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Journalists in Trouble: June 2022

RFE/RL journalists beaten and threatened in Tajikistan; Azerbaijani journalist threatened at knifepoint; Pulitzer Prize board honors Ukrainian journalists; and more.

Michael Douglas, Stefania & Kateryna Yesypenko at the 2022 PEN America Gala.
Michael Douglas, Stefania and Kateryna Yesypenko at the 2022 PEN America Gala on May 23, 2022. Beowulf Sheehan and Silvia Saponaro (PEN America).


RFE/RL Journalists Beaten and Threatened in Tajikistan

In an escalation of the recent harassment of RFE/RL journalists in Tajikistan, four RFE/RL journalists were beaten, threatened, and had their electronic equipment seized on May 17. The attacks were carried out by unidentified persons allegedly linked to Tajik security services.

Mullorajab Yusufi and Barot Yusufi, two journalists with RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, were beaten in Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, after they recorded an interview with Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) activist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva, whom Tajik authorities believe was among the organizers of that week’s violent protests in the GBAO.

Mullorajab Yusufi said the attackers “knew the journalists well and deliberately wanted cameras and telephones…One of them began to threaten me with the words ‘Mullorajab, I swear to God, I will shoot you.’”

The two Yusufis were accompanied to the interview by Current Time TV journalists Anushervon Aripov and Nasim Isamov, who were attacked separately after getting into their vehicle. Young men reached into their car to steal smartphones from the journalists, then dragged the reporters out of the car and forced them to open the trunk, from which they took all electronic equipment.

The beatings mark an escalation in a recent online campaign to smear RFE/RL’s Tajik Service and its journalists in retaliation for their hard-hitting, balanced journalism. The campaign, appearing primarily on the “Vatan Vatanon” Facebook site, uses crude manipulated imagery and personally threatening language in an attempt to intimidate and undermine the reputation of the journalists and their family members.

Said RFE/RL President and CEO Jamie Fly, “We strongly condemn the attacks on our journalists in Dushanbe. We have called on the Tajik authorities repeatedly to stop the government’s pressure campaign against free media…It is time for the Tajik government to stop trying to undermine independent reporting that benefits the Tajik people.”

Azerbaijani Journalist Threatened at Knifepoint

Azerbaijani journalist Aytan Mammadova, a freelancer for RFE/RL, was attacked with a knife on May 8 by an unknown man who threatened and intimidated her over her coverage of a high-profile murder trial. The attack took place in the elevator in her apartment building. Mammadova filed a report with the Baku police on May 9.

“When the elevator doors shut, he grabbed my jaw with one hand and put a knife to my neck with the other hand,” Mammadova said of the incident. According to Mammadova, the attacker said to her: “You have not gotten wiser,” started cursing her daughter, and warned her “not to write about the case.”

Mammadova has been covering the ongoing trial of a man suspected of murdering a 10-year-old girl in 2019. She was one of the few journalists who traveled from Baku to Ganja, a city in western Azerbaijan, for almost every court session. In Azerbaijan, the story has caught the public’s attention, in part because the suspect on trial has insisted that police tortured him to force him to confess to the murder.


Vladyslav Yesypenko Awarded PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award

On May 23, imprisoned Crimea.Realities correspondent Vladyslav Yesypenko received the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award at the PEN America Literary Gala in New York. His wife Kateryna and their daughter Stefania accepted the award on his behalf.

The award was presented by Academy Award-winning actor and UN Ambassador of Peace Michael Douglas, who said: “[Yesypenko] is a courageous truth-teller, a patriot, a beloved father and husband. In his work as a journalist, he has sacrificed his own freedom to bring to us the stories and the truths of the people of Ukraine…Amid the brutal conflict, if ever it was time to understand what it means to defend democracy, the right to live and speak freely, that time is with us now.”

In her acceptance speech, Kateryna Yesypenko spoke about her husband’s plight, sentenced to six years in prison on false charges. She said: “My husband has been in prison for 15 months because, and only because, he is a journalist. Vladyslav knew that reporting in Russian-occupied Crimea was dangerous, but he believes that people deserve to know what’s going on, to know what the truth is.”

You can view the PEN America Literary Gala here.

Pulitzer Prize Board Honors Ukrainian Journalists

The Pulitzer Prize Board awarded a special citation to the journalists of Ukraine for “their courage, endurance, and commitment to truthful reporting during Vladimir Putin’s ruthless invasion of their country and his propaganda war in Russia.’’

In its May 9 announcement, the Board said that “Despite bombardment, abductions, occupation, and even deaths in their ranks, they have persisted in their effort to provide an accurate picture of a terrible reality, doing honor to Ukraine and to journalists around the world.”

View RFE/RL’s reporting on Russia’s war in Ukraine here.


Memorial Service for Vira Hyrych

The memorial service for RFE/RL journalist and producer Vira Hyrych took place at St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral in Kyiv on May 3, 2022 – World Press Freedom Day. Hyrych was killed in a Russian missile strike on her residential building in Kyiv on April 28.

Honoring Hyrych’s memory, RFE/RL President and CEO Jamie Fly said in Prague: “Our reporting on this senseless, unjust war, which took Vira’s life, would not have been possible without her.” He added: “Vira coordinated assignments for all of our field correspondents throughout the war and was key to the remarkable frontline reporting that RFE/RL has done for audiences in Ukraine but reporting that is reaching Russians and others across the world on a daily basis.”

