World Press Freedom Day Statement from RFE/RL President Jamie Fly
On World Press Freedom Day, we pause to remember and honor our Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty colleagues who have died in the service of telling the truth, and those who are imprisoned for their pursuit of it. I am deeply saddened over the death of our Ukrainian Service journalist and producer Vira Hyrych in Kyiv on April 29, a dear colleague who will be remembered for her professionalism and dedication to our mission.
As I write this there are four RFE/RL journalists in prison or under house arrest, hundreds working as exiles from temporary bureaus, and 26 designated by their own government as foreign agents. The Taliban is threatening independent journalists in Afghanistan, and many of our reporters have had to flee the country.
In March, I visited Ukraine to meet with our journalists still working from there. Their work is often interrupted by air raid warnings. Some are embedded with Ukrainian military forces, reporting from the frontlines. Yet their commitment to their mission of serving Ukrainian audiences and informing the world about the consequences of this war is undiminished. This has been the case across RFE/RL as our journalists have faced great challenges. They continue their work no matter the personal hardships.
As the war against Ukraine enters its third month (and the crushing destruction of independent journalism in Russia continues unabated), we are humbled by the courage of journalists around the world. We remain steadfast in our commitment to provide uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate.
We have carried out this mission in similar crises throughout the 70 years of RFE/RL’s history. We have always provided our audiences with the information they needed to shape better lives, and we won’t stop now despite relentless pressure from authoritarian governments.
A free press is vital for free societies, and it is through this open exchange of information and ideas that we will find a way forward, on a path that protects and promotes democratic values and human rights.
INCIDENTS AND THREATS
RFE/RL Journalist Dies In Russian Missile Strikes On Kyiv
We are devastated to announce that RFE/RL journalist and producer Vira Hyrych was killed when a Russian air strike hit her home in Kyiv. Hyrych's body was found early in the morning on April 29 amid the wreckage of the building, which was hit by a Russian missile the night before, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service said.
"We are deeply saddened by the death of our Ukrainian Service staffer Vira Hyrych in Kyiv overnight. We have lost a dear colleague who will be remembered for her professionalism and dedication to our mission," said RFE/RL President Jamie Fly. "We are shocked and angered by the senseless nature of her death at home in a country and city she loved. Her memory will inspire our work in Ukraine and beyond for years to come," he added.
Said Ukrainian Service director Maryana Drach of her colleague, “It is very difficult to realize that Vira is not here, it takes your breath away. We met every morning to coordinate the work of our correspondents, review coverage, seek out exclusive angles on the news. Vira was not only a professional, but also a person with a good heart: she helped RFE/RL Afghan Service journalists who flew to Kyiv in the summer to escape Taliban repression. Vira was very worried about her parents, who lived for almost a month under Russian occupation in the Kyiv region without electricity, water, or gas. Vira dreamed of planting a cypress in the residential complex where she recently moved to Kyiv. Now we must do it.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was visiting Kyiv on April 28 as air strikes hit the capital, including the apartment block. Videos and pictures from the site showed the lower floors of the building heavily damaged. Cars in the area had their windows blown out.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on Telegram on April 29 that one body had been retrieved from the rubble and another 10 people had been injured in the strikes. He gave no further details.
Hyrych, born in 1967, began working for RFE/RL in February 2018. Before that she worked at a leading television channel in Ukraine. Hyrych is survived by her parents and an adult son.
RFE/RL Journalists Labeled Foreign Agents by Russia
On April 8, the Russian Ministry of Justice labeled Ekaterina Mayakovskaya, a reporter for Idel.Realii; and Andrei Filimonov, a contributor to the Russian Service “media foreign agents,” and briefly detained Yevgeny Levkovich, a reporter for Radio Svoboda, and charged him with “discrediting the army.”
On April 15, Russian Service reporters Aleksei Semyonov and Kirill Kruglikov and editorial cartoonist Sergei Yolkin were added to the “media foreign agents” list, while on April 22, Russian Service freelancer Vladimir Voronin and Tatar-Bashkir Service reporters Artur Asafyev and Ekaterina Lushnikova were added as well.
