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Anti-press attacks rise as tensions escalate in Ukraine

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British photojournalist Frederick Paxton is roughed up while reporting in the town of Horlivka. (AP/Efrem Lukatsky)

New York, April 14, 2014--Local and international journalists covering the volatile situation in eastern Ukraine have been harassed, attacked, detained, and had their equipment seized, according to news reports and regional press freedom groups. 

"The tension in eastern Ukraine is rife with danger for local and international journalists alike," said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. "All sides in the standoff should respect the role of the news media and refrain from harassing, obstructing, and attacking journalists."

In the past week, armed men stormed government buildings, raided police stations, and built highway checkpoints in several towns in the eastern regions of Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk, local and international press reported. The protesters demanded a referendum on the status of the regions within Ukraine and asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to send troops. The crisis follows the flight from Ukraine of former President Viktor Yanukovych in late February and the subsequent annexation of Crimea by Russia.

In the eastern city of Horlivka today, masked men roughed up Frederick Paxton, a British photojournalist who works for the independent news website Vice News, and confiscated his reporting equipment, the AP reported. Paxton was reporting on the takeover of a local police station. The journalist told CPJ via Twitter: "Microphone and cards smashed, camera was later returned damaged. I was ruffed up, as was a colleague who was trying to locate my camera."

Paxton's colleague was Roland Oliphant, a journalist on assignment in Horlivka with the British newspaper Telegraph, who posted on Twitter today: "Strongly advise press not to come here. Mood suddenly ugly. Leaving."

At least seven masked men today raided the offices shared by independent local news website Gorlovka and newspaper Kriminal Ekspress in Horlivka, and detained Aleksandr Belinsky, chief editor of Gorlovka, the Kiev-based press freedom group Institute of Mass Information (IMI) reported. The men put Belinsky in a car and drove away. Belinksy later told IMI he had been forced into a regional police station that was taken over by armed pro-Russian protesters. He said he was harassed by a large crowd and then released.

News reports said that on Saturday journalists with the Ukrainian online broadcaster Hromadske TV and Russian news website Lenta were briefly detained by unidentified armed men who barred them from reporting in the city of Sloviansk. The journalists were attempting to cover a raid by armed men on a local police station, news reports said.

In the city of Kramatorsk today, a group of men raided the local office of the independent telecommunications company Volya, and demanded that the company drop the programming of independent Ukrainian stations Channel 5 and Channel 1+1, and start carrying Russian television channels, the independent news website Telekritika reported. In a press release issued today, the company said much of the staff was sent home because the assailants had threatened to use force. The company said it is still broadcasting Ukrainian TV stations.

News accounts also reported that Ukrainian border guards have denied entry to Russian journalists. Vsevolod Boiko, journalist for the popular online broadcaster Ekho Moskvy, was barred from entering Ukraine today, news reports said. Last week, CPJ urged Ukrainian authorities to stop barring journalists from the country.

On April 2, Russian border guards briefly detained a crew from the Ukrainian Channel 5 when the journalists tried to cross into Russia from Ukraine to film the movement of Russian tanks, the independent news website Ukrainska Pravda reported. The journalists were released the same day, but one of them, Oleg Krishtopa, was reportedly told he was considered a persona non grata in Russia.

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