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Russian forces are reportedly holding Ukrainian journalists hostage

Reporters and residents stand outside a residential building that was damaged by what authorities say is a Russian bombardment in the Vynogradir district of Kyiv, Ukraine on  March 15. Some Ukrainian journalists have been detained and held hostage in Russian-occupied areas of the country.
Marcus Yam
Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag
Reporters and residents stand outside a residential building that was damaged by what authorities say is a Russian bombardment in the Vynogradir district of Kyiv, Ukraine on March 15. Some Ukrainian journalists have been detained and held hostage in Russian-occupied areas of the country.

Russian soldiers are kidnapping Ukrainian journalists in contested territories and holding them hostage, according to international groups and survivor accounts.

The Paris-based global nonprofit Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said on Friday that Russians have kidnapped, detained and tortured dozens of journalists, while the U.N.'s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights told the BBC that it has verified at least 36 cases of civilian detentions in Ukraine.

"Ever since the start of the war in Ukraine, the Russian armed forces have been bullying and threatening journalists and local media in the conquered territories to prevent them reporting the facts and get them to spread Kremlin propaganda," RSF said.

It added that soldiers are getting "more and more inventive in their attempts to make Ukrainian journalists cooperate as the war in Ukraine enters its second month," turning to death threats, kidnapping and enforced disappearance.

Russian forces say they have occupied several Ukrainian cities in recent weeks, and have detained local officials — including the mayor of Melitopol, who was since released — in some of those places as well.

The U.N. spokesperson told the BBC that the people being targeted are "mostly representatives of local communities, journalists and people who were vocal about their pro-Ukrainian positions." Many of these incidents involve journalists and even their family members.

One journalist says her father is being held hostage to pressure her

Svetlana Zalizetskaya, the editor of newspaper Golovna Gazeta Melitopola and the RIA-Melitopol news website, says Russian forces are holding her 75-year-old father hostage as punishment for her criticism of the war.

She wrote on Facebook that three people — two soldiers with machine guns and one in civilian clothes — came into her house early Wednesday morning, conducted a messy search, took her parents' phones away and brought her father to an unknown location, according to an English translation from Ukraine'sInstitute of Mass Information.

Zalizetskaya said she was told through loved ones that her dad will only be released after she turns herself in to the military. She is not in Melitopol, however: She left the city after being called to a "preventative" meeting with the Russian-installed leader of the city, where she refused to end her criticism of the invasion.

Zalizetskaya's father's whereabouts are unknown, though she later wrote that he told her over the phone that he was being held "in some basement." She also said that he had previously suffered a stroke and that her mother had survived a heart attack.

"If anything happens to my parents, it will be on the conscience of the occupiers," reads the English translation of her post.

A photojournalist has been missing for nearly two weeks

Ukrainian photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Maks Levin has been missing since mid-March, according to his friends and family.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Levin went missing near the village of Huta-Mezhyhirska, in the Kyiv region, where he was covering clashes between Russian forces and Ukrainians on March 13. He reportedly left his car there and headed to another village, but his phone has been offline since that morning and he has not been seen since.

Levin's colleague and friend, Markiian Lyseiko, wrote on Facebook that "it is assumed that he may have been injured or captured by Russian troops."

Levin has covered Russia's invasions of Ukraine since 2014, and has contributed to Reuters, the BBC, The Associated Press, and other international outlets, according to Ukrainian state news agency Ukrinform. He's also worked on projects with organizations like the United Nations, the World Health Organization and UNICEF.

In an interview with Vice published days before his disappearance, Levin described his experience reporting on the front lines and pledged to continue his work documenting the daily lives of Ukrainian soldiers.

"Me, I will stay on the front line as long as I am physically able," he said. "These soldiers are my friends."

Russian forces have allegedly kidnapped, tortured and threatened others

RSF detailed several instances of Russian forces taking journalists hostage, as well as detaining and intimidating them, in the weeks since the invasion began.

On March 8, Russian soldiers stormed a building in the coastal city of Berdianks that houses several media outlets: radio Novosti Berdianks, the newspaper Berdianskiye Vedomosti and television channel Youg TV. RSF says they quickly took control of the TV channel, radio station and its social media accounts, and "took hostage around 50 employees of these media outlets who were present."

One journalist who was there told RSF on the condition of anonymity that the soldiers offered a salary and food in exchange for hostages' cooperation, but no one accepted. He said that for more than five hours, they threatened the hostages with their weapons and explained Russia's rationale for the war, saying they were there to protect them from Nazis. The incident has evidently had a chilling effect.

"Ever since this hostage-taking, Novosti Berdiansk has been broadcasting Kremlin propaganda calling on Ukrainians to lay down their arms," RSF says. "Access to its website, one of the most visited in the region before the start of the war, is blocked."

RSF also alleges that Russian forces are kidnapping and threatening individual journalists.

Hromadske Radio journalist Viktoria Roshchina was working in the Russian-occupied port city of Berdiansk when she disappeared on March 12, and was freed 10 days later after being forced to record a video saying that she was treated well and Russian soldiers "saved her life," according to the RSF. The BBC reports a slightly different timeline, saying she was taken by unidentified men on March 15 and released after six days.

The RSF also says journalist Oleg Baturin was held and tortured for eight days after being kidnapped by Russian soldiers in the Kherson region, while an unnamed Radio France fixer kidnapped near Kyiv says he was held hostage for more than a week, tortured with electricity and subjected to food deprivation and a mock execution.

In Melitopol, four journalists were arrested at their homes on Monday and taken forcefully by Russian soldiers to an unknown destination, only to be released a few hours later.

Ukraine's National Union of Journalists confirmed this account to the BBC, describing the detentions as part of "a wave of information cleansing" aimed at the "intimidation of journalists and public figures."

Russian troops have also threatened to kill specific journalists, RSF says, even posting the address and passport data of one woman online and calling for her to face punishment for criticizing the Kremlin.

At least seven journalists have been killed in Ukraine since Russia first invaded, most recently Russian correspondent Oksana Baulina.

This story originally appeared inthe Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.