KYIV -- The editor in chief of a Ukrainian news site derided by critics as overly friendly toward Russia says he has fled the country and appealed for political asylum in Austria, citing threats of physical violence and "unprecedented pressure from the authorities," including President Petro Poroshenko.
Ihor Huzhva announced the move in a statement on the Strana.ua website, which accused Ukrainian law enforcement of ignoring his requests for criminal probes into threats against him and other Strana.ua journalists.
"The last death-threat message came to me literally this past weekend," Huzhva wrote in the January 31 message.
In an interview from Vienna with Current Time television, a project of RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, Huzhva said Ukraine is a hostile media environment.
"Under such conditions, not everyone is going to love you," he said. "But you must understand your own position, your own point of view, and your own readership and then just work for them."
Huzhva, a longtime player in Ukraine's murky media sector who has batted back accusations in the past that he takes orders from Moscow, also cited what he said were at least five criminal cases pending against him.
RFE/RL could not independently corroborate all of those cases, and Ukrainian authorities including the president's office did not immediately comment.
Huzhva is a former editor in chief of the Ukrainian newspaper Vesti, which is owned by a former tax minister who fled to Russia around the same time that President Viktor Yanukovych fled there in the face of Euromaidan street protests in 2014.
Huzhva is thought to have close ties to Ukraine's Opposition Bloc party, an alliance of parties that rejected the Euromaidan's pro-EU message.
Huzhva has blamed such perceptions for a raid on Strana.ua's offices in Kyiv in June 2017 and his arrest for allegedly demanding a $10,000 bribe in exchange for withholding compromising material on a politician -- an accusation he rejects.
'Falsifying' A Case
He accused officials of "falsifying" a case after agents from the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) said they confiscated a flash drive of Huzhva's with evidence proving their case. The SBU also searched the homes of two Strana.ua journalists.
Huzhva told RFE/RL after his arrest that Ukrainian authorities "want to close [Strana.ua] and put me in jail."
The Ukrainian president's office did not immediately respond to telephone or written queries about Huzhva's situation on January 31.
Huzhva's case was highlighted in a September appeal by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)* to Poroshenko to reaffirm his commitment to ensuring journalists' safety.
The CPJ’s appeal came after what it said were at least seven separate incidents in a span of two months in which the SBU "targeted newsrooms and journalists on accusations that appear politically motivated, and in retaliation for critical reporting."
Since the ongoing conflict between the central government and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine broke out in 2014, some journalists critical of authorities or accused of being pro-Russian have faced legal troubles, threats, and attacks.
In one case, nationalist hackers published the names, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, affiliations, and travel dates of thousands of Ukrainian and foreign journalists on a website tied to officials at the Interior Ministry.
In its 2017 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Ukraine 102nd out of 180 countries -- up slightly from 2016.
Freedom House called Ukraine "partly free" in its 2017 Freedom of the Press report.
Huzhva said in his statement that he had left Ukraine "completely legally" after a court order related to the bribery case that had prevented him from leaving the country expired on January 6. "After that, I freely left the country," he added.
Huzhva said Strana.ua will continue to operate and he will carry out his editorial duties from abroad.