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly called the Kremlin’s systematic harassment of journalists for their work deplorable.
Since Taliban Takeover, Media Environment in Afghanistan Has Crumbled
April 30 marks the fourth anniversary of the tragic death of Radio Free Afghanistan journalists Sabawoon Kakar, Abadullah Hananzai, and Maharram Durrani, who died in a coordinated double suicide-bomb attack that killed at least 25 people, including nine journalists.
The extremist group Islamic State claimed responsibility for the blasts.
Qadir Habib, the veteran director of RFE/RL's Afghan Service, locally known as Radio Azadi, honored their contributions in a video message we invite you to watch here.
The return of the Taliban to power on August 15, 2021, reversed the progressive trajectory of the media and freedom of speech in Afghanistan. The Taliban's lack of belief in freedom of expression as a democratic value has also created hurdles in getting timely access to information.
RFE/RL journalists also report that the Taliban cover up the news of war and resistance against them.
Attempts to silence the voices of the opposition, including the detention of journalists and civil society activists, have in turn created an atmosphere of fear and repression. As a result, interviewees often require anonymity in reporting for fear of retribution by the Taliban.
Mustafa Sarwar, senior editor with Radio Azadi, says that he has witnessed a Talibanization of press freedom in Afghanistan including restrictions, limitations, crackdowns, control, and censorship: ‘’Our main bureau was closed in Kabul and scores of our reporters left the country. Before, the Taliban was responding to questions fast and frequently, but now questions are not answered or the process is delayed. The Taliban usually try to downplay the security events.’’
Rising poverty, unemployment, looming uncertainty, and the presence of journalists' families in Afghanistan are among the stressors facing RFE/RL’s journalists. Despite these obstacles, Radio Azadi’s reporters tirelessly strive to provide our audience across Afghanistan with reliable and independent information.
AWARDS AND HONORS
Vladyslav Yesypenko Awarded 2022 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award
Ukrainian journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko is the recipient of the 2022 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. He will be honored at the 2022 PEN America Literary Gala in New York on May 23, where the award will be accepted by his wife, Kateryna Yesypenko.
Yesypenko, a dual Russian-Ukrainian citizen who contributes to Crimea.Realities, a regional news outlet of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, was sentenced to six years in prison on February 16 by a Russian-controlled court in occupied Crimea.
Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) detained Yesypenko in Simferopol on March 10, 2021, on suspicion of collecting information for Ukrainian intelligence; during his apprehension, the FSB claimed that it found an object "looking like an explosive device" in his automobile; he was later charged with "making firearms," despite the fact that forensic tests never found his fingerprints on the device that was entered into evidence.
Following his detention, Yesypenko was brutally tortured by Russian FSB officers, to force him to make a false ‘confession’ on Russian television.
UNESCO Award Recognizes the Belarusian Association of Journalists With International Honor
On April 27, UNESCO awarded its World Press Freedom Prize to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a non-governmental association of media workers with the objective of promoting freedom of expression and independent journalism in Belarus, which was shut down by the Lukashenka regime. RFE/RL was one of many organizations that nominated BAJ.
Alfred Lela, Chair of the Prize‘s international jury, said ‘’By awarding the prize to the BAJ, we are standing by all journalists around the world who criticize, oppose and expose authoritarian politicians and regimes by transmitting truthful information and promoting freedom of expression. Today we salute and praise them; we find a way to say: we are with you and we value your courage.’’
OUR PEOPLE IN TROUBLE
Darya Losik, Wife of Belarusian Political Prisoner Ihar Losik Visits RFE/RL
One of those brave Belarusian journalists is former RFE/RL consultant Ihar Losik, arrested by Belarusian agents on June 25, 2020, in advance of the rigged presidential election in August that returned six-term incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka to the presidency. In a closed door prison trial, he was tried on charges widely considered to have been fabricated by Belarusian authorities and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Ihar’s wife Darya Losik visited Prague in March where she met with members of the Czech government and media, and with RFE/RL.
