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Bihus.info investigative outlet says SBU behind illegal surveillance of its team

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Ukrainian investigative media outlet Bihus.info reported on Feb. 5 that the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) was behind illegal surveillance of the outlet’s team, after which a video appeared online showing some staff members allegedly using drugs during a private party.

Speaking with Bihus.info, the recently dismissed head of an allegedly involved SBU department didn’t deny his involvement in the operation. The SBU issued an official comment later the same day, saying it is continuing its investigation into the surveillance.

The video, published by a little-known website that appears to pose as a news outlet on Jan. 16, included footage from a well-placed, hidden camera inside a building where the party took place, as well as video recordings taken from the street and tapped phone calls, where the staff members discuss purchasing drugs.

After analyzing the video, Bihus.info said that its employees had been under surveillance for months, appealed to law enforcement, and announced they would do their own investigation on who was spying on its team. Bihus.info is known for its investigations into government and law enforcement officials.

The SBU opened a criminal case into illegal surveillance, and the National Police launched proceedings over the violation of privacy of a Bihus.info journalist.

According to the Feb. 5 report, Bihus.info obtained footage from security cameras at a suburban hotel complex where the team stayed for the party and identified those who had previously installed hidden cameras in their rooms.

The six-day-long operation was conducted by the SBU’s Department for Protection of National Statehood, the outlet wrote.

President Volodymyr Zelensky dismissed the head of this department, Roman Semenchenko, on Jan. 31. Soon after, the SBU said that this department would be “strengthened and optimized,” including in order “to guarantee the unimpeded work and safety of journalists.”

Read also: Recent campaigns against journalists raise concerns about press freedom in Ukraine

Alleged SBU officers went to the suburban complex several times before the Bihus.info’s party under the guise of preparing a corporate event for themselves and inspected the rooms, according to the outlet’s investigation.

Then, a group of people led by one of the identified SBU officers reportedly secretly installed surveillance cameras in the sauna and at least eight rooms.

After the Bihus.info team left the hotel, two more groups of people linked to the SBU allegedly came to the hotel to collect the equipment.

In a comment to Bihus.Info, the SBU didn’t reply whether they had court orders to install hidden equipment in bedrooms and how the obtained footage ended up on the dubious website.

Responding to the Bihus.info investigation, the SBU said that some of the outlet’s team members had previously bought drugs, and its camerawoman had been involved in a criminal case over such purchase.

“We believe that independent media are an integral part of a modern democratic society, and no actions of individuals can cast a shadow on any of the editorial offices and media in general,” the SBU added.

“All employees of the SBU must act exclusively to ensure the protection of the national interests of the state and society and effectively oppose the enemy.”

Bihus.info said that the case against the camera operator was opened by the National Police, not the SBU, and she wasn’t charged or interrogated.

“Some of the previously published telephone conversations, according to the recorded persons, took place more than a year ago. Released records indicate that more than one person was wiretapped,” the outlet wrote.

The news about the surveillance of Bihus.Info came a day after Yurii Nikolov, a prominent journalist known for investigating defense procurement corruption scandals, said he had received a threatening visit to his home by unknown men.

Both cases sparked outrage among Ukraine’s journalistic community, which condemned it as pressure against free media. Zelensky said on Jan. 17 that “any pressure on journalists is unacceptable.”

Zelensky said he had held a meeting with law enforcement officials with the participation of SBU Chief Vasyl Maliuk.

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