The Media Today

Brent Renaud, Yevhenii Sakun, and the grave dangers on the ground in Ukraine

March 14, 2022
FILE - Brent Renaud attends the 74th Annual Peabody Awards at Cipriani Wall Street on May 31, 2015, in New York. Renaud, an American journalist, was killed in a suburb of Kyiv, Ukraine, on Sunday, March 13, 2022, while gathering material for a report about refugees. Ukrainian authorities said he died when Russian forces shelled the vehicle he was traveling in. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)

Yesterday, Brent Renaud, a veteran American conflict reporter and filmmaker, was killed while covering the war in Ukraine, reportedly after Russian forces opened fire on a car at a checkpoint in Irpin, near Kyiv. He was fifty. Renaud worked, in the past, for US media companies including HBO, NBC, and the New York Times; he had been traveling in Ukraine with an old Times press badge and early reports suggested that he was on assignment for the paper when he was killed, but he was actually working on a project, for Time magazine’s studio wing, about refugees around the world, documenting their journeys and providing them with smartphones so that they might continue recording themselves. Juan Arredondo, another American journalist who was traveling with Renaud, was shot in the same attack, but survived. Jane Ferguson, of PBS, observed Renaud’s body beneath a blanket by the side of a road. A Ukrainian police officer beseeched her to “tell America, tell the world, what they did to a journalist.”

Renaud was the first journalist from the US to die in Ukraine since Russia invaded, but not the first journalist. Two weeks ago, Russian forces shelled a TV tower in Kyiv and killed Yevhenii Sakun, a camera operator for the Ukrainian channel LIVE. Sakun had also worked as a correspondent for the Spanish broadcaster EFE. He was forty-nine.

ICYMI: Who is Russian propaganda for?

Other Ukrainian journalists have died after picking up arms to defend their country. (While citizens from various walks of life have joined the fight willingly, the government has also moved to conscript all men between the ages of eighteen and sixty, an order that does not make an exception for working journalists.) Pasha Lee, an actor and TV host who signed up for Ukraine’s territorial defense force, was killed in a Russian bombardment, also in Irpin. Viktor Dudar—who had covered a defense beat for the Ukrainian weekly newspaper Expres since volunteering to serve as a soldier in eastern Ukraine eight years ago—signed up to fight again and was killed in action near Mykolaiv, in the south of the country. Last week, members of the international press covered Dudar’s funeral in Lviv, the Western Ukrainian city close to where he lived with his wife and daughter, both also journalists. “I’m not ready to die,” Mykola Saveliev, a newspaper editor turned soldier who knew Dudar, told NPR’s Leila Fadel at the funeral. “But I’m ready to kill right now.”

Other journalists have had narrow escapes—including members of the international press. Shortly after Russia invaded, Stefan Weichert and Emil Filtenborg Mikkelsen, of the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet, were shot while en route to cover a bombing at a kindergarten in Ohtyrka, near the Russian border; they survived and were subsequently evacuated. Days later, gunfire from Russian soldiers near Kyiv hit Stuart Ramsay, a correspondent for Britain’s Sky News, in the lower back and Richie Mockler, a camera operator, on his body armor; they also survived. On March 3, two Czech journalists narrowly dodged AK-47 fire from Russian soldiers. On March 5, Russian soldiers shot at the car of Adnan Can and Habib Demirci, of Al Araby TV, amid shelling in Irpin; both reporters sought cover with local residents and remained trapped for several days. On March 6, men claiming to be Russian soldiers on the road to Mykolaiv shot at the vehicle of Guillaume Briquet, a Swiss freelancer who was cut by broken glass from his windshield, then robbed him. All had taken steps to identify themselves as press.

Around the same time, Russian soldiers in southeastern Ukraine reportedly also fired on, then robbed, a car carrying Viktoria Roshchina, a Ukrainian TV journalist. According to Ukraine’s National Union of Journalists, Russian forces detained fifty media workers in an office in the southern city of Berdyansk last Tuesday and tried (without success) to make them distribute Russian propaganda; they were eventually allowed to leave. Early on Friday morning, Maryan Kushnir, a journalist with the Ukrainian arm of the US-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty who was embedded with Ukrainian forces near Kyiv, suffered a concussion in a Russian attack. He shared a video message showing blood running down his neck. On Saturday, Oleh Baturin, a journalist based near the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city of Kherson, reportedly disappeared, with his wife reporting that he left home for a meeting and never returned. The Economist’s Oliver Carroll noted that he’d been anticipating a development of this sort, since it appeared to mirror the tactics Russia deployed after annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

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The threats to reporters on the ground in Ukraine have been intense ever since the latest invasion began, but feel increasingly omnipresent. Early on, a journalist in Kyiv told Reporters Without Borders that it was already difficult to approach ad hoc Ukrainian defense groups due to their growing wariness of strangers; last week, a Russian photojournalist who traveled to Ukraine to document the war told Teen Vogue that he decided to leave for Lithuania since his nationality had started to make him feel unsafe around “paranoid crowds with rifles.” While international reporters, from freelancers to anchors for major networks, have fanned out across Ukraine, many have worked out of Lviv, which is close to the Polish border (and thus NATO territory) and was largely spared in the early days of the invasion. Over the weekend, however, Russian forces stepped up their attacks on targets in western Ukraine, including a military installation between Lviv and Poland that Ukraine has used to train hundreds of foreign fighters. Even before the latter strike, Valerie Hopkins wrote for the Times, violence had “pierced the sense of security that many”—including journalists stationed in Lviv—“had taken for granted.”

