Kyiv, Ukraine – Earlier this month, a flock of birds damaged the engines of a Russian passenger jet that took off from a Moscow airport.
More than 200 passengers on board survived a crash landing in a cornfield, and Russian media extolled the pilots as national heroes.
But within hours, Myrotvorets (or Peacemaker), a Ukrainian website with close ties to law enforcement agencies and hackers, “blacklisted” them in their online database of more than 130,000 names – because the plane was bound for Russia-annexed Crimea.
For the pilots, the “blacklisting” means that Ukrainian border guards, who routinely use the database for background checks, will probably not let them in Ukraine.
However, for some others, being put on the list has had more sinister consequences.
Two pro-Russian figures – publicist Oles Buzina and legislator Oleh Kalashnikov – were shot dead in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in April 2015 just days after Peacemaker published their personal information, including home addresses.
A nationalist group claimed responsibility for both murders, prompting Russian media to lash out at Ukraine’s “fascist junta”. Russian President Vladimir Putin purported that the West “prefers not to notice” such killings.
Peacemaker’s founder Anton Gerashchenko does not understand the fuss.
The interior ministry official and former legislator, who has some 300,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter, insists the killings had nothing to do with his publication.
“We are not a punitive body, we are an inquiry office,” Gerashchenko, 39, told Al Jazeera, speaking at a restaurant near Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s lower house of parliament.
Thousands of suspected pro-Russian separatists fighting in southeastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk are arrested and interrogated annually based on Peacemaker’s blacklist, he said.
This practice, which still persists in Ukraine, puts journalists at risk and must be stopped, their names taken off the list.
Peacemaker’s publications have been used as evidence in more than 100 court cases that involved terrorism and pro-Russian paramilitary groups, according to the Uspishna Varta rights group.
Peacemaker is run by dozens of volunteers who maintain their anonymity, even among themselves, and scrupulously sift through email tips, social networking pages, geo-tagged photos, videos and media reports, Gerashchenko said.
In 2015, they created a fake website for pro-Russian separatists. Thousands registered, and soon enough their inboxes were hacked and their personal data was published.
“Militants joke that they have their own social network – Peacemaker,” said Gerashchenko.
Peacemaker has also identified dozens of Russian servicemen and intelligence officers who fought for or “consulted” the separatists, disproving Kremlin’s claims of not being involved in what it calls Ukraine’s “civil conflict”.
In May 2015, Peacemaker released its most notorious leak – the names, emails and phone numbers of more than 4,000 international journalists accredited by separatist authorities.
The accreditations were essential to avoid detention, harassment and robbery by undisciplined separatists, but Peacemaker called the journalists “accomplices to terrorists”.
Some of the reporters received threats, raising concern among Western governments and human rights groups.
“Peacemaker’s creators showed that violation of privacy and confidentiality of personal data, arbitrary public accusations, often of large groups of people, including journalists, of certain transgressions or crimes against the state, readiness to expose them to risks are not just tolerated by the state, but also supported by some government figures,” Maksym Butkevych, coordinator of the No Borders Project rights group in Kyiv, told Al Jazeera.
Ukraine’s then-President Petro Poroshenko called the leak a “big mistake”.
Peacemaker announced its shutdown but reopened within days – with an expanded list of journalists.
“We wrote a letter to President Poroshenko on this specific matter, but have never received a response,” Gulnoza Said of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a US-based group, told Al Jazeera. “This practice, which still persists in Ukraine, puts journalists at risk and must be stopped, their names taken off the list.”
In 2015, Moscow launched an investigation into Gerashenko’s “calls for terrorism”, and Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s leader whose enemies have been killed in Russia, Austria and Dubai, promised a “painful response” to Peacemaker’s publications.
Famous characters added to ‘pro-Russian’ blacklist
In January 2017, the SBU, Ukraine’s security service, announced the arrest of two men allegedly hired by Russian intelligence to blow up Gerashchenko’s car. Their trial is still under way.
But Peacemaker kept working.
Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who once called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “flawless democrat” and now works for Russia’s largest state-run oil company, was added to the database in August 2018.
Schroeder reportedly said that Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea was “a reality that must one day be recognised”, and Peacemaker accused him of attempting to “justify” the annexation.
Berlin objected to Schroeder’s blacklisting, urging Ukraine to take the website offline, while his wife reportedly said that she feared an attack on her husband.
In August 2018, Peacemaker declared Roger Waters of the Pink Floyd fame a “threat to national security” after the 76-year-old rocker claimed that Russia has more rights to Crimea than Ukraine.
It has also blacklisted former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, several French legislators, former boxing champion Roy Jones Jr and countless Russian pop and film stars for visiting Crimea from Russia – something Ukraine considers illegal border crossing.
For some Ukrainians, being blacklisted is a badge of honour.
In December 2018, Father Hennady Shkil, a priest with a Russia-affiliated Orthodox parish in the southern town of Hola Prystan, was listed as an “opponent” of Ukraine’s religious independence.
“I am proud to be on that list,” Shkil told Al Jazeera.
But some of Peacemaker’s victims are hardly part of a pro-Putin crowd.
Last August, Peacemaker accused Svetlana Alexievich, a Nobel Prize-winning Belarussian writer and Kremlin critic, of “inciting inter-ethnic division” after she mentioned the ethnic Ukrainians who helped German Nazis kill Jews during World War II.
After threats from far-right groups, Alexievich cancelled her speech in the southern city of Odessa.
IT expert Andriy Munchuk was blacklisted in October as one of 500 public servants who happened to be ethnic Hungarians and received Hungarian passports.
Ukraine forbids double citizenship, and Peacemaker branded them “separatists” and “traitors”.
Minchuk said since then, border guards stop and search him every time he crosses the Ukraine-Hungary border in his home region of Transcarpathia.
“They just say I was marked in their database and they have to check me,” he told Al Jazeera.
Gerashchenko said that Munchuk could protest the blacklisting in an email.
He said Peacemaker was inspired by Simon Wiesenthal, a Jewish Nazi hunter whose followers are still on the lookout for surviving Holocaust perpetrators.
“We have enough work for decades to come,” he said, huddling over his iPad that displayed search results in the website’s database.