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The Fate of Independent Media in Crimea

After the Russian annexation, journalists had to choose between leaving, embracing a pro-Russian stance, or avoiding politics altogether. From Euroradio.

by Ales Pilecki and Zmicier Lukashuk 14 April 2017

Three years after the March 2014 events, the Kremlin insists that Crimea is part of the Russian Federation. Kyiv’s official stance is that the Crimean peninsula is a temporarily occupied territory. Crimean media outlets that shared this position have either ceased to exist or have moved to mainland Ukraine.


Elzara Islyamova 350 Elzara Islyamova in the former ATR office.


By the time it was closed down in 2014, the Crimean Tatar TV station ATR had become the most popular channel with local residents. Apart from Crimean Tatars, other ethnic groups watched ATR too, because it offered programs in Ukrainian, Russian, and Turkish. After the “referendum” [on the status of Crimea was held], Russian authorities refused to grant the channel a broadcasting license, forcing the editorial office to move to Kyiv.


ATR’s executive director, Elzara Islyamova, has refused to leave Crimea. She

told us her story, sitting in what was once a busy newsroom of the TV channel.


Elzara Islyamova: Our license was issued in accordance with Ukrainian law. We worked as a TV channel and had two radio stations. When Russia occupied and then annexed Crimea, the new authorities gave us, just like they did with other media outlets, one year to apply for a Russian license.


They rejected our application documents five times under the pretext that we had either filed wrong papers or had to prove that our founder was over 18 years old. As a result, we didn’t manage to get a license by 1 April 2015. According to Russian law, we had to stop broadcasting. Otherwise, the Russian regulator could have taken away our equipment. Even [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s personal appeal to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin did not help. It was obvious that they simply could not forgive us for our coverage of the 2014 events in Crimea because we covered them the way they actually took place. The authorities also feared our huge popularity with the Crimean population. That June, it became clear they would not allow us to work here. We decided to move to Kyiv and to continue broadcasting via satellite.


Euroradio: Can you adequately cover life in Crimea from Kyiv?


Islyamova: The quality of ATR as a channel that used to fully cover life in Crimea is no longer the same. We have lost direct contact with our audience and cannot react promptly to developments. It is obvious and our viewers complain about it too.


Euroradio: Can freelance journalists film for you from here?


Islyamova: Journalists who, for various reasons, did not go to Kyiv tried to produce reports here – you know, filming them here and selling them there as if they were a production studio. But this method was immediately blocked. At first, the authorities just harassed the journalists, but when the owner of the TV channel was declared an extremist and terrorist in Russia, we were simply forbidden to film.


Islyamova explains that the ATR journalists who did not go to Kyiv have now started a new internet project. She says it is exclusively historical and cultural. They deliberately avoid covering political issues. “Not because we lack qualified journalists but due to security concerns. It is dangerous to write about politics here,” she sadly says as we part.


Crimean Journalists Need to Toe the Line, Or Else


Nariman Zhelyal 350Nariman Zhelyal no longer practices journalism.


Nariman Zhelyal, a political scientist by training, worked as an anchor and hosted an analytical program for ATR. He also wrote articles on political topics for several Crimean newspapers. Since ATR’s move to Kyiv, he has no longer been involved in journalism.


Nariman Zhelyal: The situation with the mass media is as follows: you can work in journalism as long as you do not touch upon the official political line, or the political and international implications of the situation in Crimea. In your criticism of the authorities, you are only allowed to expose the poorly laid sidewalk tiles or a corrupt local legislator. There are media outlets like this. They criticize officials and even conduct some kind of journalistic investigations. But all media outlets that dared to say that Crimea was annexed and Russia’s actions were illegal, or those who spoke about big politics, were purged. They purged even those outlets that criticized Crimea’s leaders – [Prime Minister Sergey] Aksyonov and [Chairman of the State Council Vladimir] Konstantinov.


Euroradio: Can you work as a freelancer for Ukrainian media?


Zhelyal: My colleague, a very experienced political correspondent, worked as a freelancer for a Ukrainian outlet. He published his articles under a pseudonym. Then, he was detained for no obvious reason. He did not share what they told him, but he realized that this work was dangerous, though he did not decide to leave. He started writing on topics that were not related to politics – about history, culture, and so on.


And the better part of Crimean journalists who used to write about politics just left. Now, they work in Kyiv and have become prominent figures in our field.


Theoretically, you can freelance from here, but one should be very careful. Do you know what happened to Nikolai Semyon? It seems that someone took control of his computer remotely, and security officers received copies of his articles, [which contained] statements that violated the Russian law on “the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.”


In other words, he wrote that Crimea was illegally annexed by Russia. Now he is facing charges for “making calls to violate the territorial integrity with the help of mass media, namely the internet.” 350A recent issue of Krymskaya Gazeta.



Just Doing Their Job


Zhelyal: Those who have stayed to work in Crimea are either propagandists who support everything that is going on here, or those who … work. They say, “Well, what else can we do? I can only work in journalism and I know how to do it, so I am just working.” And one can understand them. It is very difficult for a journalist to find another job.


Foreign journalists can come here, but this does not apply to Ukrainian journalists. First, they need to get accredited with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and only then can they come. However, this contradicts Ukrainian law. But it is dangerous to come and work here illegally. Law enforcement bodies follow everything carefully, and some “illegals” were detained.


Euroradio: Do you think journalists are to blame for what has happened in Crimea? Maybe they somehow failed, did not notice enough threats early on? And, maybe, we need to switch off Russian channels in Belarus to prevent the “Crimean scenario” from happening again?


Zhelyal: Let’s not exaggerate the role of the mass media, because we had a huge “fifth column” in Crimea. By this I clearly mean pro-Russian media and a branch of [Konstantin] Zatulin’s CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] Institute, the so-called “Eurasians,” Dugin structures [a reference to nationalist Russian political scientist Aleksandr Dugin], parties, public organizations, and the entire pro-Russian expert communities. They were responsible for shaping a very specific discourse and a local pro-Russian platform. This was possible as a result of Ukraine’s “Cossack” democracy. Until the last moment, Ukrainian security services considered Crimean Tatars and the “Turkish” influence to be their main security threats. We always told them, “No, it’s not us but those guys over there.” I wrote about it at the start of my journalistic career.


And when [former Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovych and [current Russian Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev signed an agreement in Kharkov to extend the deployment of the Russian fleet based in Crimea, we started shouting about the Russian threat; we warned that Ukraine might lose Crimea. Unfortunately, we were right. That is why it is important for Belarus to keep track of public opinion, find out how many people are “healthy nationalists,” and how many are nostalgic about the Soviet Union, who have pro-Russian feelings. And, most importantly, do not allow the possibility of this fifth column to be used against you.


Out of curiosity, we bought a local Krymskaya Gazeta from a kiosk in the center of Simferopol. While, yes, it was a pre-holiday issue, dated 7 March, we didn’t spot a single politics-related article.

Ales Pilecki and Zmicier Lukashuk are staff correspondents of the Minsk-based European Radio for Belarus (ERB). They traveled to Crimea in March 2017. The original version of this article, in Russian, was published on the ERB website. TOL has done some editing to fit our style. Reprinted with permission. 

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