The Ukrainian government has failed to renew the media accreditation for a photojournalist who has worked with The Globe and Mail since 2014, with the country’s security services demanding a lie-detector test, accusing him of holding a Russian passport and questioning whether his work is aligned with the country’s “national interests.”
Anton Skyba, 34, has worked as a photographer, translator and fellow reporter alongside a half-dozen Globe journalists in Ukraine, as both a freelancer and on contract for the paper. He was a National Newspaper Award finalist this year for his image of a girl in a pink hat standing in front of an apartment blown apart by a missile on the first night of the Russian invasion in February, 2022.
It was a familiar scene for him.
Mr. Skyba has reported on the breadth of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and has received local media credentials continually since 2015, including in the days leading up to the full-scale invasion last year. His was press card number 113. Since then, more than 14,000 additional credentials have been issued.
But on May 1, Mr. Skyba’s own card expired and authorities have yet to grant him a new one, hampering The Globe’s ability to cover the war as Ukraine pursues a much-anticipated counteroffensive. It can be difficult to travel even inside Kyiv without the military-issued accreditation.
Instead, Mr. Skyba has been asked to appear for two interviews in Kyiv with the Security Service of Ukraine, commonly known as the SBU. He was asked detailed questions about his own background as a person from what he calls the “temporarily occupied territories” of eastern Ukraine.
He was born in a part of the Donbas region seized by Russian-backed separatists in 2014. Mr. Skyba’s parents, who still live there, have since accepted Russian passports. Russia has pledged to treat those still holding Ukrainian citizenship in 2024 as “foreign nationals” and many residents have taken Russian passports.
But Mr. Skyba has a very different relationship with the region’s authorities. In 2014, while working for CNN, he was abducted by separatists. They took him to a former SBU building in Donetsk, where he was beaten, interrogated and locked in a basement with a concussion and dark bruises beneath his eyes. He was kept there for four days before being released.
Nearly a decade later, on April 28 of this year, with three days remaining for his media accreditation, Mr. Skyba was called to another SBU building, this one in Kyiv. Inside, he was ushered into a meeting room with dusty pink walls, Soviet-era furniture and bars on the windows.
A lieutenant-colonel asked him about his birthplace, his education and his parents. They are in Yenakiyeve, a coal mining and steelmaking centre between Donetsk and Luhansk that is best-known as the birthplace of Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president convicted in absentia of high treason in 2019.
The small city was made part of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic in 2014. During that chaotic time, Mr. Skyba offered a Russian magazine editor help in finding a driver in exchange for accreditation with that publication, which he used to pass checkpoints in the area. But, he says, “I never sent any byte of information to Russian media as a contributor or freelancer, and was never paid by Russian media.”
Nonetheless, he acknowledged the connection to the SBU in April, when they asked him about his past work in the region.
At the end of the conversation, the lieutenant-colonel said he had no objections to Mr. Skyba’s accreditation. “The guy told me, ‘Don’t worry,” Mr. Skyba recalled.
Journalists have entered Ukraine by the thousands since the Russian invasion last year, covering the war from the front lines, hospital wards and devastated neighbourhoods. Ukraine has been remarkably effective in winning foreign support. Last year, a survey of the Pew Research Center found Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was the most-trusted leader in the U.S.
Mr. Zelensky himself wrote to the family of U.S. journalist Brent Renaud after he was killed last year. At least 15 journalists have died since the 2022 invasion.
But as the war has turned into a grinding contest of attrition and destruction, Ukraine has taken a more hard-line approach to journalists. It has revoked credentials for reporters with The New York Times and NBC News before reinstating accreditation. The Times reported on the use of cluster bombs by Ukraine. NBC entered Crimea from Moscow, a violation of Ukrainian law. Ukraine has suspended credentials for journalists from CNN, Sky News and two Ukrainian outlets – Suspilne and Hromadske – who reported from a city before authorities authorized such activity.
Ukraine forbids journalists from reporting numerous aspects of the war, including the location of military installations; numbers of personnel; details of combat operations or troop deployments; information on downed jets or ships; or content seen as “promoting or justification of Russia’s large-scale armed aggression against Ukraine.”
