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U.S. Journalist Being Held By Pro-Russian Forces in Ukraine

Vice reporter Simon Ostrovsky has dual American and Israeli citizenship

Batya Ungar-Sargon
April 23, 2014
Simon Ostrovsky. (YouTube)
Simon Ostrovsky. (YouTube)

American journalist Simon Ostrovsky, a reporter for Vice who has dual U.S. and Israeli citizenship, was taken into custody by pro-Russian separatists yesterday in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk. Ostrovsky has been reporting from Ukraine for the past few weeks, producing provocative videos for Vice about Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the growing tensions in the region.

TIME’s Berlin correspondent Simon Shuster and three other journalists were also detained, but have since been released. According to TIME, “The journalists were traveling in a car in the separatist-held town of Slavyansk when they were stopped at a checkpoint by armed separatists.” Local separatist leader Vyacheslav Ponomarev, who calls himself the “people’s mayor,” has confirmed that Ostrovsky is in his custody.

JTA reports that Ponomarev told reporters Tuesday that Ostrovsky “had not been abducted and was not being held hostage.” According to the AP, Stella Khorosheva, a spokeswoman for pro-Russia insurgents in Slovyansk, confirmed Ostrovsky was being held at a local branch of the Ukrainian security service, which gunmen seized more than a week ago. Ostrovsky had most recently been reporting on the masked gunman who were seizing government buildings.

“(We) need to be careful because this is not the first time we’re dealing with spies,” Khorosheva said, adding that he is suspected of spying for the far-right nationalist group known as the Right Sector. The kidnapping is another incident of what seems to be a disturbing new trend in the region.

According to Mashable, “State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki condemned the journalist’s kidnapping in a statement issued later on Tuesday. ‘We are deeply concerned about the reports of a kidnapping of a U.S. citizen journalist in Slovyansk [sic], Ukraine, reportedly at the hands of pro-Russian separatists,’ Psaki said. ‘We condemn any such actions, and all recent hostage takings in eastern Ukraine, which directly violate commitments made in the Geneva joint statement. We call on Russia to use its influence with these groups to secure the immediate and safe release of all hostages in eastern Ukraine. We have also raised our concerns with Ukrainian officials as they work with local authorities to try to de-escalate the security situation in and around Slovyansk.’”

Andrew S. Weiss of the Carnegie Moscow center describes Ostrovsky’s work in the following way:

Ostrovsky’s style as a journalist and filmmaker is frequently jarring. He puts himself directly into the frame, regularly blurring the distinction between observer and direct participant in the events he is witnessing. In dispatch 26, we see Ostrovsky, decked out awkwardly in flak jacket and a Kevlar helmet, standing in the middle of a provincial police station in Horlivka as pro-Russian militants ransack the place. Suddenly, the portly chief of police, carrying an automatic weapon and dressed for combat, threatens to start shooting the attackers who have trapped him on a stairwell. The camera cuts to Ostrovsky who, we quickly realize, is standing directly next to the police chief on the landing, as the latter tries to talk his way out of the building and to safely. Seconds later, the militants savagely pounce on and attack the police chief, bloodying the same man who was seen throwing a protester off the roof of the police station at the very beginning of the episode. Ostrovsky’s style makes it exceedingly hard to spot the good guys.

We’ll update you as we learn more.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.