If you believe the Ukrainian Security Service, they betrayed their country. But if you believe their lawyers, they were just doing their job. Ukraine has pressed charges against three men it accused of doing media work for Russia and its proxies in Ukraine’s occupied Donbas.
Two have been sentenced to nine years in prison on charges of terrorism. The verdict states that the pair helped separatists in Ukraine’s occupied territories set up the news agency “Novorossiya TV.” The third media worker’s trial for an unrelated offense is still ongoing.
In all three cases, the defendants’ lawyers argue that their clients’ actions do not constitute crimes or should be protected under Ukrainian law.
Tech Support Terrorism?
Yevhen Timonin and Dmytro Vasylets essentially stand accused of helping launch the Russia-backed separatists’ news agency. But their lawyer, Olena Lyoshenko, says that, at the time, they had no idea that the site they were working on would become “Novorossiya TV.”
Furthermore, the accusations against them were largely based upon posts on the VKontakte social network and posts by Myrotvorets, an activist website that publishes information on people it considers enemies of Ukraine. The site, which has close ties to the Ukrainian security ministries, has targeted everyone from separatists to foreign correspondents.
None of this, Lyoshenko says, is enough evidence for terrorism charges.
Timonin and Vasylets travelled to Donetsk in 2014 to help set up and register a YouTube channel. It was, Lyoshenko says, just a job.
“Back then, no one knew what was going on in the east,” she says. “They travelled there to find that out. There, they met with people, they tried to get the server up and running — which wasn’t that successful, by the way. They were there for four days and then they returned. After that, the Security Service did not have any questions for them at all.”
It wasn’t until nine months after their return from Donetsk that Timonin and Vasylets’ names appeared on the pretrial investigation list.
Their indictment states that they “knowingly entered into a criminal conspiracy with the ‘director of the Novorossiya TV channel’ of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ terrorist organisation, M.M. Mykhailov, and provided technical equipment, software, and consultation on broadcasting, news and live broadcasting.”
To prove that Timonin and Vasylets harbored anti-Ukrainian views and became accomplices to terror, the investigation submitted copies of posts from VKontakte pages with the usernames “Yevhen Timonin” and “Dmytro Vasylets,” which included calls for separatism.
But Lyoshenko believes this evidence is overblown.
“There isn’t anything like that there — just the IT correspondence. So Mykhailov invited them, but it is unclear how he is linked to “Novorossiya TV,” she says. “[The investigation] did not question him. He is some kind of mythical person.”
“The verdict is solely based upon information on the ‘Myrotvorets’ website, the chat messages on VKontakte, and the screenshots. There is nothing more that would indicate the perpetration of violent acts.”
Lyoshenko will now appeal Timonin and Vasylets’ case. If the sentence is not altered or overturned, she will submit the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
Journalism As Treason
Timonin and Vasylets are not the only Ukrainians charged with a crime for media work. Zhytomyr-based journalist Vasyl Muravitsky faces even more serious allegations: “state treason.” He is currently awaiting trial.
Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) officials arrested the journalist and blogger in August. The SBU believes he wrote “anti-Ukrainian” articles for pay, commissioned by “Russian coordinators” for a Russian website.
As with Timonin and Vasylets’ case, Muravitsky’s lawyer, Andriy Hozhiy, argues that the accusation is unfair. Hozhiy believes the case against his client is fabricated because Muravitsky openly criticised the Ukrainian government:
“What is state treason? It is sabotage. And what is sabotage? There should be a concrete violation of the law,” Hozhiy says. “For example, helping a foreign intelligence service, stockpiling weapons, harboring saboteurs, cutting cables. That’s sabotage. But writing articles, working as a journalist? Only our security services could see it that way.”
The Security Service of Ukraine does not doubt the evidence against all three of the accused men. However, the SBU press service refused to comment on the specifics of Muravitsky’s case.
“We have evidence that [Vasylets and Timonin] were there from the beginning and helped create the TV channel “Novorossia.tv,” SBU spokesperson Olena Hitlyanska told Hromadske. “Regarding Muravitsky, the investigation is ongoing but there are many reasons to believe that he received the task from his Russian coordinators, and, on their order, prepared false information discrediting Ukraine.”
Rights Activists Weigh In
Media lawyer Oleksandr Burmahin believes questions remain about all three cases. He is unsure that Timonin and Vasylets’ 9-year sentence for “creating a terrorist group or organisation” was justified based upon the evidence.
“It would be appropriate to qualify these actions as a terrorist organisation if, during the pre-trial and judicial investigations, it was established that these people carried out specific and certain actions...and their aim was to damage the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” he says. “If you read the verdict, there are [just] the VKontake web pages and the Myrotvorets database, and this raises a great number of questions.”
Burmahin says that it is too early make any conclusions on Vasyl Muravitsky’s case, as it is ongoing. It remains unclear what evidence is needed for a guilty verdict, he says. However, a serious accusation like state treason cannot solely by based on linguistic analysis that the authorities have carried out on his texts.
“[Linguistic] analysis can be ordered from different sides, which can lead to completely different conclusions because this is a matter of interpretation,” Burmahin says.
However, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is concerned. It is sounding the alarm over actions by Ukrainian law enforcement that it believes are “politically motivated” — particularly in Muravitsky’s case.
“We feel compelled to write to express our deep concern about actions taken by Ukraine's state security service (SBU) that pose a significant threat to press freedom in Ukraine,” the CPJ wrote in an open letter to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. “In at least seven separate incidents documented by CPJ in the past two months the SBU has targeted newsrooms and journalists on accusations that appear politically motivated, and in retaliation for critical reporting.”