Paul Ronzheimer has covered the violent protests in Tahrir Square, Istanbul’s Taksim Square last year, and the worst of the Maidan massacres.
But the most dangerous assignment of all, he says, was Eastern Ukraine—especially after Dmitriy Steshyn, a reporter for the Russian daily, Komsomolskaya Pravda, wrote a Facebook post accusing him of “spreading lies” and publicly called for his detention by Eastern Ukraine rebels.
“I was shocked, and actually afraid, because my colleagues were kidnapped in the region before,” says Ronzheimer. “I would have never expected that a guy who calls himself a journalist would plead for my detention.”
Ronzheimer fled the region and hasn’t been back.
Steshyn, for his part, stands by his Facebook post and says Ronzheimer’s reporting was to blame. “This is not journalism. It is a provocation,” he told me.
The encounter dates to May 11, the day of voting on a self-rule referendum organized by pro-Russian rebels in the face of a ban by the Kiev government and widespread international condemnation. The Bild reporter was covering the voting, and through a fixer, found a local resident eager to help out with reporting on what the resident said was widespread voter fraud. Ronzheimer traveled through the region with him and observed as he managed to cast a ballot eight different times in different locations, exposing a deeply flawed voting process. After publishing the story, he got calls the same evening from Kiev-based colleagues urging him to get out of Eastern Ukraine.
He later learned that Steshyn, a veteran war reporter also in the region, had gone on Twitter and alerted over 26,000 of his Russian-speaking followers about Ronzheimer’s story, translating the gist of the piece, which was filed in German, into Russian. The Russian journalist publicly called for Ronzheimer’s detention, saying the German reporter should be arrested by the separatists. Later that tweet was apparently deleted. But Steshyn confirmed the move in Facebook comments to a post about the incident published by another well-known Russian journalist, Pavel Kalygin:
Dmitry Steshyn: Yes, I twitted about this f*** from the Bild. I think I did everything right! People paid in blood for this referendum and they are continue paying now. Too bad, they did not catch him.
Following the incident, Ronzheimer learned from his sources among pro-Russian forces in Donetsk that local rebels had put him on a wanted list.
He fled the region as quickly as he could. He met me a couple weeks later at hotel lobby in Kiev, where he was still visibly upset. He said he was still having trouble sleeping and is kept awake by constant nightmares about shooting guns and masked men. (Ronzheimer has since left for Berlin.)
He said reporting from Eastern Ukraine had been his most dangerous assignment yet because of the prevalence of young, poorly trained men roaming the region and manning checkpoints. “We were encircled by pro-Russia fighters all the time, with no Ukrainian police or army even remotely close to the region,” Ronzheimer says, trying to relax and get back to normal. “We were totally in their hands. And with so many checkpoints being run by hot-blooded youngsters, you would never know if they’re going to shoot you or let you go.”
Indeed, the region these days is considered one of the most dangerous in the world for reporters. At least three journalists remain missing or in captivity in Eastern Ukraine: Serhiy Shapoval for VolynPost, Irma Krat, a Kiev activist and journalist, and Mykola Ryabchenko from Mariupol. Since November, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, has filed almost 300 cases of attacks on journalists in Ukraine, including physical assaults, kidnappings, threats, and damage and confiscation of equipment. “Law enforcement authorities have completely failed to protect the journalists, and none of these attacks were ever investigated,” Mijatović said during a May 19 meeting in Vienna. “This is simply unacceptable.”
Ronzheimer says Steshyn’s social media post made a dangerous situation untenable. He also considers it a blatant breach of professional norms since journalists, especially those in war zones, usually help one another. Ronzheimer has covered kidnappings himself, including the capture of an international observers team in Slovyansk back in April.
“In Slovyansk, we were helping each other out a lot,” he says. “I helped Russian colleagues, for example, because we are all journalists, and I don’t care how bad or good they are, or from what country they are from, you know?”
Steshyn is well-known in Russia with a large following through his work that has included extensive coverage of the Chechen Wars in the 1990s and the Arab Spring. His paper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, a right-leaning daily, is considered controversial for occasionally extreme views expressed in editorials and political columns. Its political columnist, for instance, once expressed regret that Nazi Germany didn’t kill the ancestors of Russian opposition activists.
In May, Steshyn was among 300 journalists who received ‘The Order of Merit’ medal from Russian president Putin following the Crimea annexation coverage. The ceremony was closed to the public and no list of receptors was published, because this information ‘is not for everyone’, a Kremlin spokesperson told the BBC. The list was posted online by a group called the Anonymous International, famous for a number of whistleblower campaigns against the Russian government.
I reached out to Steshyn on the phone to ask about the social media posts on Ronzheimer’s reporting. In a tense conversation, he said he stands by his calls for Ronzheimer’s arrest and that the German’s reporting didn’t qualify as journalism.
“What if I paid a homeless drunk to vote several times in German elections? They’d arrest or deport me!” Steshyn says. (Ronzheimer says he didn’t pay the Ukraine voter.) Steshyn adds that he will continue helping expose Western journalists involved in what he calls “propaganda’ reporting on the Eastern Ukraine conflict.
That has gotten more difficult lately. On May 30, the Kiev government formally banned Steshyn from entering the country. Ukraine’s security service, in a public statement, accused him of being a “press pool journalist for Eastern Ukraine terrorists.” Nevertheless, Steshyn continues to report from the region, he told me. He didn’t say how he was able to enter the country, but Ukraine’s eastern border is notoriously porous.
Following a similar ban by the Kiev government, a Komsomolskaya Pravda colleague, Alexander Kots, reported in a recent dispatch that he managed to get back to the East by bribing Ukrainian border guards.