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Ukrainian Activists Leak Personal Information of Thousands of War Reporters in the Donbas

Images from Wikimedia Commons/UTR News, CC BY 3.0, and Luis Prado/the Noun Project. Images edited by Tetyana Lokot.

Images from Wikimedia Commons/UTR News, CC BY 3.0, and Luis Prado/the Noun Project. Images edited by Tetyana Lokot.

Earlier this week, the Ukrainian activist website Mirotvorets (“Peacemaker”) published a spreadsheet listing what appear to be the names and details of thousands of journalists who have received accreditation to report in the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DNR”). The database was published on May 7 with little publicity, until a Facebook post on Tuesday by Anton Gerashchenko, a Ukrainian lawmaker and an advisor to Ukraine's interior minister, Arsen Avakov. The release of this list, titled “7901scoundrels,” has prompted the condemnation of both Ukrainian and foreign journalists and media organizations around the world (including the OSCE RFoM and CPJ), as well as the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Mirotvorets, the site that released the list of DNR-accredited reporters, bills itself as the “Center for Research of Signs of Crimes Against the National Security of Ukraine, Peace, Humanity, and International Law.” The site, allegedly run by volunteer activists, doxes (publishes personal information on) individuals that are deemed to be working against the interests of Ukraine or what they call the peaceful world, such as Russian soldiers and volunteers fighting in the Donbas and (as previously detailed by RuNet Echo) Russian fighter pilots in Syria and their families.

According to Gerashchenko, unnamed hackers acquired this spreadsheet a month before it was published by Mirotvorets. Along with a list of accredited journalists, the hackers also modified the webpages of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics to include Ukrainian symbols. Gerashchenko says the hackers managed to acquire 7 terabytes of information from the separatist servers, with the 1.25-megabyte spreadsheet of accredited journalists being only a small part of the larger hack.

The May 7 post on Mirotvorets came with the following reasoning for the decision to publish the list:

Cегодня этот список журналистов в наших руках. Не знаем, какие последствия будут после публикации этого списка, но знаем наверняка: публиковать его необходимо исходя из того, что эти журналисты сотрудничают с боевиками террористической организации.

Today this list of journalists is in our hands. We do not know what consequences will come after the publication of this list, but we know this for sure: it is necessary to publish this list because these journalists are cooperating with the militants of a terrorist organization.

The Mirotvorets activists made these allegations without presenting any specific proof, also making several “strange observations” about the list of reporters. For instance, the activists wondered why “non-Russian outlets” like CNN, BBC, or AFP had journalists with Russian names. They also reasoned that, because many of the accredited foreign journalists had Ukrainian phone numbers, this (somehow) pointed to their crossing the border into occupied territories illegally from Russia, and not from Ukraine. It remains unclear how the activists arrived at these conclusions or what information they have to support such claims.

The spreadsheet with the reporters’ data itself has six fields of information: the journalist’s name, employer, phone number, e-mail, period of accreditation, and special notes. While we cannot verify all of the information in the list, RuNet Echo contacted numerous journalists on the list who verified that the information corresponds with email addresses and telephone numbers provided to accrediting officials. For many journalists in the spreadsheet, the leaked information is not sensitive, but in some cases there could be consequences, as many perceive the doxed list to be intended as a blacklist that could trigger harassment and present other obstacles to their work in Ukraine.

Journalists React

The reaction of the media community to the leak was one of disbelief and anger. A number of Ukrainian and international journalists signed and released an open letter, addressing the leak and stressing that the journalists who worked in the occupied territories were instrumental in providing crucial information about the events of the conflict and covering incidents like the MH17 tragedy.

