Donetsk, Ukraine -
Fiddling angrily with the radio in his car, Donetsk resident Oleksandr exclaims: “This is unbelievable! There used to be a Ukrainian radio station on this frequency, now it's Russian!”
In Ukraine's restive eastern region of Donetsk, where separatists are in control of several areas and have declared a “People's Republic”, local media are being shut down, taken over and intimidated.
The pattern is always the same, said Sergei Garmash, who runs the local news website Ostrov: “Armed men have gone to the headquarters of media outlets - including ours - and demanded that programming be co-ordinated with them.”
And if the outlet refuses? The men threaten to “shut it down”, Garmash said.
Here in Donetsk the wider information war between pro-Moscow and pro-Kiev media over coverage of Ukraine's crisis is playing out at the local level.
After taking over local media, the well-armed rebels have dismissed journalists, blocked access to offices and cut signals to Ukrainian stations - which are quickly replaced by Russian ones.
There have also been reports of abductions, equipment seizures and break-ins as the separatists seek to silence opposition to their efforts to bring eastern Ukraine into Russia.
“Abduction by armed separatists remains a risk for both local and foreign journalists,” the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a statement this week.
In Donetsk, the imposing building that once housed Ukrainian public television is now empty of journalists. On the airwaves, the channel has been replaced by Rossiya 24, a state Russian news channel.
Barricades made of car tires, a makeshift “Stop” sign and sandbags piled up at the entrance now make it clear that reporters are no longer welcome. There is even a tank parked behind the fence.
“This is a military building, get away!” yelled a group of aggressive men in camouflage with a red armband that read “Oplot” (“Bulwark” in Russian) - the name of a pro-Russian militia group.
The head of one Ukrainian channel said on condition of anonymity that it had sent all of its journalists to Kiev “because their lives were clearly at risk on the ground”.
“Only freelancers are still working for us in the region, but under pseudonyms and they do not use cameras to avoid being identified,” the person added.
“They are being constantly threatened and it is impossible to actually work.”
“It is dangerous because the 'Republic of Donetsk' - which has distributed too many weapons to bad people - does not control the situation anywhere,” said Garmash.
Last week, shots were fired at a pro-Ukrainian journalist's home.
“We are under the constant threat of seizures of our premises and equipment,” said another journalist who continues to work in the region but says it comes with “huge difficulties”.
A Russian journalist from an opposition newspaper, Pavel Kanygin, was detained, stripped of his clothing and questioned for hours before waking up in his hotel after being apparently drugged, he wrote on Wednesday after his return to Moscow.
Two Ukrainian reporters, Sergei Shapoval and Yuri Lelyavsky, remain unaccounted for after their capture last month, the CPJ said.
Separatist leaders accuse Ukrainian media of propaganda and Moscow has decried “provocations” against Russian journalists who were denied entry or deported by Kiev authorities.
“The closure of Ukrainian TV channels was a necessity as they were spreading propaganda and lies. This is the minimum we could do. We tried to negotiate but without success,” said Oleksandr Ryzhkov, one of chiefs of the rebels' television and radio networks.
The rebels have tried to set up their own media outlets but the efforts have proven chaotic.
Ryzhkov said their radio station only airs for several hours a day, a TV channel is still in the planning stages, and their newspaper “Voice of the People” - launched “to establish the truth” and “stop lying to the people of Donetsk” - has only appeared once. - Sapa-AFP