By David Gagrinski
International media monitors and NGOs working on media freedom issues say harassment of reporters, attacks on media outlets in Crimea and the shutdown of six Ukrainian channels constitute a concerted effort to deprive the population of objective news sources.
Self-defence units and paramilitary forces in Crimea are abducting, attacking, and harassing activists and journalists, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported. Local authorities in Crimea have a responsibility to ensure these forces cease their actions, disband, and disarm, the organisation wrote.
“Crimean authorities are allowing illegal and unidentified armed units to run the show in the peninsula, and to commit crimes that go uninvestigated and unpunished, as if there is a legal vacuum,” said Rachel Denber, HRW’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia. “The local authorities have clear legal obligations to provide protection and security to those in their jurisdiction.”
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Crimea’s illegitimate government has “censored” at least 18 independent regional and Ukraine-based broadcasters since March 3rd.
Leading independent broadcasters, including Ukraine TV stations, Channel 5, Channels 1+1 and Inter, were taken off the air and were dropped by cable providers “substituted with that of Russian state-controlled TV channels,” the Institute of Mass Information reported.
Sergey Aksyonov, de-facto prime minister of the breakaway region, said Ukrainian media provokes ethnic strife and Russian language citizens in the peninsula asked that they be shut down.
“Extreme censorship, shutting down media outlets and press hubs and attacks and intimidation of journalists must stop immediately,” warned the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
However, Crimean authorities continue attacks on free media. They took off the air the only Tatar language TV channel ATR, founded by local Tatars in 2006, broadcasting also in Russian and Ukrainian languages. The channel was the most reliable source for about 300,000 Tatars living in Crimea. ATR, which used to cover the whole peninsula and neighbouring Kherson district, was also dropped by cable providers and can only reach its audience via the internet.
Zinaida Galimova, an ATR viewer who returned to Crimea in 1992 from Central Asia, where her family was sent by the Soviet regime, said the channel was the main source of information for Crimean Tatars.
“Now we are in information vacuum, because only few people have access to the internet,” Galimova told SETimes. “If nothing changes, Crimean Tatars will hear their mother language only at home.”
ATR journalist, Shevket Namatulaev, said the illegitimate government started attacks on the TV channel two months ago. People equipped with modern Russian weapons and wearing green camouflage showed up at the station and declared themselves as “Crimea Defence Forces,” he said.
“These are so-called ‘green people,’ who have been occupying the government buildings and Ukrainian military bases with groups of Kazakhs from the Don and Kuban districts,” Namatulaev told SETimes. “When they occupied ATR TV building, they said they are defending journalists from provocations. Since then, ATR newsroom has been watched by these people.”
Namatulaev said armed forces do not allow journalists in Crimea to do their jobs, especially to cover wrongdoing by local authorities.
“While covering the March 16th referendum, I was following and recording the car that was transporting referendum bulletins, when another car with the masked people stopped and raided our TV crew without showing us any documents,” he said.
Dozens of Ukrainian and international journalists have been assaulted, beaten, and their equipment has been seized or broken by armed and masked men in Crimea, CPJ has reported based on accounts from international and local media monitoring groups and journalists.
Armed men have seized crew equipment from The Associated Press, accusing them of “being spies,” the news service reported.
According to CPJ, a Bulgarian freelance journalist who witnessed the seizure of the AP’s equipment “was held at gunpoint and his cell phone and camera seized.”
“We call on parties in Crimea to respect the law and to stop trying to intimidate and obstruct the media,” said Nina Ognianova, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia programme co-ordinator.