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Press freedom groups silent on FBI helping Ukraine censor, threaten journalists worldwide

One group modestly objects: "Trying to curb a reporter's ability to report by covert means or behind closed doors will always raise suspicions about motive and justification."

Published: June 22, 2023 11:44pm

Updated: June 23, 2023 1:07pm

Advocacy groups that defend journalists and freedom of the press are deeply concerned about threats to their colleagues in Ukraine amid Russia's invasion. Yet they appear oddly silent about allegations the U.S. is helping Ukrainian intelligence censor and threaten journalists worldwide who undermine its wartime narratives.

The FBI went to bat on behalf of the Security Service of Ukraine, known as the SBU, in asking Twitter to not only remove 175 accounts but reveal private information about their creators, according to March 2022 communications revealed by the Twitter Files this month.

Flagged accounts include "American and Canadian journalists" including Aaron Maté, Twitter's then-head of trust and safety Yoel Roth told FBI Special Agent Aleksandr Kobzanets, who is assistant legal attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. 

Kobzanets sent the SBU's blacklist to Twitter with the justification that the accounts were "suspected … in spreading fear and disinformation." He has spoken openly as recently as April about the FBI's cooperation with Ukraine to document Russian war crimes through geolocation and cellphone information.

"If granted, the users on the list would not only have been banned from Twitter but had their phone number, date of birth, and email address disclosed to both the FBI and SBU," Maté wrote June 7.

Twitter isn't the only target of FBI-Ukraine collaboration. llia Vitiuk, head of SBU's Department of Cyber Information Security, told journalist Lee Fang in April that "sometimes we get good results" when passing along purported disinformation on Facebook to the FBI.

He said SBU considers Russian disinformation to be "[e]verything that is against our country … Right now, for our victory, it is important to have that kind of understanding, not to be fooled."

Just the News reached out to U.S. and international press freedom groups, many of which have touted their efforts on behalf of journalists covering the war, seeking their take on the FBI helping a foreign security service shut down contrary narratives and creating dossiers on journalists that would be available to both governments. 

Only one gave a substantive response, the Belgium-based International Federation of Journalists, though others have expressed concern about press freedom in Ukraine during the war.

"If any state security agency has an issue with reporting by a particular journalist or journalists, they should approach the issue through public, judicially overseen processes," IFJ Deputy General Secretary Tim Dawson wrote in an email. 

"Trying to curb a reporter's ability to report by covert means or behind closed doors will always raise suspicions about motive and justification," he said. IFJ is running a fundraiser for Ukrainian journalists "on the ground."

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has brought together ideologically odd bedfellows. 

Maté's work has largely been for far-left and progressive groups including Democracy Now, and he won a journalism award named after progressive investigative journalist I.F. Stone for his Russiagate coverage in progressive magazine The Nation. One of the few outlets to cover his FBI-Ukraine revelation was Fox News

He told Just the News he didn't hear from press freedom groups "but in their defense, I didn't approach them." The media response has been "silence" except for Fox News and YouTube programs such as The Hill's Rising and comedian Jimmy Dore's show, where Maté is a recurring guest.

"Not surprised given how much effort establishment outlets like MSNBC and those who follow their lead tried to put into disparaging the Twitter files and downplaying their revelations," he wrote in an email.

SBU's requested blacklist states, "the aggressor state [Russia] uses hybrid methods of war," including Twitter, "to disseminate disinformation and fake news to inaccurately reflect events in Ukraine, [and] justify war crimes of the Russian authorities."

It asks Twitter to "take urgent measures to block these Twitter accounts and provide us with user data specified during registration. We express our gratitude for the existing level of interaction."

The FBI passed it to Twitter "for your review and consideration," Kobzanets told Roth and Marlena Wisniak, at the time Twitter's senior governance adviser for legal.

His March 27, 2022, email says they discussed "assistance to Ukraine" the previous week.

Roth told Kobzanets that Twitter would review the accounts under its rules but noted the presence of Western journalists, specifically naming Maté. Other FBI agents were copied, including Elvis Chan, already known for his role in the FBI's efforts to pressure social media companies to remove purported election disinformation.

Authentic accounts that "cover the conflict with a pro-Russian stance are unlikely to be found in violation of our rules absent other context that might establish some kind of covert/deceptive association between them and a government," Roth said, asking for "additional information or context." Kobzanets said that was "[u]nlikely."

According to Maté, 34 of the accounts were subsequently suspended and 20 don't exist anymore.

The Committee to Protect Journalists told Just the News its representatives were not "available to provide comment at this time."

The Society of Professional Journalists "prefer[s] not to comment at this time," communications specialist Zoë Berg said. 

Two days after Maté's reporting, CPJ criticized SBU for an "opaque accreditation process" for journalists seeking its permission to cover the war, pressuring them to "take certain approaches in their reporting" and requiring some to take "lie detector tests."

Other press freedom groups did not respond: France-based Reporters Without Borders, known as RSF; Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; and Freedom of the Press Foundation, which has denounced Russian censorship and threats several times.

RSF called on Ukraine to "[e]nd arbitrary restrictions and discrimination with regard to media covering the war" and [e]ncourage media pluralism and independence" as part of an eight-point plan on the May anniversary of its Press Freedom Centre's opening in Kyiv last year. 

Ukraine is also the first market for RSF's Journalism Trust Initiative "emergency protocol," which is funded by the European Union's delegation in the country. It purportedly validates "quality journalism" with help from NewsGuard, a misinformation enforcer whose advisory board includes former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who himself spread the discredited claim that first son Hunter Biden's laptop was a Russian disinformation plant.

Maté said Kobzanets did not answer his questions and the FBI declined to comment on "specific investigations" or "confirm the veracity of correspondence." A Just the News query to the FBI through the Justice Department's media portal was not answered.