Ukrainian journalist Ruslan Kotsaba called for boycotting the latest wave of military mobilization in Ukraine—and now faces treason charges. Is he really a traitor or was he simply exercising his right to free expression?
The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) arrested Kotsaba, a reporter for Channel 112, for treason following an investigation into a YouTube video from the journalist in which he called for a boycott of the latest wave of Ukrainian military mobilization.
Ruslan Kotsaba has had a complicated relationship with the ongoing conflict and the Ukrainian government: he has often been sharply critical of the government’s response while reporting from the frontlines, but supported the Euromaidan movement and voted for Petro Poroshenko in the presidential election. Kotsaba's arrest has predictably elicited universally negative reactions from anti-Maidan Russians, but a more varied and complicated response from pro-Maidan Ukrainians.
Kotsaba’s January 17 YouTube video caused a stir among Ukrainian and Russian Internet users, drawing over 300,000 views and thousands of comments on Twitter, VK, and other social media platforms. In the video, Kotsaba calls for “all reasonable adequate people to refuse this mobilization,” in reference to the fourth wave of Ukrainian men mobilized to join the fight in Eastern Ukraine.
In a separate interview with GlobalPost about his YouTube video, Kotsaba further elaborated upon his opposition to mobilization by saying that he refuses to fight in a “civil war,” refuting the Ukrainian position that the conflict in Eastern Ukraine has been primarily instigated by Russian, not local, forces. Furthermore, Kotsaba pointed out that Ukrainian President Poroshenko has not declared a state of war—civil or otherwise—in Ukraine, thus calling into question the legitimacy of the mobilization.
Ruslan Kotsaba’s wife, Uliana, initially reported the news of her husband’s arrest via Facebook just after midnight local time on February 8.
Щойно передзвонив слідчий. Руслана затримано на 36 годин, до засідання суду, який прийме рішення щодо міри запобіжного заходу. Обшук і затримання проводилися за ухвалою суду в рамках “розслідування у кримінальному провадженні … за ознаками кримінального правопорушення, передбаченого ч.1 ст.111 КК України”.
The investigator just called back. Ruslan has been detained for 36 hours, until the court hearing that will decide upon a preventive measure. Both the search and the arrest were carried out based on a court order as part of “an investigation in a criminal case… bearing the signs of a criminal violation of the law, according to Part 1, Article 111 of the Ukrainian criminal code.”
Part 1, Article 111 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine refers to high treason, a charge levied a number of times in 2014, including against two residents plotting to conduct explosions in Mykolaiv, a citizen who was “following an order from a foreign special service,” and a man who was attempting the hijacking of a Ukrainian warplane.
Uliana Kotsaba later reported on Facebook that her husband’s pre-trial detention would last “up to 60 days.”
As one would expect, the pro-separatist spheres of the RuNet were outraged by Kotsaba's arrest, which immediately drew the attention of many social media users and news sites. A fake pro-Russian Twitter account claiming to be Chechnya’s head of state Ramzan Kadyrov called Kotsaba a pacifist and denounced the journalist’s arrest:
СБУ задержали и обвинили в госизмене украинского журналиста Руслана Коцабу. Он призывал к миру и был против братоубийственной войны.
— Рамзан Кадыров. (@KadirovRussia) February 8, 2015
The SBU detained and charged Ukrainian journalist Ruslan Kotsaba with treason. He called for peace and was against the fratricidal war.
The Ukrainian reaction was more mixed and included both accusations that Kotsaba was overly sympathetic to Russia and the separatists, and condemnations of the Ukrainian government for suppression of free speech. Popular Ukrainian blogger Sergey Naumovich was pithy in his response to Kotsaba’s arrest, implying his (Kotsaba's) sympathies to Russia:
Коцаба теперь будет ждать российские танки для своего освобождения
Kotsaba will now be waiting for Russian tanks to get his freedom back
Nastya Stanko, a journalist of Ukrainian Hromadske TV, thought the authorities’ response was disproportionate.
Щось це з Коцабою СБУ явно погарячкувала
— Nastya Stanko (@StankoNastya) February 8, 2015
Looks like the SBU obviously overdid it with Kotsaba.
A pro-Maidan Ukrainian user sorted out the controversy of Kotsaba’s position and his rights to free speech:
поддержит ли журналистский цех Коцабу? не за его позицию, которая спорна, а за его ПРАВО на свободу слова
— Майдан Не Окончен (@Bayan_The_One) February 8, 2015
Will the journalism community support Kotsaba? Not for his position, which is disputed, but for his RIGHT to freedom of speech.
While there were many pro-Maidan Ukrainians upset with violations of free speech, the loudest voices were from those less conflicted over the decision, such as popular Ukrainian blogger Dmytro Riznichenko, whose Facebook comment got 73 likes:
Західно-український журналіст і активіст, який стверджував, що “в Україні йде громадянська війна”, “російських військ на Донбасі нема” і закликав зривати мобілізацію. Коротше, працював на російську пропаганду.
A Western Ukrainian journalist and activist who claimed there was a “civil war happening in Ukraine,” “there were no Russian troops in the Donbas,” and called for sabotaging the mobilization. In short, he worked in favor of the Russian propaganda.
Ukraine's Independent Media Trade Union acknowledged in a statement that Kotsaba's calls to boycott looked like part of “an organized information campaign,” but said law enforcement needed more solid evidence that the reporter's actions actually constituted treason.
Kotsaba's arrest is not the only instance of the Ukrainian government suppressing dissent over mobilization, as yesterday Ukrainian MP Anton Gerashchenko posted on Facebook that the SBU would detain anyone attending an anti-mobilization rally in Mariupol.
If the court does indeed formally charge Ruslan Kotsaba with treason, the debate about his sentence is likely to escalate in the following weeks, as proponents of freedom of expression battle those who believe thwarting the state mobilization efforts is unpatriotic.