Kiev (AFP) – Ukraine’s security service raided the Kiev offices of Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency and TV channel RT on Tuesday, detaining one journalist who they accused of treason.
The searches took place with relations between Moscow and Kiev already extremely strained, over Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and accusations that it fuelled a rebel conflict in eastern Ukraine that has cost some 10,000 lives.
The raids and arrest came on the day that Russian President Vladimir Putin opened a bridge providing the first direct road connection to the Crimean peninsula.
Olena Gitlyanska, a spokeswoman for the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), said Russian-controlled media were being “used as tools in a hybrid war against Ukraine.”
Earlier RIA Novosti reporter Kyrylo Vyshynsky, a Ukrainian national who received a Russian passport in 2015 according to the presidential decree published on the official Kremlin website, was detained near his house in Kiev.
“Currently, the preliminary qualification of the criminal offence (…) is treason,” a representative of the prosecutor’s office, Igor Ponochovny, told journalists during a joint briefing with the SBU official.
SBU deputy chief Viktor Kononenko accused Vyshynsky of travelling to Crimea in 2014 to carry out “subversive” reporting and later collaborating with separatist groups in eastern Ukraine.
He said Vyshynsky received ample funding to carry out his work.
“Today we can say that he received 53,000 a month for such activities,” said Kononenko. “The money is subsequently distributed to the groups and people involved. That was the reason for the searches.”
Russia immediately condemned the searches and detention of Vyshynsky.
– ‘Outrageous and scandalous’ –
“If it is the case that the actions of Ukrainian law enforcement bodies are somehow connected with the professional work of these media organisations, that would be outrageous and scandalous,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.
“Any action against Russian media is unacceptable,” he said, adding that the Ukrainian government has repeatedly “put pressure on freedom of speech” in the country.
He warned that Moscow could take measures in response, saying the Kremlin “will vigorously defend the interests of Russian media to the fullest extent.”
The director of the public media conglomerate Rossiya Segodnya, the parent company of the two media operations raided in Kiev, called for the release of Vyshynsky and said the “persecution” of Russian media in Ukraine must end.
“This is not the first time when the Kiev regime tramples on fundamental rights and freedoms by persecuting journalists,” Dmitry Kiselev was quoted as saying by RIA Novosti.
RT’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, linked the raids and arrest to the opening of the bridge.
“Kiev decided to take revenge on us for the Crimean bridge,” she said on her Twitter feed.
– Media tensions –
According to the SBU the offices of RIA Novosti and RT share the same premises in the centre of Kiev.
Up to 15 journalists work for RIA Novosti in Ukraine. Some of them are responsible for transmitting information to its headquarters in Moscow while others, led by Vyshynsky, are in charge of the ria.com.ua website for the Ukrainian audience.
Kiev authorities regularly accuse Russia of using its public media, including television stations which are very popular in Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, to encourage separatist sentiment and undermining confidence in the current pro-European government.
Ukraine had already banned the distribution of the main Russian TV channels on its territory, blocked the main Russian social networks and expelled several Russian journalists from its territory.
Ukraine ranks 101st out of 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Russia came in at 148.