Seven years on from annexation, Crimean journalists are under threat
The recent detainment and alleged torture of a reporter on espionage charges highlights the grim reality of media in the Russian-controlled peninsula
There is always a lot of traffic on the road connecting Simferopol, Crimea’s administrative capital, with the peninsula’s southern coast. And on 10 March this year, it was no different. As a silver Skoda Fabia approached a lay-by on the Angarsky Pass road, a policeman waved his baton, and the car stopped.
What happened next can be seen in footage published by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) six days after the events. Two men wearing balaclavas take the driver out of the car and put him on the asphalt.
“Full name?” they ask.
“Vladislav Leonidovich Esipenko,” the man says, lying on the road.
As the footage continues, security officials inspect the car. One of them points his hand at the mat on the floor of the driver’s side, where the pin of a grenade is clearly visible.
On 16 March, the FSB reported that they had arrested a spy working for Ukrainian intelligence. The detainee, they said, “conducted reconnaissance and subversive activities in the interests of the security services of Ukraine”. Their duties included “photographing and video recording of the terrain, life support facilities and places where people gathered en masse”.
On the same day, another, no less important detail of the incident was revealed: the man arrested by the FSB was a journalist from Ukraine, who had travelled to Crimea to shoot a news segment.
For about a month, neither the security services, nor the detention centre in Simferopol permitted independent lawyers to see Esipenko, a freelance journalist who worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a US government-funded news media, which broadcasts to countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East.
According to Esipenko, after being arrested he was taken to an unknown building and put in the basement. There, he was stripped naked, and electric wires were attached to his ears. For several hours, FSB officers sent electric current through his body, demanding that he confess his ties to Ukrainian intelligence. Electric torture, the journalist said, alternated with beatings and threats “that the electric wires would be connected to his genitals”.
“I was ready to admit anything and sign any papers after this pain,” he said in a letter addressed to his lawyers. “They tortured me all night [...] By morning I had made a confession on camera and signed some documents.”
Forced out of Crimea
Esipenko’s reports were published on the Crimea Realities website, a project dedicated to Crimea by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
But Esipenko is not the RFE/RL’s first journalist to be persecuted by Russian law enforcement agencies, Volodymyr Prytula, the project’s editor, says. According to Prytula’s calculations, roughly 60 journalists who have worked for RFE/RL in Crimea have suffered in one form or another in the seven years since the Russian Federation annexed the peninsula in 2014. This has included criminal prosecution, house searches of correspondents, bans on entering the peninsula, and pressure against journalists’ families, he says.
The Crimea Realities project was set up in April 2014, immediately after the annexation of Crimea. For the first six months, the editorial office was based in Simferopol. The company rented an office, journalists could go to various events, write stories and attend press conferences. However, in the summer of 2014, the project staff began to be “summoned for conversations” by Russian law enforcement, Prytula recalls.
“As a result, we decided to evacuate. At first we thought that it would only be the editors who left, but the pressure increased, and therefore we decided to evacuate everyone who felt under threat. Many refused to leave,” he says, adding that the editorial office still has correspondents working in Crimea.
Prytula himself continued to travel to Crimea from time to time. When entering and leaving the peninsula, he would be checked at the border for a long time, where he would be asked questions about the purpose of his visit and place of work. This continued until December 2014, when law enforcement refused to let him leave Crimea. Prytula escaped, he believes, due to sheer luck.
“At that time, the border checkpoint was not yet fully installed. When they realised I’d left, I was driving towards the mainland. A soldier with a submachine gun ran after me – and even, in my opinion, loaded his rifle, but he didn’t fire,” says Prytula.
Since then, he has not returned to Crimea.
Targeting Crimean Tatars
After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Russian authorities ordered all media on the peninsula to re-register in accordance with Russian law. TV channels had to receive licenses for broadcasting, radio stations – new frequencies, and newspapers – registration of print media. Roskomnadzor, Russia’s communications oversight agency, became the body responsible for communication with journalists.
Media had, in total, a year for re-registration. Independent journalists from the peninsula are confident that the authorities used this procedure to filter out media which could not be controlled.
