Oleh Baturyn, a journalist from Kakhovka, Kherson region, takes a selfie in front of a gray fence with barbed wire on top. He then records a short video on his mobile phone: “I am standing in Kherson on Teploenerhetykiv Street 3, where I was brought from the Kherson Regional Administration on March 13. I have been here for almost a week.”

Kherson is a city in the south of Ukraine that was under Russian occupation for 8 months in 2022. After being liberated by Ukrainian forces, it is now under constant shelling. Oleh came here to look at the “battle glory” sites where the Russian FSB officers took him to try to force him to cooperate.

Oleh’s hometown of Kakhovka was occupied on the first day of the full-scale invasion and remains under Russian occupation.

In the first days of the invasion, Oleh continued to appear live on national channels from the occupied city, describing the situation there and reporting on how locals perceived the occupation. Soon Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) came for Oleh, as they did for many other local journalists who continued to work in the already occupied cities.

“These acts show that Russia sees journalists as enemies,” says Oksana Romaniuk, the executive director of the Institute of Mass Information, a Ukrainian press freedom and monitoring group. “This is because journalists were telling [the truth] and showing rallies where residents protested against the Russian occupation.”

Soon after Oleh’s arrest, the FSB, assisted by local collaborators, came for all the journalists who continued to do their work. If media workers managed to leave their hometown, they were forced to hand over domain names and website passwords of their media, with the FSB threatening harm to relatives who remained in the occupied territories.

This happened to Svitlana Zalizetska, the head of news website RIA – Melitopol, who managed to leave for Zaporizhia after speaking with pro-Russian collaborators who persistently sought to get her to collaborate with occupying authorities. As soon as the Russians realized that Svitlana had left, the FSB detained her father, demonstrating a tactic of intimidation of relatives. And if journalists did not manage to leave, they were “taken to the basement”, a euphemism for torture chambers.

“It’s one thing to seize territory, and another to control it”, Romaniuk explained. “This is why [Russians] tried to influence the population through [attacks on] journalists and media outlets.”

The stories of Oleh Baturyn and Svitlana Zalizetska are known because they ended relatively happily. After being tortured and threatened with murder, Oleh was eventually released and managed to escape from occupation, as did his family. He was unable to return to his hometown, and can only write about the actions of the Russian occupiers from a distance.

Svitlana had to hand over her media outlet to pro-Russian collaborators in exchange for them releasing her father.

Later, Zalizetska was able to regain access to her resources, but RIA-Melitopol no longer operates from Melitopol.

Few independent voices left in occupied regions

There are no more Ukrainian media outlets in the territories captured by Russia.

There are still some individual journalists in the occupation zone who run anonymous pro-Ukrainian Telegram channels, and they are constantly being hunted. 

In May 2023, Russians arrested ex-journalist Iryna Levchenko and her husband Oleksandr in Melitopol. Their current whereabouts are unknown. Iryna and her husband had been retired for several years, and the basis for their arrest is unclear.

Since August, Russians have been holding the journalists administrating the Telegram channels RIA-Melitopol and Melitopol is Ukraine captive. They are accused of terrorism. According to independent Russian as well as pro-government media, occupation authorities detained Oleksandr Malyshev, Heorhiy Levchenko, Maksym Rupchov, Yana Suvorova, Mark Kaliush, and Kostyantyn Zynovin. They are all accused of public calls for terrorism, treason, and espionage. They face 12 to 20 years in prison. Their fate is also unknown.

The Council of Europe Platform for the protection of journalists currently lists 17 journalists jailed in occupied Ukraine, including 12 from Crimea. Ukrainian media organizations and human rights defenders cite an even higher figure of at least 25 Ukrainian journalists or media workers captured by Russia.

Journalists from prominent national media among those jailed

Two media workers stand out on the list of those taken hostage by Russia because of their affiliation with well-known Ukrainian media outlets.

One of these is Victoria Roshchyna, a contributor to one of the country’s most popular online media outlets, Ukrainska Pravda. She was captured twice by Russians in 2022 and was finally released after being forced to record “confessions on camera”. In August, Roshchyna was detained for the third time in occupied territory. Since then, no information about her has surfaced.

Another journalist in a similar situation is Dmytro Khilyuk, who worked for the UNIAN news agency, and was kidnapped from his home during the Russian occupation of the Kyiv region in March 2022. His fate is unknown.

“They stormed in here, started yelling ‘undress yourselves,’ searching for tattoos. They threw jackets over our heads and dragged us somewhere. Then I tell Dima [Dmytro] that I told them he was a teacher, and he tells me: ‘and I told them I worked at UNIAN’”, recalls Dmytro Khilyuk’s father, Vasyl. When Russians invaded their village, both men were detained. Vasyl Khilyuk was later released, but Dmytro’s whereabouts are still unknown.

“It’s already been two years, I worry so much, no one has seen him, but those who were in the cell neighboring his seemed to have heard the name Khilyuk,” the imprisoned journalist’s father said, quoting anonymous reports received by the family.

During this time, parents received only one letter from their son, which was delivered by the Red Cross. A photo of Dmytro from prison also appeared once on the Russian internet.

Prisoners in Crimea

There is another distinct group of journalists behind held in Russian prisons: journalists from Crimea.

This includes 13 Crimean Tatar citizen journalists who are imprisoned and already convicted. They are Seyran Saliev, Marlen Asanov, Timur Ibrahimov, Server Mustafaev, Osman Arifmemetov, Remzi Bekirov, Ruslan Suleymanov, Rustem Sheykhaliev, Amet Suleymanov, Asan Akhtemov, Vilen Temeryanov, Ernes Ametov, and Nariman Dzhelyalov.

Some of them were convicted in the so-called “Bakhchisarai Hizb ut-Tahrir case“. They were accused of preparing a violent seizure of power, in addition to previous charges of creating and participating in a terrorist organization.

All of them have been in Russian prisons for years with sentences of 12 to 18 years. They were transported from the peninsula to prisons in the Russian Federation. Some of the imprisoned journalists have serious health problems.

Iryna Danylovych is another political prisoner from Crimea. She worked on the peninsula as a nurse but also advocated for the rights of healthcare workers and contributed to independent media as a citizen journalist. She was arrested by the FSB following the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Danylovych was later convicted for alleged possession of explosives and sentenced to seven years of prison. In prison, she has almost completely lost her hearing, according to sources.

Journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko was detained by the Russian FSB in the summer of 2019. He covered the lives of people in Crimea and conducted surveys among the population. He wrote on social issues and about the environment on the peninsula. Yesypenko was also convicted for the possession of explosives. In 2022, he was sentenced to six years in prison on this charge.

Russia considers all Crimean citizen journalists to be its citizens, and therefore there is no talk of any exchange or release for them.

“Our common goal should be justice,” says Oksana Romaniuk. “ There must be both national and international justice. Without just punishment, these stories will be repeated, and Russia will do this again in other countries,” she added.

“We just want Dima to come home so we can hug him. Punishment is not my concern,” says his father Vasyl, through tears.