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Ukrainian journalist's death leads to investigation and criticism

The destroyed section of the Antonivka bridge over the Dnipro river is seen on Nov 18, 2022 in Kherson, Ukraine.
Chris McGrath
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Getty Images
The destroyed section of the Antonivka bridge over the Dnipro river is seen on Nov 18, 2022 in Kherson, Ukraine.

KYIV, Ukraine — Prosecutors in Ukraine's southern Kherson region have opened a war crimes investigation into Russian troops who apparently killed a Ukrainian journalist late Wednesday.

Bogdan Bitik was killed while on the Antonivka bridge, a major crossing on the Dnipro river, near Kherson. Russian forces are believed to have partially destroyed it while retreating to Kherson's eastern bank last fall.

Bitik's body remained on the bridge for several hours, as rescuers said it was too dangerous to approach. He is the first civilian journalist killed on the job in Ukraine this year.

Bitik was working as an interpreter for an Italian reporter, Corrado Zunino, who was also shot, but survived after one bullet lodged in his bulletproof vest.

Their employer, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, says both journalists were targeted by Russian snipers who are defending the bridge from a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Kherson, though taken back by Ukrainian forces last November, continues to see intense fighting, as Russian forces occupy the eastern bank of the river, and lob artillery and other munitions on the city. Thousands of the city's residents have fled in recent months.

Speaking to the newspaper, Zunino said that he and Bitik both wore vests clearly identifying them as press. Still, the International Federation of Journalists has identified several cases of reporters killed while identified as journalists in Ukraine and elsewhere, despite being a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

"The Russians don't care if you are Russian, Italian or Ukrainian, they simply shoot," said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Italian television.

Restrictions on journalism in Ukraine

The incident has shed light on a new press accreditation system that Ukraine's military has implemented as the full-scale war continues into its second year.

As of March, Ukraine has designated entire regions of the country as special "red and yellow zones" that journalists are either forbidden from visiting or must be accompanied by military officers that can intervene in the reporting process.

As of May, Ukraine's military will also require all journalists to reapply for permission to work every six months, with unclear criteria for who gets denied or approved.

This has led both foreign and domestic media covering the war to raise press freedom concerns. Ukraine's independent Institute for Mass Information has proposed that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy create a liaison between the military and media to encourage more transparency while also keeping journalists, troops and civilians out of harm's way.

Skirting permissions

News of Bitik's death has shaken a tight-knit community of Ukrainian journalists who assist foreign correspondents reporting in Ukraine.

According to a 2019 study from the Global Reporting Center, "fixers," as these local journalists are often known, overwhelmingly say their work is more dangerous than that of the reporters who hire them.

The Ukrainian Center for Strategic Communications found that Zunino had not informed local authorities that he was working in the Kherson region, and had driven past Ukrainian soldiers at checkpoints who had shouted, "Danger, sir!"

"The Italian [Zunino] told me himself, while laying in the hospital, that his fixer [Bitik] didn't even have any press accreditation, either," said Dmytro Pletenchuk, a Ukrainian military spokesman.

Meanwhile, military sources told the Institute for Mass Information that Bitik was not wearing a bulletproof vest at the time of his death, even though Zunino was. Ukraine's military requires all journalists wear protective armor as a condition of their accreditation.

"Bogdan was a great friend and a valuable journalist," Zunino wrote in an obituary in La Repubblica on Thursday. Bitik leaves behind a son and wife.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julian Hayda