All-out attack on press freedom in the Crimea
This protester’s placard reads: Putin Supporters: With him you won’t speak in Russian. You will BE SILENT in Russian!
If Russia is still maintaining an unconvincing pretence regarding its military intervention in the 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 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 the Crimea to receive only the almost caricature-like distortion 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.
As reported, the largest independent television channel Chornomorska which could be watched by 84% of the Crimea was taken off air on March 3, 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 the 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% of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary elections. TRC Krym was seized on March 1 by armed men without insignia who said that they were soldiers from the Russian Federation’s Black Sea Fleet.
That same day masked men seized the building where the Centre for Journalist Investigations has its office. They said that they were from the “Crimean Front” and gave a press conference under a Russian flag.
On Thursday, March 6, 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 Rossia 24. RTTS reports that the armed men appeared together with a Rossia 24 representative, and appear to have tried to connect other Russian stations as well.
On March 6 Zair Akadirov, Chief Editor of Argumenty Tyzhnya – Krym resigned in protest at censorship and interference in editorial policy. Akadirov had been with the newspaper from when it was founded. He says that the pressure began over coverage of the presence in the 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 the Crimea by armed men who stop their cars, threaten them, brandish their weapons and make them turn back. On March 1 the Deputy Chief Editor of Kyiv Post, Katya Gorchinskaya was stopped by men in military clothing who accused her and other journalists of “one-sided coverage”.
According to the TV channel “1 + 1” and news service TSN their journalists have also come under attack. TSN’s special correspondent Oleksiy Bobrovnikov was assaulted on March 5 during an attempt to storm the military unit at Yepatoria. This was the second time in a week. There has also been pressure on TSN correspondent Hryhory Zhygalyov and cameraman Pavlo Myasnov.
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.
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 which clearly incited enmity against the Crimean Tatars. Nothing was done. Not so long afterwards, 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 Ministry 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 the Crimea during the EuroMaidan protests. Civic activists were targeted in hate campaigns which incited people to take measures against alleged “traitors”. The Russian propaganda machine, like its Soviet predecessors, prefers to present military intervention as defence 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 the Crimea – and there are many – who have no wish for Russian “protection”, nor for an accompanying purge on the media.