Access to information a casualty as Russian troops invade Crimea
Ever since Russian military troops entered Crimea – an autonomous parliamentary republic within Ukraine – freedom of information has been stifled in numerous ways.
According to the Institute of Mass Information (IMI), an IFEX member based in Kiev, Crimea's "local TV channels are being intimidated and threatened with Molotov cocktails, their broadcasting is being made technically impossible, their editorial offices are being captured, camera operators [are being] beaten and websites [are being] targeted by DDoS attacks."
Russian troops were first deployed to Crimea on 26 February – less than a week after Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych fled Kiev and Parliament considered him to have "resigned." The political upheaval followed months of mass protests that began when Yanukovych refused to sign trade agreements with the EU, and continued as he passed a law that criminalised most forms of dissent.
Merely days after Yanukovych abandoned his palace and a new presidential election date was set for Ukraine, armed men seized Crimea's Parliament and raised the Russian flag overhead.
On 1 March, IMI was informed that unidentified armed people were blocking the roads to the Crimean peninsula and were not allowing journalists into the region.
The armed individuals were taking away camera batteries and thumb drives with footage, and "threatened to shoot without warning if somebody tried to film."
Reporters already working inside Crimea have faced similar obstacles. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), masked men stormed and occupied The Center for Investigative Journalism in Simferopol on 2 March, in a building that also housed a local trade union and a media nonprofit organisation called the Information and Press Center.
Furthermore, IMI has learned that Crimean journalists have not been granted permission to enter government buildings, while Russian media outlets have. The press freedom group notes that Crimean Tatar journalists are particularly vulnerable to the pressures being exerted by the authorities.
But restraints on press freedom in Crimea have not simply been limited to limiting reporters' ability to work.
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Crimea's main independent TV station, Chernomorskaya, has had its signal cut since 3 March. Known for its coverage of political tension, Chernomorskaya is one of only two TV channels broadcast in the region. The region's broadcast transition centre attributed the signal cut to reasons “beyond our control,” but failed to elaborate further.
In a statement, CPJ cites station chief editor Aleksandra Kvitko's concerns over the signal cut. "By turning off Chernomorskaya, regional residents have been stripped of their right to choose. Now, we all must have only one, 'correct' opinion."
Meanwhile, RSF reports that the Crimean cabinet has threatened to suspend local retransmission of Ukrainian TV stations for "creating the illusion of a military intervention."
"We remind all parties to the conflict that they have a duty to protect journalists and allow them to work without hindrance," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire.
"Those who hold power in Crimea and the armed militias controlling the region must do everything possible to ensure that the local media can resume operating, to restore communications infrastructure and to lift the barriers preventing some journalists from entering the peninsula."
The organisation also denounced the recent violence against journalists covering the situation in other parts of Ukraine, citing the case of a Radio Svoboda reporter who was beaten and forced to kneel and kiss a Russian flag during a demonstration in Kharkiv on 1 March and journalists with Pershy Dilovy TV and the URA-Inform.Donbassnews agency who were beaten while covering a meeting the next day in Donetsk.
In a statement, IMI calls upon international journalists and advocacy organisations to be critical of what Russian media outlets say and to "thoroughly check the news from Russian TV channels about Crimea before rebroadcasting them."
IMI also asks that journalists encourage the Russian Federation and "the self-proclaimed authorities of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea" to stop discrimination against journalists and "to secure equal and proper conditions for work for all media outlets."