BBC journalists attacked and equipment smashed in Russia

MOSCOW—The British Broadcasting Corp. said unidentified men attacked a team of its journalists and destroyed their camera as it was investigating reports of Russian servicemen being killed near the border with Ukraine.

The public-funded broadcaster said its staff were badly beaten by at least three assailants in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan on Tuesday. After four hours of questioning at a local police station afterward, the journalists discovered that their recording equipment, which had been in their vehicle at the police station, had been electronically wiped, the BBC said in a statement.

“The attack on our staff, and the destruction of their equipment and recordings, were clearly part of a coordinated attempt to stop accredited news journalists reporting a legitimate news story,” the BBC said.

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The attack comes amid rising pressure on news media whose reporting has been at odds with the Kremlin’s narrative of events in the region. Before the attack, BBC Moscow Correspondent Steven Rosenberg and two colleagues had interviewed the sister of a Russian serviceman who died in August after telling his family he was being sent to southeastern Ukraine, according to an article written by Mr. Rosenberg and published on the BBC website Thursday.

Moscow says its forces aren’t involved in the conflict between pro-Russia rebels and government forces in eastern Ukraine. But officials in Moscow recently said some Russian volunteers, as well as army personnel on vacation, are fighting there.

Attacks on foreign journalists in Russia are rare, but beatings and killings of local reporters occur more frequently. Russian journalists investigating the presence of Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine have faced attacks by unknown assailants recently.

Western and Ukrainian officials say Russian army units are fighting in eastern Ukraine. Russian journalists have published several investigations into the claims, which appear to show servicemen were there.

Lev Shlosberg, a local lawmaker and journalist in the western city of Pskov, was badly beaten in August after publishing a story about the funerals of paratroopers from a local regiment who were apparently killed in Ukraine. Television and newspaper reporters who went to the cemetery near Pskov were also attacked by unidentified men.

According to the BBC article on Thursday, as the BBC team was leaving the sister’s village in southern Russia, their car was stopped by traffic police, who checked their trunk and identities, he wrote. After lunching in Astrakhan some 40 miles away, the journalists were confronted and attacked by at least three people.

The assailants knocked the cameraman to the ground and beat him, smashing the camera and taking it away in their car, Mr. Rosenberg wrote. The cameraman suffered a concussion, but all three are now safe and back in Moscow, a BBC spokesman said.

After four hours of questioning at a police station, the journalists discovered that their recording equipment, which was in their vehicle at the police station, had been wiped, the BBC said in a statement.

Russian police said it had opened a criminal case into the incident. Pyotr Rusanov, a spokesman for Astrakhan regional police, said a large police team was searching for the suspects and the camera. “We haven’t managed to detain anyone yet. We’re working on it,” he said by telephone.

The BBC on Thursday submitted a complaint to the Russian Foreign Ministry about the attack, the BBC spokesman said. The Foreign Ministry didn’t have an immediate comment.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe condemned the attack. The OSCE’s representative on media freedom, Dunja Mijatovic condemned the “growing violence” against journalists in Russia, noting in a statement that it was the latest in a spate of attacks against reporters investigating the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

In a sign that a further wave of pressure on the media could soon hit, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament indicated his support for a draft bill that would ban foreign companies from owning more than a 20% stake in Russian media.

Currently, foreign companies can own no more than 50% of television or radio stations. Foreigners need government permission to buy stakes in TV and radio stations, as well as print publications with circulations of more than one million.

The law, if passed, could affect a number of channels and publications. Vedomosti, a business daily, is co-owned by Finnish media group Sanoma, SAA1V.HE -1.25% the Financial Times Group and Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal. CTC Media, which runs several TV channels, is part-owned by Sweden’s Modern Times MTG-B.SK -1.00% Group. German publisher Axel Springer owns Forbes magazine and website in Russia.

“It is international practice, normal practice, for national legislation to protect its market,” Mr. Naryshkin told reporters, Interfax news agency reported. “The aim is clear: to protect national sovereignty.”

Write to James Marson at james.marson@wsj.com

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