The Kyiv TV-tower strike that killed Sakun, and others like it in at least three other locations, appears to have been a coordinated attack on information infrastructure. RSF has already compiled evidence of intentionality and submitted it to the International Criminal Court, noting that striking civilian media facilities is a war crime. As Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein reported last week, press-freedom groups are still assessing whether other attacks on journalists in Ukraine were targeted or indiscriminate; also speaking last week, Jakub Parusinski, a London-based media consultant who has been raising money to support Ukraine’s independent press, told my Columbia colleague Gabby Miller that the attacks he’d seen so far mostly seemed to fall “within the broader context of just absolute disregard for civilian life,” adding, “I don’t think that makes it better but just different” from the targeting of journalists. This distinction is important, but the resulting danger is similar. As more people die—Ukrainian and foreign; journalists and not; targets and collateral casualties—the danger intensifies, and the distinctions get fuzzier.

The world’s understanding of the war, of course, suffers, too, and not just through the tragic loss of the journalists who shape it. So far, some of the most striking coverage to come out of Ukraine has illuminated the situation in Irpin, including Russia’s killing of civilians; as I wrote last week, Lynsey Addario’s photo of a young family lying dead in a street there might be the defining image of the invasion so far. Yesterday, following the killing of Renaud, Oleksandr Markushyn, the mayor of Irpin, said that journalists would henceforth be banned from entering his city. “In this way,” he said, “we want to save the lives of both them and our defenders.”

Below, more on the war:

Other notable stories:

  • Last week, Project Veritas, the right-wing sting group, published videos that showed Matthew Rosenberg, a national-security reporter at the Times, suggesting that the media has overhyped the insurrection and criticizing a number of his colleagues for being “woke.” According to Politico’s Rachael Bade, Times staffers have “mixed feelings” about the videos, with anger at Rosenberg mixed with a recognition that Veritas has selectively edited videos in the past, and a desire not to play into the group’s hands—a sentiment echoed by Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor, at a lunch on Thursday. Veritas has sued the Times for defamation—asking a court to curb the paper’s coverage of the group—and also targeted reporters involved in that coverage, including Adam Goldman Mark Mazzetti, and Michael Schmidt. (CJR’s Caleb Pershan has covered the legal fight.)
  • Rolling Stone’s Tatiana Siegel has more details of the incestuous relationship between the recently ousted CNN executives Jeff Zucker and Allison Gollust and the former New York governor Andrew Cuomo, whom Gollust once served as a publicist; among other things, Gollust once quipped that “apparently I still am” Cuomo’s publicist, and texted him “Cuomo-W. Trump-L” after he did a CNN segment. (Gollust’s spokesperson accused Siegel of twisting “innocuous” conversations.) Elsewhere, emails that a New York Post reporter obtained under public-records laws offer greater insight into the former CNN anchor Chris Cuomo’s advice to his brother’s political machine. Vice has more.
  • One America News, which is itself being sued for spreading election lies, is suing DirecTV after the cable provider dropped the network; OAN is accusing DirecTV of breach of contract and of caving to liberal pressure, as well as complicity with “a larger, coordinated, extremely well-financed political scheme” to “destroy” OAN. Meanwhile, six Republican attorneys general, led by Ken Paxton of Texas, wrote to DirecTV urging it to reinstate OAN. (ICYMI, Andrew McCormick profiled OAN for CJR in 2020.)
  • Lawyers for Politico told Josh Hawley, the Republican senator for Missouri, to stop using a photo taken by Francis Chung, a photographer for E&E News, which Politico owns, on a campaign mug. The now-infamous photo shows Hawley raising his fist in solidarity with Trump supporters at the Capitol prior to the insurrection. Hawley has denied that the mug is “pro-riot,” and his campaign has dismissed Politico’s request.
  • In 2019, after the writer E. Jean Carroll accused him of raping her in the nineties, Trump called Carroll a liar and said that he had never met her; Carroll subsequently sued him for defamation, so Trump countersued, claiming that Carroll’s claim was baseless. Last week, a judge threw out Trump’s countersuit, and suggested that he only filed it to delay Carroll’s case. (In 2020, Kyle Pope interviewed Carroll on our podcast, The Kicker.)
  • For South Side Weekly, Matt Chapman examined hundreds of denials that Chicago police issued in response to public-records requests, and found that the department has failed to comply with state law. Police denials often cited an “ongoing investigation” without explaining how providing records might compromise it. A few requests were denied for this reason even though the investigation seemed to have been closed.
  • Last week, members of the European Parliament passed a resolution expressing concern about press freedom in Mexico, where seven journalists have been killed already this year, and calling on the country’s government to stop attacking the media. Mexican officials quickly hit back, accusing the lawmakers of “corruption, lies, and hypocrisy” and of treating Mexico like “a colony.” The Hill’s Rafael Bernal has more.
  • Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger who advocated secularism and criticized the country’s religious authorities, has been released from prison ten years after he was first arrested, his wife, Ensaf Haidar, said on Friday. Haidar and the couple’s children now live in Canada, where Badawi has also been granted citizenship, though it’s not clear if he will be allowed to join them since his sentence also entailed a long-term travel ban.
  • And Lauren Harris—who for two years has written CJR and the Tow Center’s “Journalism Crisis Project” newsletter about local news and the economics of the media business—is moving on to a new opportunity. In her final dispatch, she shared some lessons that she’s learned along the way, including that “local information functions differently in each place,” and that you should “be careful what you label as insignificant.”

ICYMI: Russia’s diminishing information access

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.