Journalists in the Ukraine have won the right to carry guns firing rubber bullets.
The shock move is seen as belated official recognition of the dangers faced by reporters and editors covering stories about corruption and the mafia in the crime-ridden former Soviet republic.
Most journalists in the country were sceptical when, in July, the Ukraine’s interior minister, Yuriy Smirnov, vowed: "If you are ready to fight, we shall give you arms and fight against crime together."
But last week Smirnov kept his promise and issued a ruling allowing media staff facing threats to apply for gun licences.
"To obtain a licence, a journalist will have to provide a medical certificate and other documents and take a special course on using firearms," wrote the Kiev-based newspaper Segodnya, which broke the story.
Igor Lubchenko, chairman of the Ukrainian Union of Journalists, told Press Gazette: "It wasn’t our idea. But we did bombard the interior ministry with letters complaining about the constant criminal attacks on journalists and asking it to do something for our protection."
He said two reporters had been killed this year and journalists had complained of a series of assaults in Kiev, Lviv, Lugansk and the Crimea. They also faced threats connected with stories they were covering.
The interior minister’s announcement follows the scandal – still unsolved – of last year’s murder of leading Ukrainian journalist Georgiy Gongadze. This attracted worldwide attention because of allegations implicating the country’s president, Leonid Kuchma, in Gongadze’s disappearance. Kuchma denies any wrongdoing.
"What we were seeking was for the interior ministry to attach militia officers to major mass media offices and organise special seminars for our members on taking personal security precautions," said Lubchenko.
"Smirnov startled us with the decision that journalists are now allowed to carry shot guns able to fire rubber bullets. We have decided to go for it, although there are some concerns that this might trigger more deadly assaults, as the attackers will be expecting their victims to struggle and shoot back.
"The rule is that an editor writes a letter with an explanation of why a particular person needs the gun. Naturally a medical certificate needs to be provided proving that the person has no history of mental illness or alcoholism."
Another senior Ukrainian journalist warned: "These guns will offer no extra safety. It’s a sop because this country is the most dangerous in Europe for journalists.
"But corruption is so rampant here that gangs have ‘bought’ people inside the interior ministry. If an editor requests a gun for his crime reporter, this information will be passed to whoever is threatening him.
"If they want to murder him, they’ll arrive better armed, so the result will be the same."
By Will Stewart in Moscow