Restrictions have increased. In March, Reporters Without Borders, an international non-governmental organization, called for greater access after new rules denied journalists access to many dozens of “red zone” municipalities. A press officer must accompany journalists travelling to other areas deemed “yellow zones.”
“We are in a pretty complicated situation, because we cannot do our job properly – but our job is crucial for the country in an emergency situation,” said Kateryna Sergatskova, a co-founder of the 2402 Fund, which is run by Ukrainians and equips journalists for war-zone reporting. (Mr. Skyba is a consultant and trainer with the fund; he has also worked with the author of this article.)
Ukrainian officials have cited the need to protect the safety of journalists, and said they need to harmonize their policies with those of the European Union. The Globe’s requests for comment from the presidential administration and the SBU went unanswered.
Ukraine’s embassy in Ottawa said the screening process is unbiased and solely considers “matters of national security.”
“The security check is part of established practice for media accreditation to the war zones and we believe it is understandable,” the embassy said in a statement.
A new policy in April forced the renewal of all accreditations, and made them valid for only six months. Globe correspondents have received the new credentials.
But at the same time, Ukrainian officials seem to be applying fresh scrutiny to journalists whose loyalty they may question.
At least 10 Ukrainian journalists have had trouble securing new accreditation, said Ms. Sergatskova. “Something that unites them all is that they have been working in the occupied areas or they have been to Russia at some point after 2014,” she said. They have been questioned “even though it is absolutely clear they were reporting from there.”
Three weeks after his first meeting with the SBU, Mr. Skyba was called in for another interview. This time, the tone was more aggressive, with a second interviewer who alleged problems with his tax filings, and informed Mr. Skyba that he had travelled to Belarus in 2021 and held a Russian passport. Both were a surprise to him: He has not been to Belarus since 2016, has not been to Russia since he was 18 years old, and possesses no Russian passport.
“I told them that is nonsense,” Mr. Skyba said.
The SBU interviewers said they had found no fault with his reporting. “We don’t see you as an enemy,” they told him. “But we are not sure your work is aligned with the national interests of Ukraine.”
It was a blow to Mr. Skyba, who struggled to respond to an allegation he took as not just false, but a personal offence. He recalled his previous interrogation in Donetsk. The separatists “were accusing me of espionage for the Kyiv junta,” he said. “And now my country counts me as a Russian agent.”
The SBU also asked him to submit to a lie-detector test. Such tests are common in Ukraine, where they are admissible in court. Mr. Skyba has, however, declined. “I don’t understand why a journalist would go through it,” he said. He is also reluctant to undergo another round of intensive questioning. For him, a “lie detector is somewhere around the same level with the torture I had in Donetsk,” he said.
Mr. Skyba has documentation to back his case. A record of arrivals and departures provided by the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine this week shows he has not been to Belarus recently.
But in a letter sent this week to Globe and Mail editor-in-chief David Walmsley, the press office of the Office of the President of Ukraine, said elements of Mr. Skyba’s background remain “unclear.” It posed a series of questions, asking whether Mr. Skyba and his relatives have received Russian citizenship; why he travelled to Belarus between 2019 and 2021; and whether he maintains ties with representatives of the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk republics.
If those issues cannot be clarified, “we ask you to consider co-operating with another fixer so that the work of the media representatives in Ukraine does not stop,” the press office wrote. Fixers are critical local contributors to foreign news gathering operations, who help with translation, logistics and planning.
Mr. Walmsley, in response, wrote to the office to express deep concern at “the apparent attempt to pressure The Globe and Mail into changing the composition of our team in Ukraine.”
He added: “Mr. Skyba has helped us deliver award-winning coverage of the Russian invasion to Canadian readers, reporting that has unquestionably informed Canadian government policy toward Ukraine.”
For Mr. Skyba, however, the lack of media credentials has already given rise to difficult considerations. After his abduction in Donetsk, he received invitations to relocate elsewhere in Europe. A similar offer came in days before last year’s invasion. “My reply always was ‘no.’ I want to stay in Ukraine and I want to report Ukraine because it’s my country,” he said.
Now, however, if he is refused accreditation “it will mean that I am out of a profession,” he said. Without that document, “it’s impossible to do journalism in Ukraine – because all of the journalism in Ukraine is about the war.”