Imagine this episode of the TV show Newsroom. It’s 2 p.m. and a dozen armed men, some wearing black balaclavas, others just covering their faces with surgical masks, enter the TV network’s headquarters and calmly walk up the stairs. They enter the newsroom and hand the news director a printed letter saying the network is now controlled by forces loyal to a foreign government. The reporters lock themselves in a few rooms at the back of the newsroom and continue to work, while gunmen relax in chairs in the hallways. The police come, but do nothing. The network calls government officials, but they, too, are powerless to respond. It would be a fantastic episode that could only unfold in a nation where any semblance of law and order was lost. But this is no work of fiction. It’s exactly what happened Thursday here in the city of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine.
A prominent TV station was taken over by pro-Russian militiamen. When we arrived there, about an hour later, the armed men looked amazingly calm. One of them was playing a video game on his cellphone as he guarded the door to the newsroom. They didn’t even try to stop us from filming inside the station. They refused to talk to us at all.
Two separatist militiamen sit guard after pro-Russian forces take control of a prominent TV station in Donetsk, Ukraine.
We walked right past them and into the office of news director Yuriy Sugak. On his desk was the letter, informing him he’d been replaced by a man he’d never heard of.
“Based on a military situation,” the letter read, “and considering the recommendation of the committee of television and radio, the council of deputies of the Donetsk People's Republic decided to take over control and editorial policies of TV company Donbass from today until further notice. The authority for this action lies with Rizhkov A.A., who is the authorized representative of the committee of television and radio.”
The letter was signed by “the head of the council of Donetsk People's Republic Makovich V.E.”
The letter was obtained Thursday by NBC News, about an hour after it was served to the station.
The Donetsk People's Republic is the self-declared pro-Russian government that wants to break away from Ukraine.
News director Sugak didn’t know what to do. He kept the staff working, pretending nothing was going on in the rest of the building. But what might happen when they left the newsroom to go home? Would they be arrested by the militiaman and never seen again? Would they be allowed to leave and not return the next morning? Should they pack their desks? The team had no idea. The building had been guarded by police officers, but they put up no resistance when the armed men walked in. They didn’t leave the building either. They just sat in their chairs and looked on, knowing, presumably, that if they drew their own weapons, they’d be starting a fight they’d likely lose. The militias have proven to be effective fighters and many Ukrainians believe they are directed by Russia.
Thursday, we watched one further step in the slow takeover of Eastern Ukraine. Other buildings in other cities have fallen in much the same way. The Ukrainian military is fighting back. It launches frequent “counter-terrorism” operations to drive out the pro-Russian militias, but these have had mixed results. Ukraine is gradually losing control of its East, one building - and one TV station - at a time.
First published May 8 2014, 2:50 PM
Richard Engel is widely regarded as one of America's leading foreign correspondents for his coverage of wars, revolutions and political transitions around the world over the last 15 years. Most recently, he was recognized for his outstanding reporting on the 2011 revolution in Egypt, the conflict in Libya and unrest throughout the Arab world.
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Engel was named chief foreign correspondent of NBC News in April 2008. His reports appear on all platforms of NBC News, including "Nightly News with Brian Williams," "TODAY," "Meet the Press," "Dateline," MSNBC, and NBCNews.com.
Engel, one of the only western journalists to cover the entire war in Iraq, joined NBC News in May 2003. He previously worked as a freelance journalist for ABC News, most notably during the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq. He remained in Baghdad as NBC's primary Iraq correspondent until his appointment as senior Middle East correspondent and Beirut bureau chief in May 2006. Engel also covered the war between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 from Beirut and southern Lebanon.
Prior to working for ABC News, Engel served as the Middle East correspondent for "The World," a joint production of BBC World Service, Public Radio International (PRI) and WGBH-Boston radio from 2001-2003. He has also written for USA Today, Reuters, AFP and Jane's Defense Weekly, a British publication in which he authored the magazine's in-depth profiles of Egypt, Yemen and al-Qaida.
Engel's work has received numerous awards, including seven News & Documentary Emmy Awards. In 2011, he was honored with the Daniel Pearl Award, the David Bloom Award and the Overseas Press Club Award in recognition of his coverage of the war in Afghanistan. In 2010, Engel received a Gracie Award for his work on "Unlikely Refugees," a "Nightly News" story about Afghan women who are treated as criminals for attempting to leave abusive marriages. Engel was honored in 2009 with the George Foster Peabody Award, an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Society of Professional Journalism Award for "Tip of the Spear," a series of reports from Afghanistan that focused attention on the hardships and dangers faced by American soldiers. Engel also received the 2008 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and the Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism, the first ever given to a broadcast journalist, for his report "War Zone Diary." The one-hour documentary, compiled from Engel's personal video journal, gave a rare and intimate account of the everyday realties of covering the war in Iraq. In 2006, Engel received the Edward R. Murrow Award for his report "Baghdad E.R.," the first ever to win in the category "Feature - Hard News."
Engel has lived in the Middle East since graduating from Stanford University in 1996 with a B.A. in international relations. He speaks and reads fluent Arabic, which he learned while living in Cairo. Engel has also traveled extensively in the Middle East and can comfortably transition between several Arabic dialects spoken across the Arab world. He is also fluent in Italian and Spanish. He is the author of two books, "A Fist in the Hornet's Nest" and "War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq," which chronicle his experiences covering the Iraq war.