Not a word of truth. Where and why did independent journalism disappear in the Crimea
After Russia occupied Crimea in 2014, not only was the Ukrainian government ousted from the peninsula, but also freedom of speech, followed by professional journalism.
From the moment Russia set foot on Crimea, a hunt commenced for journalists who critically covered the military invasion. Within a month, they had to make a choice: switch sides or remain professional. Few chose the latter.
In addition to putting pressure on independent journalists, Russian occupation authorities in Crimea also immediately seized Ukrainian TV channels and began to use them for their own agenda. At the same time, they blocked access to the vast majority of leading online Ukrainian information resources.
When it became clear that the occupying authorities didn’t value honesty and objectivity in journalistic practices, entire editorial offices started leaving the peninsula en masse. Most independent Crimean media moved to Ukraine’s capital, where they continue to cover events on the peninsula, although remotely.
From journalist to terrorist
The second wave of Crimean media takeovers happened in the spring of 2015 when non-governmental media on the peninsula did not receive Russian registration. That’s when the first and only Crimean Tatar television channel ATR, which made every effort to continue working on the peninsula, lost its ability to broadcast and was forced to move to Kyiv.
In April 2016, authorities conducted a series of searches and seized equipment from independent journalists from Yalta, Simferopol, and Sevastopol. Under pressure, most of them also left the peninsula. These raids took place as part of a criminal case against Mykola Semena, a freelance Krym.Realii (RFE/RL’s Crimea project) journalist, who was under investigation at the time.
Semena, a renowned and trusted Crimean journalist, had been accused of calling for the violation of Russia’s territorial integrity through his column on the blockade of the peninsula, which he published under a pseudonym. The article of the Russian criminal code used against Semena was then completely new, specially introduced after the annexation of Crimea.
In 2020, after nearly three years of a suspended sentence, the Crimean journalist managed to leave the peninsula. Crimean investigative journalist Anna Andrievska was also accused of extremism for her article about volunteers from the Crimea battalion, which fought in eastern Ukraine. Local special services searched her parents’ and colleagues’ homes and confiscated computers. By then, Andrievska had managed to leave Crimea.
Entry bans and arrests
From 2015 to 2020, many Ukrainian journalists have been banned from entering the peninsula by Russian special services. Photographer Alina Smutko and journalist Taras Ibragimov, who have been covering fabricated lawsuits in Crimea for years, have been banned from entering the Ukrainian peninsula for 9 and 34 years, respectively.
In the spring of 2021, for the first time, a Ukrainian journalist was accused of espionage by the Crimean FSB. Krym.Realii freelance correspondent Vladyslav Yesypenko was detained on suspicion of gathering information for Ukrainian intelligence services, as well as for alleged illegal storage of explosives. The Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine called the accusation «propaganda.» The grenade, which was allegedly confiscated from the journalist during his detention, did not have his fingerprints. Yesypenko admitted his guilt on camera but during the first court hearing he said he had been forced to make the confession, stating that he had been tortured by Russian security forces. He faces up to 12 years in prison and is currently being held in a Simferopol pre-trial detention center.
According to the Krym.Realii Project Head, Volodymyr Prytula, some 60 journalists from their editorial office came under pressure from the Russian secret services — some suspended their work with the publication, while others were forced to leave Crimea.
Serving the government
At the same time, a network of local government-controlled or government-affiliated TV channels, print publications, and information sites was created on the peninsula. Russian authorities have invested considerable funding in the development of the Crimean information sphere. A pro-Russian Crimean Tatar channel — Millet — was created as an alternative to ATR. Its broadcasting work is from the position of «right» Crimean Tatars who are loyal to the occupying power.
It was employees of such pro-government Crimean TV channels who were the first to get «interviews» of detainees suspected of espionage or extremism by Russian special services. In these situations, the task of the person with the microphone was to ask questions prepared by the FSB. The detainees, in turn, would read pre-crafted answers on camera.
This is exactly what happened during Yesypenko’s «interview». The general producer of the Russian Crimean TV channel «Crimea 24,» Oleg Kryuchkov, was allowed to interview Yesypenko before he even spoke to a lawyer. Even the recording of this conversation took place in the office of FSB operatives, who actually stood behind Kryuchkov.
Citizen journalism is the only option
The only alternative in an environment of total censorship was citizen journalism. People who had never worked as journalists before started filming, taking photos, and writing texts to inform the public about the true course of events on the Crimean peninsula. This is how Crimean Solidarity emerged in 2016 — a platform that brought together activists and relatives of Crimean Tatar political prisoners, of whom there were already several dozen in Crimea at the time. This platform has often been perhaps the only source of information on high-profile lawsuits, which the local media simply ignored or covered from a pro-government point of view.
For obvious reasons, this development didn’t suit the occupying powers in Crimea. In March 2019, within the span of a day, virtually the entire media core of Crimean Solidarity was arrested. Thus, the citizen journalists who actively covered the trials of Crimean Tatars found themselves behind bars as a result of their work. Officially, Russian authorities accused them of extremism and terrorism (as per usual). As of 2021, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, eight Crimean citizen journalists are in Russian prisons, and one is under house arrest. These are Server Mustafayev, Timur Ibragimov, Marlen Asanov, Seyran Saliyev, Remzi Bekirov, Ruslan Suleymanov, Osman Arifmetetov, Rustem Sheikhaliev and Amet Suleymanov. They are facing some 20 years or more under articles according to which they were illegally detained.
Journalist Anastasia Magazova graduated in 2011 with a master degree from the Faculty of Philology in Simferopol, Ukraine. She moved from Simferopol to Kyiv after the annexation of Crimea. Anastasia works as an independent journalist for numerous Ukrainian, German and international media, such as Radio Free Europe, Deutsche Welle, Hromadske, Courrier International, Ukrainska Pravda, N-TV, Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung und Die Tageszeitung. Since 2013, she has written more than 300 articles about Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Germany.