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Attack by municipal guards signals rising threats against journalists in Ukraine

A member of the Municipal Guard attacks a journalist with teargas. Photo by Tomikage via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The year 2018 has thus far been a difficult one for journalists in Ukraine.

On June 4, 2018, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir issued a public statement condemning Ukraine's Spokesperson of the General Prosecutor, who had published a list of “traitors” against the state, which included two independent journalists. Désir called the move “unacceptable and dangerous” and urged authorities to intervene ensure that all state authorities uphold protections for media freedom.

A recent incident in which journalists were assaulted by city Municipal Guard workers suggests that the problem of state authorities and contractors seeking to stifle media activity may be widespread. In the city of Odessa, a dispute arose between a local law firm and several members of the Municipal Guard, a team of security workers who operate independent of law enforcement institutions, at the order of Odessa's city administration.

Three journalists came to the site of the dispute on July 13, where 40 municipal guard workers had come to remove several iron parking posts, at the city's behest. Conflict arose between the municipal guard workers and the law firm staff, who said that the parking posts belonged to their company.

Municipal Guard workers openly attacked the journalists with teargas and rubber clubs. The video below shows some of what happened next. The editor-in-chief of Unsolved Crimes newspaper was attacked by the municipal guard while filming. Vitaly Tkachenko, of Obshestvennyi Priboi newspaper, was hit in the chest and face several times by municipal guard employees.

Municipal Guard worker Grazevich Alexander shouts at the camera:

F*ck off from here, why are you filming me?! I will break your camera now and your face too!

Denis Razdorozhny, the inspector of the security department of the Municipal Guard, tells the journalists:

The boys were instructed to do everything by blood or in a normal way!

Journalist Miroslav Bekchiv, of Obshestvennyi Priboi newspaper, was forced into a car and eventually brought to the police station. While in the car, he was beaten and threatened by Yuri Savchenko, the first deputy head of the Municipal Guard of Odessa City Council, and Evgenyi Miroshnichenko, the deputy head of the Municipal Guard.

In the video, Yuri Savchenko can be heard saying:

Get the motherfucker into the car.

Evgenyi Miroshnichenko then says:

Listen you, fucking shit! I'm not going to take you to the police station, but will sort things out in a different manner! I'll take you to another place from which nobody comes back!

Bekchiv was later taken to a hospital, where doctors said that he had sustained traumatic brain injuries, signs of suffocation and eye burns.

On July 18, 2016 the Primorsky Court of Odessa placed two employees of the Municipal Guard, Oleinik Pavel and Gratsevich Alexander, under provisional house arrest. Both of them were informed before by the prosecutor’s office that they will likely be charged for under laws against “unlawful acts committed by officials by prior conspiracy” and “threat of murder, violence or destruction or damage to the property of a journalist”, both of which fall under Ukraine's penal code.

Though disturbing for Odessa residents, the incident did not come as a surprise — this not the first time the Municipal Guard has taken such measures.

While the Municipal Guard is licensed to perform security guard activities and is financed by Odessa's taxpayers, it has no relation to law enforcement bodies of Ukraine. According to the law, it has no other rights, except to provide security. It has no right to dismantle property. But in this case, city officials deployed the Municipal Guard to do just that.

The story shed additional light on the worsening state of security for journalists in Ukraine. According to data from the National Union of Journalists in Ukraine, not a single prosecution resulted from the 90 attacks on journalists that took place in 2017. As the community waits to learn the fate of Miroslav Bekchiv, who remains in serious condition, questions of how to protect media workers in the face of heightened threats are looming large.

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