The entrance to the Simferopol Trade Union building, which stands opposite the Cabinet of Ministers on Lenin Square, has been obstructed daily by members of so-called Crimean self-defense militias since March. These men, dressed in camouflage and armed with police batons and sometimes guns, wander into the building freely, where their frequent destination is the office of the Center for Investigative Journalism.
“We’ve all come across them,” says journalist Tatiana Kurmanova wearily. “They make no concrete demands. They just have the affect of scaring us – imagine the first time when they came in here with pistols, looking at everything.”
The center, financed through grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development and other foreign donors, was one of the first media organizations to receive such unwanted attention in Russia-controlled Crimea.
If Russian President Vladimir Putin remains in control of Ukraine's peninsula and follows the same policy for Crimea that he does with the rest of the Russian Federation, then foreign-funded projects -- in particular those with USAID funding - will be targets for shutdown.
The Crimean self-defense members marched into the journalism center's office on March 1, two days after soldiers without insignia appeared throughout the peninsula and set in motion the Russian invasion and occupation or – as Russian law would have it - annexation of Crimea.
The self-defense militias, ungoverned by any law, have since become a permanent fixture of daily life in Crimea, patrolling streets, guarding transport hubs and government buildings, demanding to see the documents of passersby – and harassing journalists.
In the last six weeks, Andrey Krisko, who heads the Crimean Human Rights Field Mission, has registered nine serious incidents of harassment of journalists, involving personal harm, damage to equipment, and illegal detention for more than three hours. He experienced one such incident himself, when he was physically prevented from taking pictures of a journalist arguing with self-defense forces on May 17. Later, he found out the journalist had been followed and detained.
Most cases, Krisko said, concern not single but groups of journalists, and all cases involve the self-defense militias. Some cases have been widely publicized, like that of journalist Osman Pashayev on May 18.
The number of incidents of harassment and censorship against journalists has increased since the Russian takeover of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in March.
Pashayev was filming the Crimean Tatar meeting commemorating 70 years of their deportation, and the hundreds of riot police guarding Simferopol city center, when self-defense forces detained both him and his Turkish cameraman. They were held for 10 hours, had all their equipment taken away, and were denied access to lawyers until a threatened appeal to the prosecutors office.
Kurmanova thinks there are probably many more such incidents involving the self-defense and Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB under its Russian acronym, but journalists working for Crimean government media do not want to publicize them.
Most of the journalists who have spoken publicly, like Pashayev, left Crimea afterwards as soon as they could.
Meanwhile four Crimean civil activists who supported the EuroMaidan Revolution that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 22 and protested against Russian occupation are currently thought to be detained by the FSB.
Two, film director Oleg Sentsov and Alexandr Kolchenko, are believed to be under arrest and possibly already in Moscow to face terrorism charges. The whereabouts of Timur Shaimardanov and Leonid Korzh, reported missing by the Ukrainian organisation Ukrainian House on May 28, are unknown.
Kateryna Serhatskova, a journalist and coordinator of an initiative group to help the film director Sentsov, has said that Sentsov, Kolchenko and two other activists held -- Oleksiy Chyrniy and Hennadiy Afanasyev -- have never been members of the Right Sector.
"For those who have doubts: these guys have never been members of the Right Sector and prepared no terrorist attacks, these are absolutely peaceful people, who maintained the integrity of Ukraine. Now confessions are being forced out of them, and probably one of them will admit his guilt all in all. It's outrageous nonsense. No comment," Serhatskova wrote on her Facebook page on May 30, according to Interfax-Ukraine news service.
The FSB earlier reported the detention in the Republic of Crimea of members of Ukraine's ultra-nationalistic Right Sector suspected of plotting to stage acts of sabotage and terrorist attacks in several cities of the peninsula.
The effect of this intimidation has been to effectively silence critical or opposition media to the Russian annexation within Crimea.
TV channel ATR and the website 15 Minutes, both owned by Crimean Tatar businessman Lenur Islyamov, have greatly cut down on their live programming and news coverage since March. The only other independent agencies left, the Center for Investigative Journalism and the Radio Liberty-supported project Crimean Reality, both have regular problems with the self-defense militias.
“This situation when there are these groups that don’t answer to anyone, that aren’t controlled by any law, means it’s impossible to say journalists can work professionally here,” says Krisko. “The risk of damage to equipment or personal attacks, as well as fear of censorship, means that those who want to give objective information simply can’t.”
Kurmanova and her colleagues regularly receive online threats and hate mail since the beginning of March. Meanwhile two journalists from the Yevpatoria council-funded newspaper Yevpatoria Health Resort, who had been less than enthusiastic about Russian occupation, became subject to an attempted witch hunt in May when rival journalists sent a letter accusing them of being spies and provocateurs to the city council.
"We don’t demand the exile of these people from their town and their profession," according to the letter. "But we Yevpatorians do not need these masked ‘fifth columnists’ in our hometown, and paid from the town budget!" It concludes by saying that if the town council does not remove them from the paper "We will appeal to the FSB demanding they protect us Russian citizens from journalists openly conducting subversive activities."