Ми особливо наголошуємо, що акредитація не означає і ніколи не означала співробітництво журналістів з будь-якою стороною конфлікту. Акредитація – це форма захисту і безпеки журналіста.
Нагадуємо, що, за даними українських та міжнародних медіа-організацій, тільки у 2014 році у полоні бойовиків побували майже 80 журналістів, українських і закордонних, багато з яких зазнали тортур. Акредитація була єдиним, хоч і мінімальним, механізмом захисту журналістів від тортур чи потрапляння в полон.
Після звинувачень у «роботі на терористів» та оприлюднення персональних даних, номерів телефонів та емейлів журналістів, їм почали телефонувати та писати з погрозами, а від деяких українських політиків уже пролунали заклики вважати цих журналістів «ворогами України» і взагалі закрити їм можливість працювати.
Подібне ставлення до журналістів є прямим порушенням української Конституції, Закону України «Про захист персональних даних», порушенням Європейської конвенції прав людини, і є ганебним і абсолютно неприйнятним в цивілізованій і нетоталітарній державі, якою є Україна.
Ми вимагаємо від сайту «Миротворець» негайно видалити з вільного доступу інформацію про персональні дані відповідних журналістів.

We want to especially stress that accreditation doesn't mean and has never meant that journalists are colluding with any of the sides of the conflict. Accreditation is a form of protection and security for the journalist.
We remind you that according to data from Ukrainian and international media organizations, in 2014 alone almost 80 journalists, both Ukrainian and foreign, were captured by the militants, with many of them undergoing torture. Accreditation was the only, though minimal, mechanism of protecting journalists from captivity or torture.
After being accused of “working for the terrorists” and having their personal data, phone numbers and emails made public, they started receiving phone calls and emails with threats, and some Ukrainian politicians have called for these journalists to be labeled “enemies of Ukraine” and to prevent them from working in the country completely.
This kind of attitude towards journalists is in direct violation of the Ukrainian Constitution, the Law of Ukraine “On Protection of Personal Data,” the European convention on human rights, and is shameful and completely unacceptable in a civilized, non-totalitarian state that Ukraine currently is.
We demand that the “Mirotvorets” website immediately remove from public access information about personal data of the aforementioned journalists.

RuNet Echo asked several of the journalists whose names were on the list for their reactions to the leak and how it reflects the overall attitude towards correspondents working in war zones.

Ian Bateson, an independent journalist based in Ukraine, said the Mirotvorets leak was based on false assumptions about the role foreign journalists had played in eastern Ukraine:

This list reduces all journalism to propaganda. It assumes writing about separatist controlled eastern Ukraine is somehow supporting the groups that have seized control of it which is a view that has no place in a democratic Ukraine. Foreign journalists have played a key role in publicizing information about what was going on in eastern Ukraine because we were the only ones who could get in. We put our lives on the line to do that and now as repayment get labeled as collaborators with our our personal details shared for all to see. Journalism has never been so thankless.

Evgeny Feldman, a photographer and reporter for the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, says the actions of Mirotvorets are counter-productive and display ignorance about the work journalists do in conflict zones:

Необходимость подчиняться требованиям вооруженных людей — печальная, но неизбежная сторона реальности в работе журналиста на войне. Ты не снимаешь человека с оружием, не спросив разрешения. Ты не снимаешь то, что запрещено снимать. Ты получаешь все документы, увеличивающие безопасность твоей работы – в том числе аккредитации, что СБУ, что “ДНР”. Ты пересекаешь границу «ДНР» легально, со стороны Украины, подвергаясь унизительным бессмысленным допросам, попыткам депортации, снятию с поездов посреди ночи. Ты соблюдаешь другие неприятные или неудобные меры обеспечения безопасности — носишь тяжелый бронежилет, возишь с собой жгуты и всякое такое, клеишь на машину буквы TV и держишь двери открытыми, когда едешь по простреливаемой дороге, останавливаешься на ней же, если видишь сломанную машину коллег.
Задача журналиста — найти возможность работать честно, лавируя между этими необходимыми и неизбежными ограничениями. Мне кажется, что я сумел это сделать, снимая как ключевые точки собственно войны, так и сложную жизнь мирных жителей. Более того, имея все эти возможные разрешения и не нарушая установленные ограничения, я сумел помочь нескольким украинским солдатам, попавших в плен — тем, кого заставили пройти на «параде» в Донецке и тем, кого принудили к работам в Иловайске: о ком-то узнали родные, кто-то попал в списки на обмен, кого-то улучшили условия. Это, пожалуй, главная моя профессиональная гордость за те 5 с лишним лет, что я в профессии. Сегодня сайт «Миротворец» выложил «утекшие» от «ДНРовцев» данные журналистов, аккредитованных в Донецке. Как я писал выше, бумажки — неизбежное условие, обеспечивающее возможность работать там. Хочется добавить, что сайт «Миротворец» задает глупейшие, идиотские вопросы о том, почему у журналистов украинские номера телефонов и почему у журналистов CNN русские имена. Публикация сайта показывает, насколько его авторы не имеют представления о специфике рискованной работы журналистов на войне.
Утечка этих данных со стороны собиравших их в Донецке показывает крохотную часть этих рисков, которые приходится принимать мне и моим коллегам.

