Pro-Russian activists trying to impose censorship and control or scare away independent news outlets.
Roman Lazorenko was sitting in his office writing an article on the shadowy rebellion that is engulfing eastern Ukraine when, as if on cue, eight men wearing balaclavas and military fatigues burst in. Two of them carried baseball bats.
The youths – from the separatist "Donetsk People's Republic" – said they wanted a chat. They told Lazorenko they didn't like the editorial line of his website, 62.ua, and they had a series of demands.
They said the word "separatism" was now forbidden. Journalists had to describe armed gunmen who had taken over a string of government buildings in the east of the country as "supporters of federalisation". Anything written about this "young state" had to be cleared in advance. The news website had to publish details of a bank account for donations to the cause.
"We recommend you agree to our demands," said the group's leader, who identified himself as Dmitry Silakov.
Lazorenko politely inquired: what would happen if he didn't? "We strongly recommend you do," Silakov said, in unfriendly tones.
Their appearance had a terrifying effect on Lazorenko's small team of four journalists and 10 sales executives, most women, one of whom was pregnant. "We have always tried to do objective journalism," Lazorenko said. "We wrote about what was happening in Crimea. When armed men started taking over town halls in the east, demanding union with Russia, we reported that too. We called them separatists because that's what they are."
Ukrainian journalists are used to working under tough conditions. Following Viktor Yanukovych's election victory in 2010, the president squeezed independent media and snuffed out dissenting voices from public television.
Despite this clampdown, however, Ukrainian reporters enjoyed more freedom than did their colleagues in next-door Russia, where TV and most newspapers are under the Kremlin's thumb. But in the last two months, media freedom in Ukraine has rapidly nosedived.
In Kiev, a deputy from the rightwing Svoboda party beat up the Yanukovych-era chief of the national broadcasting company, accusing him of siding with a murderous regime. (Instead of apologising, the deputy posted the clip online.) The pro-western government in Kiev, infuriated by what it regards as relentless Moscow propaganda, has chucked out several Russian correspondents. One was from the favoured Kremlin outlet Lifenews.ru.
But the worst abuses have taken place in regions seized by Russian troops and local proxies on the ground. In Crimea, anonymous gunmen harassed dozens of journalists, Ukrainian and foreign. According to Human Rights Watch, some have seized laptops and cameras. Ukraine's Russian-language newspaper Vesti has been forced to shut its bureaus in Simferopol, Crimea's administrative capital, and Sevastopol.
In the rebel eastern stronghold of Slavyansk, meanwhile, pro-Russian militia have kidnapped around 40 people. Their hostages include a large number of Ukrainian journalists who had come to the town in an attempt to report the news. Also held are seven European military observers. (An eighth was released on Sunday. The US correspondent Simon Ostrovsky, also taken, was freed last Thursday.) The prospects for the Ukrainians are grim. A masked gunman paraded one of them, Irma Krat, blindfolded, in front of the city hall. She and the others are still in prison.
Venturing into Slavyansk these days is a perilous business. There are rumours that the rebels have drawn up a list of "hostile" correspondents. Russian media representatives, by contrast, are free to report.
Dmytro Tkachenko, a Donetsk-based human rights activist, said he was working as a fixer for two Swedish journalists 10 days ago when gunmen grabbed him. "They took me to the police station. They searched my stuff. They examined my finger and said maybe I was a sniper." Tkachenko was lucky: after an hour he was released. When the BBC's Natalia Antelava attempted to report from Slavyansk, armed men held a gun to her head and told her to leave town.
Late on Sunday afternoon, pro-Russian activists seized the regional TV station in Donetsk, in what appears to be part of an unfolding plan to shut out news sources critical of Moscow. The activists ran up their People's Republic flag and began switching off Ukrainian TV channels. They replaced them with Rossiya 24, a Russian state propaganda outlet. "Ukrainian TV tells lies. So we're turning it off," said one activist, Vyaschelav, wearing a bulletproof vest and clutching a baseball bat. Asked whether he believed in free speech, Vyacheslav looked bemused.
Lazorenko said the situation for reporters in Ukraine was now worse than during the Yanukovych period. "Back then you could go the police if someone threatened you. Now the police don't do anything," he said. He estimated that only a minority in the region – perhaps 18-20% – supported the Donetsk People's Republic. "The irony is that people who say they are fighting fascism are behaving like fascists," he said.
The activists control some of the Donbass region – a patchwork of town halls in depressed small towns – but not all of it. They have demanded a referendum on the region's future status on 11 May. In the meantime they have transmitted their demands to around 20 Donetsk media organisations.
Even before this ultimatum, many local journalists were on the receiving end of menacing threats. One is now in hiding in Kiev with his family. Another, Olexiy Matsuka, said he was staying put, even though two weeks ago someone set fire to his car. His news portal, novosti.dn.ua, is an obvious target because of its pro-Ukraine approach. Matsuka said unknown people had tried to storm his office, and his team had installed security cameras, a panic button and burglar alarm. "We live with constant threats," he said.
Sergey Garmash, editor of the online news site ostrov.org, was amusingly scathing about the separatists' demands, which arrived at his office typed up and stamped with a seal. "I can write a hundred such edicts myself," he said. "The best thing to do with them is to use them as toilet paper."
Lazorenko, a historian by training and the son of a Soviet journalist, launched his news portal five years ago. At first its readership was modest – 1,000 people a day. Now it gets 40,000 hits, and sometimes more. But its future is in doubt. On Monday Lavorenko decided not to open up his central office, which overlooks Donetsk's Donbass Arena football stadium. A tipoff said activists were visiting news organisations to check that their demands had been fulfilled. Lazorenko said he and his three fellow journalists could work from home, but the ad staff could not, and revenues were suffering.
"We know their demands. They want us to remove the inverted commas from 'Donetsk People's Republic'," he said. "There's a clear attempt to impose censorship and to destroy or scare away independent journalists."
What would happen if the pro-Russian militia took power? "It will be murder," he predicted. Lazorenko said he used to get calls from journalists across the border in Russia who said they envied Ukraine's record on freedom of speech. "They don't say that any more," he said.
Originally published: www.theguardian.com