Simon Ostrovsky, an American journalist and correspondent for Vice News, has apparently been taken hostage in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk. Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the "people's mayor"—i.e., the guy elected by the pro-Russian rabble—confirmed this at a press conference today.
The mayor of Slavyansk & his press sec have confirmed @SimonOstrovsky is in custody in Slavyansk. I was at the presser.— Roland Oliphant (@RolandOliphant) April 22, 2014
Vice has also said that it is in touch with the State Department "and other appropriate government authorities" to secure Ostrovsky's release.
In a confusing twist, according to the Russian report, Ponomarev got a call from Ostrovsky's parents in the middle of his presser, and told them, "No one has taken him hostage...he's here working on his story."
If it is true that pro-Russian thugs took Ostrovsky hostage, then this is yet another step into the deepening chaos of southeastern Ukraine, where hostage-taking has become an increasingly popular tactic among the Russian and pro-Russian forces.
It is also evidence that Russia is exporting its harsh stance toward the press into these regions, viewing them as roadblocks on the road to conquest, and dealing with them accordingly. The Committee to Protect Journalists sounded the alarm during Russia's takeover of Crimea. In a March 13 press release, they wrote:
Since last week, local press freedom groups, including the Ukrainian Institute for Mass Information, have documented dozens of cases of obstruction, including the censorship of broadcasters, physical attacks on reporters, the detention and harassment of journalists, and the confiscation and destruction of press equipment.
Both Tatar and Ukrainian journalists were arrested in Crimea, and, at one point, there were reports that up to six Ukrainian journalists and activists had gone missing. One Ukrainian journalist was beaten and had his teeth knocked out.
Now it looks like Russia has brought the same uncompromising approach into southeastern Ukraine. Over the weekend, Ukrainian journalist Irma Krat was taken hostage in Slavyansk by armed men in camouflage and paraded in front of the press:
On Sunday night...[Ponomarev's] separatist commanders called a few journalists, including a TIME reporter, to the local headquarters of the state security service in Slavyansk, which has been under their control for about a week. They led the reporters into the courtyard, past a row of tanks and armored vehicles they have seized from the Ukrainian army, and told the reporters to stand near an iron gate.
“We have gathered you here to announce that, in the town of Slavyansk, a diehard activist of the Maidan self-defense forces, Irma Krat, was detained today,” said one of the camouflage-clad troops, who only agreed to state his first name, Pavel. “She is suspected of many crimes on the Maidan, against the Berkut [riot police] and against peaceful citizens. We therefore saw it as our right to detain her, and she will be kept in detention until we figure out her involvement in these war crimes.”
On the far side of the courtyard, a masked man in camouflage then led Krat out of a backdoor of the building and held her by the arm in front of the reporters. A few seconds later, the separatist leader Ponomaryov, dressed in his signature black hoodie and baseball cap, came marching passed [sic] the gate toward Krat, and she was led back inside.
Later, a Russian tabloid with deep ties to the Russian security services released a video of a blindfolded Krat, her hands free, explaining why she came to the region in Ukrainian.
Ostrovsky, I might add, is an old friend and colleague from my days in Moscow. He's been filing some amazingly brave and nosy dispatches from Russia's Ukrainian conquest. Here's the last one, for your viewing pleasure.