The need to comply with the demands of armed individuals is a sad, but unavoidable part of the reality of working as a journalist in war zones. You do not film or photograph a person with a gun without asking permission. You do not film or shoot what you’re forbidden to shoot. You get every document that increases the safety of your work—including accreditation from both SBU (Ukraine’s security service) and “DNR.” You cross the border with “DNR” legally, from the Ukrainian side, where you’re subjected to humiliating and senseless questioning, deportation attempts, removal from trains in the middle of the night. You adhere to other unpleasant or inconvenient security measures, like wearing a heavy bulletproof vest, carrying a first aid kit and tourniquets everywhere, sticking the letters TV on your car, keeping the car doors open when you’re taking the road where there’s active fire and stopping on the same road if you see a colleagues’ car has broken down.
A journalist’s task is to find a possibility to work honestly, navigating between these necessary and unavoidable restrictions. I like to think I was able to do that, capturing both the key points of the war itself and the difficult lives of the civilians. Moreover, having obtained all of these permissions and without violating the restrictions imposed, I was able to help several Ukrainian soldiers who were captured—those who were made to march in the “parade” in Donetsk and those who were forced to do labor in Ilovaysk: someone’s relatives found out they were there, someone else got into the exchange lists, someone else’s living conditions were improved. This is probably my main professional point of pride during the five plus years I’ve been in the profession.
Today the “Mirotvorets” website published the “leaked” “DNR” data on journalists accredited in Donetsk. AS I said above, paperwork is an unavoidable condition that allows us the opportunity to work there. I’d like to point out that the “Mirotvorets” website asks the dumbest, most idiotic questions about why the journalists have Ukrainian phone numbers and why CNN reporters have Russian names. The website’s publication demonstrates that its authors have no idea about the specifics of the risky work journalists do in war zones.
The leak of this data on the part of those who collected it in Donetsk is testament to only a small part of these risks that my colleagues and I have to accept and deal with.

Simon Ostrovsky, a reporter for VICE News who has filmed dozens of dispatches from eastern Ukraine and Crimea since the beginning of the crisis, was also concerned with the misunderstanding of the work of a war zone correspondent:

It's completely stupid to claim that journalists are facilitating terrorism simply because they have been issued credentials by one of the factions in a war. Journalists should cover both sides of the war and in order to do so they need the permission of the armed men on all sides of the conflict in order to operate in the areas they control. The assertion the hackers made that all the journalists entered the area held by the separatists illegally is also unfounded. It is possible to enter Ukraine through an official border crossing controlled by Ukraine and then to enter the areas under control of the Russia-backed separatists. I should know. I've done it enough times.

The rhetoric coming out of Ukraine both from activists and government officials is unfortunately starting to mirror more and more their nationalist counterparts in Russia who want to blame the media and outside forces for internal problems that they're not willing to address themselves.

Ukrainian and foreign journalists have almost universally criticized the decision to publish the personal details of reporters who worked in the Donbas war zone, as well as the efforts of Anton Gerashchenko (a state official) to publicize and promote the leak. While Mirotvorets says the leak reveals those collaborating with separatist officials, it provides no conclusive evidence of this claim and, in essence, really only attempts to shame those who were doing the valuable, underappreciated work that journalists do in hot spots all around the world—reporting from an area where information is hard to come by and where numerous journalists have been injured, kidnapped, and even killed.

Kyiv Prosecutor's Office in Ukraine has opened a criminal investigation into the website's actions.

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