The last video Hyrych produced told the story of an 87-year-old Ukrainian holocaust survivor and her 94-year-old Russian husband, a retired navy officer, who were evacuated from Mariupol to Kyiv. It was published on May 3.

RFE/RL’s Imprisoned Journalists

Four RFE/RL journalists are currently behind bars, jailed by authoritarian regimes seeking to silence independent journalism. Ihar Losik, Aleh Hruzdzilovich, and Andrey Kuznechyk are imprisoned in Belarus while Vladyslav Yesypenko is serving a prison sentence in Russia-occupied Crimea.

You can view this RFE/RL video to learn more about these brave journalists. RFE/RL continues to call for their immediate release.

The Day of the Political Prisoner in Belarus

May 21 marked the Day of the Political Prisoner in Belarus, commemorating political prisoner Vitold Ashurak, who died on May 21, 2021. Marking the day, EU Special Representative for Human Rights Eamon Gilmore wrote an open letter to imprisoned media workers and journalists in Belarus, calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all 1200+ political prisoners, among them RFE/RL’s Ihar Losik, Aleh Hruzdzilovich and Andrey Kuznechyk.

Earlier, on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, the German Embassy in Minsk wrote letters to 24 imprisoned media representatives in Belarus, also including RFE/RL’s three journalists.

On May 10, a Minsk court denied an appeal by Hruzdzilovich and upheld his sentence of 18 months in a maximum-security penal colony. The appeal hearing lasted 20 minutes. Hruzdzilovich was arrested on December 23, 2021, and sentenced on March 3, 2022.

On June 8, Kuznechyk was sentenced by the Mahilou Regional Court to six years imprisonment in a penal colony. Charged with “creation of an extremist formation or participation in it,” he was tried swiftly behind closed doors.

Kuznechyk was arrested on November 25, 2021. The Belarusian authorities opened a criminal case against him on December 23, 2021, the day that the Interior Ministry added RFE/RL’s Belarus Service to its registry of extremist organizations. The charges against Kuznechyk had remained unknown until late May 2022, however, due to a court-imposed gag order.

Said RFE/RL President and CEO Jamie Fly, “Andrey has been sentenced on ludicrous charges in a closed-door trial, which was over in a few hours. It is telling that the charges against him only surfaced in late May, more than six months after he was first arrested. We demand Andrey’s immediate release.”

On May 20, Losik turned 30 years old; it was the second consecutive birthday he spent in prison. Arrested on June 25, 2020, in advance of Belarus’ August 9, 2020, rigged election that returned six-term incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka to the presidency, Losik was sentenced on December 14, 2021, to 15 years in prison. Ihar Losik’s appeal was heard on May 31 and on June 1, Belarus’s Supreme Court rejected his appeal and upheld his 15-year sentence.

Said RFE/RL President and CEO Jamie Fly, “The Belarusian Supreme Court’s decision to let stand the cruel and unjust sentence handed down last December to Ihar is deeply disappointing. We will not rest until Ihar is free once again and reunited with his wife Darya and daughter Paulina.”

Rights groups consider Losik a political prisoner. The United States and the European Union have condemned his sentence.

Losik’s wife Darya stated that she would not leave Belarus, as her husband was held hostage. “The entry into force of the sentence does not mean that my struggle is over. I remain in Belarus and will continue to do everything possible and impossible to achieve my goal with Ihar,” she said.


More Fines Levied Against RFE/RL in Russia

RFE/RL was forced to suspend its operations in Russia after local tax authorities demanded that the courts begin bankruptcy proceedings against its Russian entity on March 4, but this has not stopped the Russian state media-monitoring agency Roskomnadzor from issuing new violation protocols and fines against us while also diversifying the grounds on which it does so.

As of May 23, Roskomnadzor had issued violation protocols against RFE/RL’s Russian LLC and its general director, Russian Service director Andrey Shary, and Russian courts have imposed more than $17,700,000 in fines. Most of the fines – 1,044 – relate to RFE/RL’s long-standing refusal to label content in accordance with foreign agent legislation.

More recently, Russian courts have imposed eighty fines in response to Roskomnadzor violation protocols for RFE/RL’s refusal to take down content about high-level corruption based on investigations conducted by “extremist” outlets such as Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation or Proekt Media.

Newer still are twenty fines worth 20 million rubles ($325,000), issued on June 6 for violations of Russia’s post invasion law on dissemination of “fake” information on the “special operation” in Ukraine (a.k.a. Russia’s war against Ukraine). Cited reports included estimates of the number of both civilian and Russian military casualties; Russia has not provided military casualty figures since March.

Given RFE/RL’s commitment to honest journalism and refusal to comply with Roskomnadzor’s demands to censor our content, the number of violations and volume of fines can only grow.

RFE/RL President Banned in Russia

RFE/RL President and CEO Jamie Fly is #826 on the list of 963 American citizens sanctioned by the Russian Foreign Ministry and banned from entering Russia. The list includes six deceased people, including former members of Congress.

Fly said on Twitter that he was “proud to be included on this list. RFE/RL being attacked by authoritarians is nothing new. We know that history is on the side of the Russian people. We’ll continue to expand our reporting for Russian audiences at this critical moment.”