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'Switch off Your Camera or We Will Kill You'

One by one, Crimea's media are being attacked or elbowed out by ones favorable to Russia.

by Halya Coynash 10 March 2014

If Russia is still maintaining an unconvincing pretense regarding its military intervention in Crimea, the full-frontal offensive on media freedom is undisguised.  Journalists and film crews have come under attack, and a number of media outlets have been taken off the air. While many of the attacks are carried out by pro-Russian thugs, the removal of independent media indicates that the Crimea’s self-styled leaders and their patrons want the people of Crimea to receive only the almost caricature-like distortions of reality on Russian and some Crimean channels.

 

It is unfortunately easy to see why the independent media should already be under attack. The line taken by the Kremlin and most Russian TV channels is that arch-“fascists” and anti-Semites seized control in Kyiv; that Russian nationals and Russian speakers have been persecuted, threatened, and stopped from speaking Russian and that Russia is “defending” them. 

 

The largest independent television channel, Chornomorska (Black Sea), which could be watched by 84 percent of Crimea, was taken off the air 3 March, shortly after sustaining a massive DDoS attack. A number of other media have also been subjected to cyber attacks over the last week or so.

 

With Chornomorska removed, the only channel broadcasting throughout Crimea is the state-owned TRC Krym. This is now under the control of the supposed new government led by Sergei Aksenov, whose Russian Unity party gained only 4 percent of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary elections. TRC Krym was seized on 1 March by armed men without insignia.

 

That same day masked men seized the building where the Center for Journalist Investigations has its office. They said they were from the “Crimean Front” and gave a press conference under a Russian flag.

 

On 5 March, according to Amnesty International, about 100 men

 

"who identified themselves as the Crimean Self-Defense League forced some 40 women to end their peaceful protest in front of the Ukrainian Naval headquarters in Crimea’s capital, Simferopol. The women were holding placards calling for peace and denouncing Russia’s military intervention in Crimea.

 

The men also attacked a journalist from News of the Week – Crimea as he tried to film the event. They pushed him into the road and threatened to beat him.

 

Crimean police officers who were standing about 30 meters away did not react to the incident.

 

In a separate event on 6 March, a journalist from Kerch.fm was threatened by men wearing Russian Cossack uniforms and men from the Crimean Self-Defense League when she and a colleague visited the border ferry crossing that they heard had been occupied by Russian forces. The men told her: 'Switch off your camera or we will kill you.' "

 

Also on 6 March, armed individuals seized the Simferopol Radio and TV Transmission Station (RTTS). They disconnected Channel 5 and 1 + 1 and installed the Russian state-owned TV channel Rossiya 24. RTTS reports that the armed men appeared with a Rossiya 24 representative and appear to have tried to connect other Russian stations as well.

 

The same day Zair Akadirov, chief editor of Argumenty Tyzhnya – Krym (The Week’s Arguments), resigned in protest at censorship and interference in editorial policy. Akadirov, who had been with the newspaper since its founding, says the pressure began over coverage of the presence in Crimea of Russian soldiers. The interference included texts and headlines being changed, material removed, and propaganda texts reposted without his being informed.

 

The Institute for Mass Information reports that journalists coming from Kyiv or other regions to cover the situation are being prevented from entering Crimea by armed men who stop their cars, threaten them, brandish their weapons, and make them turn back. On 1 March the deputy chief editor of the Kyiv Post, Katya Gorchinskaya, was stopped by men in military clothing who accused her and other journalists of “one-sided coverage.”

 

A week later, three young women – Ukrainsky Tyzhden (Ukrainian Week) journalist Olena Maksymentko and two activists – Kateryna Butko and Oleksandra Ryazantseva – were seized trying to enter Crimea from the neighboring Kherson oblast. The information originally came from a Glavkom journalist who was also detained. His money was stolen, but he was released. He reports that the women were stopped by unidentified individuals in “military uniform of the Russian army.” During the search, the men discovered that one of the women had the words Nebesna Sotnya [normally translated as the Heavenly Hundred] tattooed on her arm in memory of those killed, mainly by Berkut snipers, in February. The term sotnya refers to a Cossack unit but the individual took its usual meaning – 100 – and threatened that there would soon be 102.

 

The Glavkom journalist reports that the women were first forced to kneel down, then taken away somewhere.

 

Later in the evening, an employee of the ombudsman’s office reported that the women were being taken to the Sevastopol SBU [Security Service] and had been detained by the Sevastopol Berkut and passed to the SBU. 

 

According to the 1 + 1 TV channel and news service TSN, their journalists have also come under attack.

 

There are many more cases where journalists have been put under pressure to distort the situation, or at least keep silent, as well as assaults on journalists.

 

“Attempting to monitor the human rights situation in Crimea has become a near impossible task. Self-styled Crimean self-defense groups are harassing pro-Ukrainian protesters, journalists, and human rights monitors with complete impunity,” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia director, said in a statement.

 

If Russia’s military intervention could seem unexpectedly brazen, there should be no surprise about the virulent attack on the media. Back during the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko, shocking cases of hate speech could be found in the most-read Crimean media. In 2008 approaches were made to the prosecutor’s office over an article by Natalya Astakhova that clearly incited enmity against the Crimean Tatars. Nothing was done.  Not long afterward, presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych made the author of another hate-filled and defamatory article about the Crimean Tatars the head of his election headquarters. Anatoly Mohylyov then went on to become interior minister and then Crimean prime minister.  

 

The effects of a long-term diet of toxic hate speech and a caricature version of reality became clear in Crimea during the EuroMaidan protests. Civic activists were targeted in hate campaigns that incited people to take measures against alleged “traitors.” The Russian propaganda machine, like its Soviet predecessors, prefers to present military intervention as defense against “fascists.” Since the latter can include people daring to carry a Ukrainian flag, little else has changed. The situation is immensely dangerous for those in Crimea – and there are many – who have no wish for Russian “protection,” nor for an accompanying purge on the media.

 

Halya Coynash is a journalist and member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on whose website a version of this commentary originally appeared. Home page photo by Filippo/flickr.


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