Reporter’s Notebook: Separatists In Eastern Ukraine Think Journalists Are Either For Them Or Against Them

Ukraine Map and Flag

(RFE/RL – – Aleksandra Vagner – LUHANSK, Ukraine, May 29, 2014) Probably the most surprising thing that struck me during my four days reporting from the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine last week came as soon as I arrived.

Men armed with automatic weapons stood around the station, watching everything that was going on. From what I’d read, I had expected such men were only to be found around a few occupied buildings or at checkpoints outside the city. I was shocked to find them in such public places as the train station.

Working as a journalist inside the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk is tricky and dangerous. In order to photograph or record videos openly, you need a document from the self-proclaimed authorities. But when you ask for such a document, they might check your previous publications online and even your social-media posts.

They are convinced that the authorities in Kyiv are their enemies and that any reporter who has written anything negative about the militants in the east must also be against them. They are particularly suspicious of journalists from western and central Ukraine, while journalists from Russia are obviously more welcome.

If your past reporting does not meet their standards, not only will they refuse you permission to work, but they might confiscate your phone, your camera, and all your equipment. Some reporters, of course, have been detained for days, even weeks.

In Luhansk, a group of separatist militants took me to the occupied building of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) to be vetted. At the door stood two men with automatic weapons that were obviously brand new — they looked as if they had literally come out of the factory the previous day.

The men had no idea about the features of these latest-model weapons and were discussing among themselves what happens if you push this or turn that. It seemed clear to me that these were not — as had been reported earlier — weapons that had been captured from local police or security forces. They had been brought in from somewhere else.

While I was in Luhansk and Donetsk, I was able to speak not only to some of the militants, but also to local residents. I heard a wide range of views about the situation and about the legitimacy of the self-proclaimed republics.

Several locals told me they had no idea who the de facto officials of the separatist movement were or how they had become its leaders.

As we were returning to Donetsk after covering the May 25 presidential election in parts of Donetsk Oblast controlled by the Ukrainian government, one of our cars was stopped at a separatist checkpoint. It’s a scary situation being under the control of unknown armed men waving automatic weapons around. You can’t disobey their orders, of course. You can’t ask them what right they have to check your passport or even who they are or who they claim to represent.

All you can do is hope they are in a good mood and will wave you through. But you have no rights there, and you know it.

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