Ukraine raids Kiev offices of Russian state media

Kiev (AFP) –


Ukraine's state security service searched the Kiev offices of Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency and TV channel RT on Tuesday, after detaining one journalist near his home, officials said.

The searches took place in a context of extremely strained relations between Moscow and Kiev ever since Russia seized Crimea in 2014 and was accused of fuelling a rebel conflict in eastern Ukraine that has cost some 10,000 lives.

The raids and detention came on the day when Russian President Vladimir Putin is to open a bridge that will provide the first direct road connection to the Crimean peninsula which Moscow annexed from Ukraine.

Olena Gitlyanska, a spokeswoman for the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), said Russian-controlled media were being "used as tools in a hybrid war against Ukraine."

She later told AFP that: "Investigative actions are continuing, there are searches in RIA Novosti and other media structures."

Earlier the day RIA Novosti reporter Kyrylo Vyshynsky was detained by Ukrainian law enforcement officers near his house.

According to the SBU the offices of RIA Novosti and RT share the same premises in the centre of Kiev.

- 'Outrageous and scandalous' -

"If it is the case that the actions of Ukrainian law enforcement bodies are somehow connected with the professional work of these media organisations, that would be outrageous and scandalous," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.

"Any action against Russian media is unacceptable," he said, adding that the Ukrainian government has repeatedly "put pressure on freedom of speech" in the country.

He warned that Moscow could take measures in response, saying the Kremlin "will vigorously defend the interests of Russian media to the fullest extent."

The director of the public media conglomerate Rossiya Segodnya, the parent company of the two media raided in Kiev, called for the release of Vyshynsky and said the "persecution" of Russian media in Ukraine must end.

"This is not the first time when the Kiev regime tramples on fundamental rights and freedoms by persecuting journalists," Dmitry Kisselev was quoted as saying by RIA Novosti.

RT's editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, linked the raids and arrest to the opening of the bridge.

"Kiev decided to take revenge on us for the Crimean bridge," she said on her Twitter feed.

- Deleterious climate -

Up to 15 journalists work for RIA Novosti in Ukraine. Some of them are responsible for transmitting information to its headquarters in Moscow while others, led by Vyshynsky, are in charge of the website for the Ukrainian audience.

Kiev authorities regularly accuse Russia of using its public media, including television stations which are very popular in Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, to encourage separatist sentiment and undermining confidence in the current pro-European government.

Ukraine had already banned the distribution of the main Russian TV channels on its territory, blocked the main Russian social networks and expelled several Russian journalists from its territory.

Ukraine ranks 101st out of 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).