RT Outraged Over Capture of Sometime Correspondent in Ukraine

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Russia Today (RT) contributor Graham Phillips was reportedly taken hostage in Ukraine. It's no longer surprising to hear that a journalist is being threatened or detained there, but Phillips's case is a little different. 

The BBC reports that the U.K. Foreign Office is aware of the situation and has been in touch with Ukrainian authorities, and is prepared to offer "consular assistance." Though he works for RT, Phillips is a British citizen. Much of the other information, it seems, is coming from RT. The BBC reports

The station said he had been detained in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, on Tuesday. The National Guard later said it intended to transport him to Kiev.... In a statement, the organization said he had not been in contact with anyone via phone, email or Twitter since 15:20 Moscow time on Tuesday. It said he had been detained that morning and was believed to have been taken for "interrogation" by the Security Service of Ukraine, known as the SBU.

The BBC adds that, according to Ukrainian officials, Phillips had been detained and indeed been passed over to the SBU. Representatives from the National Guard said that he would be sent to Kiev and handed over to the British embassy, which would set him free.

It's not clear why Phillips was taken into custody, but he marks the third Russia-affiliated journalist to be taken by pro-Ukrainians forces — according to Russia, anyway. The whole situation seems as a bit too simple, especially in a place as complex as Ukraine.

In a comprehensive review of Phillips's career so far, Buzzfeed's Max Seddon noted that RT has maintained a tense relationship with the amateur blogger. Seddon writes that the network embraced Phillips when they saw the type of work he was doing: pro-rebel man-on-the-street interviews in east Ukraine, which breathily referred to rumor and hearsay as truth. This made Phillips an excellent, Western spokesperson for the Kremlin, something RT was quick to recognize and exploit. But Phillips's amateur status was also valuable for the outlet, per Seddon

Though Phillips works separately from RT’s team of staff reporters, he is by far the channel’s most recognizable figure in the region. He can often be seen throughout eastern Ukraine mingling with staff from RT and pro-Kremlin cable channel LifeNews. RT, however, falls short of embracing him fully. Phillips has received no offer of full-time work. The channel frequently features his videos, but takes pains to point out that he is not a staff correspondent.

Though RT has distanced itself from Phillips at times, it was quick to jump to his support when he was reportedly captured. His arrest by Ukrainian forces makes for a convenient story for the Kremlin, which has been accused of stirring unrest in a region where pro-Kiev journalists and activists have been captured, beaten and disappeared at alarming rates. 

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Phillips's detention also comes at a time when the Kremlin is decrying the capture of two other Russian journalists, Marat Saichenko and Oleg Sidyakin. Per the BBC

Marat Saichenko and Oleg Sidyakin, from the pro-Kremlin news channel LifeNews, were detained by soldiers in eastern Ukraine. They were accused of being armed and involved in "terrorism." Speaking on Wednesday during his visit to China, President Vladimir Putin described the allegations against the reporters as "nonsense, absolute rubbish."

The capture has prompted an hashtag campaign, #SaveOurGuys: 

The hashtag calls to mind, perhaps intentionally, the #BringBackOurGirls effort to return the Nigerian schoolgirls captured by Boko Haram to their families. 

It's hard not to see the outcry as an effort stoked by the Kremlin to paint Ukrainian activists as comparable to (or worse than) pro-Russian separatists, which most international spectators actually believe to be organized by Russian nationals. Which is not to suggest that anyone captured by either side is anything other than an innocent international pawn. All journalists — amateur, pro, Russian, or Ukrainian — should be able to do their jobs freely. But it's also important to recall that RT has presented the conflict to viewers in a tightly-controlled, pro-Russian way, and it is likely doing so again now.

Update: Minutes after this post went live, Graham Phillips was released: 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.