Darya spoke with RFE/RL’s Service to Belarus about her mission to free her husband: ‘’Being the wife of a political prisoner also means that you should remind all Belarusians and the whole world that there are political prisoners in Belarus, in particular Ihar Losik. I should talk about him everywhere and all the time, even if it is scary.’’
Two additional RFE/RL journalists remain detained in Belarus: Aleh Hruzdzilovich is serving a 1.5 year sentence and Andrey Kuznechyk is in pre-trial detention.
Ihar Losik has been jailed for 674 days. You can write to him at the address:
Pre-trial Detention Center-3. Knizhnaya St. 1A, 246003 Gomel, Belarus
СІЗА-3. 246003, г. Гомель, вул. Кніжная, 1А, Belarus
RFE/RL Journalist in Russia Charged With Distributing ‘’False Information’’
A court in Siberia on April 25 imposed pre-trial restrictions on Andrei Novashov, a former freelance correspondent for RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities and Taiga.info, and charged him with distributing "false information" about Russia's armed forces by reposting another journalist’s article online. He had previously been restricted from using the Internet, making phone calls, or attending public events.
WAR DISPATCHES FROM UKRAINE
‘’You sleep at a bomb shelter at night, report the news during the day and in the meantime take care of evacuation of your family or worry about aged relatives that have decided to never leave home amid shelling. This is the plight that millions of Ukrainians now face every day. Many have lost their homes, including some of our colleagues that have apartments in the Kyiv suburbs bombed to the ground, or without water and power or any infrastructure.’’
This is the situation that Maryana Drach, Director of RFE/RL’s service to Ukraine, described as the circumstances faced by her team in Ukraine.
RFE/RL contributor Yulia Harkusha completed a hazardous journey from the port city Mariupol and reported that it was “smashed to pieces”. Maryana described that Yulia cannot speak without tears about some of her close relatives that remain in the city under siege.
When RFE/RL correspondent Serhiy Horbatenko reported on the bombing of the railway station in Kramatorsk with many civilian casualties, he noted that it was the same place from which he evacuated his small son only a few days before.
Levko Stek was one of the first journalists to arrive in Bucha after Russian troops had left. He slept in the trenches and covered all aspects of war in Eastern Ukraine for eight years, but he said that he had never seen anything like that. “I cannot comprehend why this was done,”, he noted on the evidence of the massacre of civilians.
Amidst the incredible suffering, there is great resilience, and we wanted to share some of the inspiring stories reported by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian service with you:
RFE/RL’s Kharkiv correspondent reported on the story of a dentist and a nurse who could not work in their health care institutions and became volunteers, helping people in desperate situations. Despite the war, the couple decided to get married in the Kharkiv metro in a touching ceremony, knowing well that "love will win”.
We also reported on the owner of a pizzeria in Kharkiv who delivered food amid bombardment as a sign that “the city is alive and not broken”. According to him, people call from abroad and pay for orders for doctors and emergency workers.
In early March, we spoke in Kyiv with the Ukrainian musician Andriy Khlyvniuk, frontman of Ukrainian band Boombox, on why he joined the Territorial Defense. “Are you joking? This is my country and my children,” he answered. In April, Pink Floyd released the song "Hey, Hey, Rise Up!" with Khlyvniuk, with all proceeds benefiting Ukrainian Humanitarian Relief.
PROPAGANDA WE’RE UP AGAINST
Roskamnadzor Penalizes RFE/RL Under ‘’Don’t Say War’’, Anti-terrorist Laws
Russia’s federal media censor Roskomnadzor issued at least 80 protocols for alleged violations of the “law on fake news” to RFE/RL services and reporting projects since the law went into effect in March, which criminalizes labeling Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine a war.
RFE/RL Services and projects have also been cited dozens of times for not taking down content from “undesirable” or “extremist” investigative teams such as The Project, Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.
On April 28, a district court in Moscow fined RFE/RL 12.8 million rubles ($170,000) for what Russian authorities call noncompliance with the anti-terrorist law.
RFE/RL condemns this act of censorship.
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