The two journalists have so far held on to their jobs, and did not want to comment further on the incident.
Since the end of February, when a new Crimean parliament was announced, journalists from the Center for Investigative Journalism have not been able to get parliamentary accreditation. Lawmakers refuse to speak to them, or call them "American spies." The Crimean Cabinet of Ministers’ press service does not answer their calls. They are not informed of meetings and press conferences, or are denied entry.
“We’re like white crows; no one wants to talk to us. Before it was all organised, we could write a request for information, or set up filming. Now we get our information in bits and pieces, grabbing officials outside buildings, if they agree to speak.”
Shevket Ganiyev, editor-in-chief of Crimean Tatar programming at the Crimean state broadcasting company TRK, was excluded from news coverage through a different method: He and his director were simply sent home for a month’s holiday.
Ganiyev’s small amount of allotted live broadcasting had already been taken off air with no warning in March, before a hastily-organised referendum on joining Crimea to Russia. Ganiyev and his colleagues, who like most Crimean Tatars openly opposed the referendum, then agreed with TRK management (which openly supported it) that his department would boycott working at TRK until after the referendum.
When his team came back on air, they were subject to much closer control. On April 24, they were told they could not make any mention at all of Crimean Tatar governing body the Mejlis, or of Crimean Tatar leaders Mustafa Jemilev and Refat Chubarov in their programming. This has meant the editorial has had to ignore events widely covered in the international media – including Russian.
“If there’s news in Russian media and we are not allowed to talk about it, how can any journalist accept this as normal?” asks Ganiyev. “We’re not just banned from talking about the Mejlis as good or bad. We are not even allowed to cover facts.”
The same day as the ban, Ganiyev and the editorial director were asked by TRK management to take a month’s leave.
“Of course they didn’t say so, but I think they had to send us on holiday because then our collective would be easier to control,” says Ganiyev. “May was a worrying time for them because of the 70th anniversary of the [Crimean Tatar] deportation and events connected with that. I think they were scared and tried to protect themselves.”
Ganiyev was back at work from May 28, but he and his team have no idea what the future will bring amid the general upheaval at TRK, which was formerly funded by the Ukrainian government but is now is a state of stasis. For the Crimean Tatar editorial, this is yet another set-back in their fight for more airtime in their own language. Their live airtime was reduced over a year ago to 13 minutes news a day, and their recorded programming is exclusively about cultural and social matters.
“We’re hostages in this situation,” says Ganiyev. “For us, the most important things are to preserve our work places and editorial so that we can broadcast in Crimean Tatar language. If tomorrow they kick us out and bring in new journalists who are convenient for them and who speak in incorrect Crimean Tatar they’ll be pleased, because it will start the assimilation of our language.”
Under the Ukrainian license still being used at TRK, Crimean Tatar language is allotted seven percent of overall airtime. Ukrainian language programming before March was even more limited. Since March, one of just three weekly Ukrainian language programmes has switched to Russian. Svetlana Datsenko, editor of one of the two remaining Ukrainian programmes, said she had also been asked to switch to Russian.
“If there are three equal state languages in Crimea then there should be proportional coverage, 33 percent for each language,” Ganiyev points out. But neither he nor Datsenko have much expectation of that happening. The new head of TRK, Boris Nemets, is from Crimean government head Sergei Aksyonov’s Russian Unity party, as is the new Crimean minister for information. The party’s key campaigning platform is Russian language rights.
As Crimea moves rapidly towards adopting Russian legislation, the situation for a free media is only set to get worse. On top of harassment and exclusion, staff of the Center for Investigative Journalism have a whole array of logistical problems to deal with. Their salaries, paid from foreign donors, are frozen as the Crimean banking system has collapsed. They have been told to vacate their rented offices by the end of July. Russian legislation, which comes into force in Crimea in January, requires that their organisation register as a foreign agent, and completely bans their main donor, USAID. Increasingly repressive Russian laws can shut down opposition websites, and impose prison sentences on anyone questioning Russian territorial integrity (which would include Crimea) in the media.
Meanwhile a law legalizing the self-defense militias has already passed its first reading in the Crimean parliament. According to Kurmanova, it grants the militias a wide range of powers to stop, search, confiscate and detain, with minimum responsibilities.
As state media in Crimea produces a soothing stream of information about a bright Russian future, ignoring the economic and social problems since annexation and downplaying or disregarding non-Russian ethnic groups, it is little surprise that Kurmanova and Datsenko from TRK both plan to leave Crimea for mainland Ukraine by the end of the summer.
“We had strict editorial standards and I suppose that’s why it's hardest of all for us, because now no one here needs such editorial standards,’ says Kurmanova. “It’s easier just not to ask questions and to keep quiet.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from www.mymedia.org.ua, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action. The content is independent of these organizations and is solely the responsibility of the Kyiv Post.