Russia faces fresh accusations of targeting journalists in Ukraine

US-based international press freedom NGO the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is calling for an investigation into a series of recent Russian air strikes in Ukraine that injured journalists covering the war. The missile attacks in late December targeted a number of hotels known for hosting visiting international correspondents and representatives of international aid organizations.

Allegations that the Russian military may be purposely attacking locations used by members of the press and international aid workers are not new. In September 2023, Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab published an article entitled “Evidence suggests Russia has been deliberately targeting journalists in Ukraine.” Ukraine’s National Union of Journalists has accused Russia of bombing sites frequented by journalists in order to intimidate correspondents and “limit coverage of the war in the international media.”

Numerous journalists covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine have voiced their concerns over Russian air strikes. The chief foreign affairs correspondent at the Wall Street Journal, Yaroslav Trofimov, noted recently that seven of the Ukrainian hotels he had stayed in had been struck by Russian missiles. “Russia is routinely bombing hotels in the east and the south, in part to make it more dangerous for journalists and NGOs to operate,” he posted on December 31, 2023.

Svitlana Dolbysheva, a Ukrainian translator working for German TV channel ZDF, was among those wounded on December 30 in a Russian air strike that partially destroyed Kharkiv’s Palace Hotel. “This is another Russian attack on the free press,” commented ZDF chief editor Bettina Schausten in the aftermath of the bombing. “ZDF will continue to report on the war against the Ukrainian civilian population.”

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Anton Skyba, who works as a freelance journalist and risk assessment trainer with Ukraine’s 2402 Fund NGO, argues that Russia’s attacks are meant “to disrupt and seed panic among journalists, media workers, aid workers, and different international counterparts.” He believes the Russian objective is to sew chaos and disorder, which will in the long run shield the Russian military from media scrutiny by making the work of journalists as difficult and dangerous as possible. In this context, he says, the terror tactics being employed are “quite pragmatic.”

The recent flurry of attacks on hotels has refocused attention on the safety of international media representatives in Ukraine. In summer 2023, a series of Russian air strikes behind the front lines in eastern Ukraine including an attack on a hotel in Pokrovsk sparked similar accusations that the Kremlin was attempting to distrupt international media coverage. At the time, the International Federation of Journalists responded by condemning “the targeting of facilities frequented by journalists,” while Peter Beaumont of the UK’s Guardian newspaper noted that the targeted locations were all used by journalists and said the bombings were “very much not a coincidence.” The Pokrovsk attack also prompted a coalition of 24 international civil society organizations to express alarm “at the continued targeting of media workers in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Despite multiple examples of Russian air strikes against hotels and other venues known for hosting international correspondents, Moscow has consistently rejected allegations of any deliberate policy to target journalists in Ukraine. On numerous occasions, Kremlin officials have sought to justify specific attacks by claiming venues were being used by members of the Ukrainian military and were therefore legitimate targets.

Demonstrating the intent behind individual bombings amid Europe’s largest invasion since World War II would be extremely challenging. Any such efforts would also likely take a considerable amount of time and investigative resources. Nevertheless, many within the international media and civil society communities currently appear determined to hold Russia accountable.

As the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine approaches the two-year mark, the Russian army stands accused of committing a vast array of crimes. The list includes everything from summary executions and the widespread use of torture, to the bombardment of Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and the destruction of entire towns and cities. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin himself has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for his role in the mass abduction of Ukrainian children.

The allegedly deliberate targeting of journalists in Ukraine by the Russian military is particularly alarming, as it suggests an attempt by the Kremlin to restrict media coverage of the invasion and prevent international audiences from learning about possible war crimes. It is important to thoroughly investigate these claims, both in order to make sure the crimes of the current war do not go unpunished, and to prevent such practices from becoming routine features of twenty-first century warfare.

Mercedes Sapuppo is a program assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

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Image: A view shows the Kharkiv Palace Hotel heavily damaged by a Russian missile strike, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kharkiv, Ukraine December 31, 2023. (REUTERS/Yan Dobronosov)