sides of the conflict, including the Russian Federation, the pro-Russia forces, and the Ukrainian forces should stop detaining or taking journalists hostage."
Additional reporting from Simon Ostrovsky in Ukraine.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi