KYIV — The head of a major Russian state news agency’s branch in Ukraine has been transferred to the southern region of Kherson for prosecution following his arrest in Kyiv on suspicion of treason.
The Kherson city court will hold a custody hearing on May 17 for RIA Novosti-Ukraine director Kirill Vyshinsky, said Tetyana Tykhonchyk, a spokeswoman for the Kyiv-controlled Prosecutor-General’s Office of Crimea, which operates in Kherson.
Vyshinsky was detained on May 15 by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) and his apartment and the news outlet’s office were searched, actions that drew angry criticism from Russia and an expression of concern from the OSCE’s media freedom representative.
Shortly after Vyshinsky’s detention, the SBU accused RIA Novosti-Ukraine of participating in a “hybrid information war” waged by Russia against Ukraine. SBU deputy chief Viktor Kononenko later told journalists that Vyshinsky, who has dual Russian-Ukrainian citizenship, received financial support from Russia via other media companies registered in Ukraine in order to disguise links between RIA Novosti-Ukraine and Russian state media giant Rossia Segodnya.
The journalist’s arrest has added to already severe tension between Moscow and Kyiv, whose ties have been badly damaged since Russia seized Crimea in 2014 and supported separatists in eastern Ukraine, helping start a war that has killed more than 10,300 people.
Ukraine’s pro-Western government is wary of Russian media outlets, accusing Moscow of distributing disinformation aimed at sowing tension and destabilizing the country. Kyiv has banned more than a dozen Russian television channels since 2014, accusing them of spreading propaganda.
A spokeswoman of the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General’s Office, Larysa Sarhan, wrote on Facebook on May 15 that “investigators have obtained evidence proving that the RIA Novosti-Ukraine website carried information calling for violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and…security.”
Vyshinsky was sent to Kherson, which borders Crimea, because of what Ukrainian authorities say was his involvement in Russia’s takeover of the Black Sea peninsula in March 2014, which came after huge pro-European protests known as the Euromaidan pushed Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanuovych from power in Kyiv.
Kononenko said that Vyshinsky was in Crimea at the time, and that he and journalists under his supervision issued reports “justifying” Moscow’s move to seize the Ukrainian territory. He said that Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded Vyshinsky a medal for his role in the takeover.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on May 16 that “Russia categorically rejects such treatment of its citizens, especially if they work for media outlets and if their freedom is limited and severe accusations are brought for reasons of their professional activity.” He suggested Russia would respond soon, but did not say how.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on My 15 it was “far from the first time” that the Ukrainian authorities had “restricted the activities” of Russian journalists in Ukraine.
Later, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Harlem Desir, voiced “serious concern” and called on Ukrainian authorities to “refrain from imposing unnecessary limitations on the work of foreign journalists.”
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States shares Ukraine’s concern about Russian propaganda, but said that Ukraine must ensure it abides by the law, including international human rights law.
With reporting by RIA Novosti, UNIAN, TASS, AFP, AP, Interfax, and Ukrayinska Pravda