One of the main targets in this process was media run by Crimean Tatars, an Indigenous group in Crimea, which occupied a significant place in Crimea’s media landscape before annexation. Most Crimean Tatar media did not have state funding, and some print media, although they received funds from Ukraine’s state budget, kept their editorial policy outside the control of the authorities. Everything changed in 2014, says Lilya Budzhurova, a presenter on Crimean Tatar channel ATR.
“Throughout 2014, we were told that there is no independent television in Russia. We gave the example of [independent channel] TV Rain, but in response we saw only smirks,” Budzhurova recalls.
ATR's last broadcast featured Lilya Budzhurova. Source: Hromadske
ATR, together with a radio station, Meydan, were the flagships of a large Crimean Tatar media holding, but were unable to re-register with Roskomnadzor, the Russian federal body responsible for media and communications. Since April 2015, ATR has been unable to broadcast in Crimea.
After closing, both outlets were forced to move to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. To replace them, Budzhurova says, Crimea’s new authorities opened a state television channel, called Millet, and a radio station, Vatan sedasi. These media remain completely controlled by Crimea’s local government. “Their journalists are distinguished by their special capacity for sycophancy and kneeling before the authorities,” Budzhurova says.
Public officials themselves have also stated that the state has taken control of practically the whole media space in Crimea. After the deadline for re-registration of the media, the former deputy prime minister of the Crimean government Dmitry Polonsky said that the largest network of state-owned media has been created on the territory of the peninsula, with even more branches than other regions of Russia.
“I am proud to say that the structure of state media in the Republic of Crimea is one of the most extensive in the entire Russian Federation. There is no such system in any region, and we’re continuing to build it,” Polonsky said.
However, some Crimean Tatar media still managed to survive in annexed Crimea – and some of them continue to remain relatively independent, says Budzhurova.
First of all, two newspapers: Avdet and Qirim. However, the first was forced to reduce its circulation to 999 copies in order to be published without having to register with Roskomnadzor, while the second continues to exist under pressure from local supervisory agencies.
At the end of March this year, a trial was held against Bekir Mamutov, editor-in-chief of Qirim, in Simferopol. Mamutov was charged with referring to the Crimean Tatar representative body, the Meijlis, without explaining that this organisation has been recognised as extremist in Russia and banned. The court fined Mamutov 4,000 roubles for “dissemination of information about a banned organisation”.
“If some international bodies press them hard suddenly, they will always be able to say: we are doing well with freedom of speech. You see, we have an opposition newspaper, and we are not closing it down. It’s yapping away – well, let her yap”
The funniest thing about this process, Mamutov says, was that Qirim mentioned the ban of the Mejlis on Russian territory twice in the incriminating publication. In an October 2020 issue, the newspaper published the UN secretary general’s report on the state of affairs in Crimea, particularly in its largest city, Sevastopol, which included, among other things, the situation with the Mejlis. “António Guterres said twice that the Meijlis is banned in that report. But Roskomnadzor considered that we should have written it again, separately,” Mamutov says.
This is Mamutov’s fifth encounter with the Russian regulatory authorities. Roskomnadzor has officially issued warnings to the newspaper three times over the past seven years.
Qirim, Mamutov insists, is Crimea’s only truly independent newspaper, and is published once a week to a modest circulation of 3,600. The editor suggests that Qirim’s ongoing work is beneficial for Crimea’s authorities in its own way.
“If some international bodies press them hard suddenly, they will always be able to say: we are doing well with freedom of speech. You see, we have an opposition newspaper, and we are not closing it down. It’s yapping away – well, let her yap.”
It’s not only state-owned media that have been set up in Crimea since 2014. But even those media projects with private funding, and already set up according to Russian legislation, have had to confront the Crimean authorities.
The Primechaniya, or Notes, outlet was founded in Sevastopol at the end of 2014 – a small project with only five people on its editorial staff.
Its focus has always been on the fate of the “little man” in Crimea – and because of this, its former editor-in-chief Viktor Yadukha says, it has been qualitatively different from most Crimean media.
The team’s ‘love of freedom’ has not gone unnoticed by the local authorities. Yadukha recalls how the head of Crimea, Sergei Aksenov, filed a lawsuit against the outlet on two occasions, demanding a refutation of the facts presented in articles.
“I remember how we wrote a text about people with spinal disabilities in Saki [a small resort town in the west of Crimea]. During a renovation project, all the streets were dug up, and people in wheelchairs simply could not get about. I don’t know why, but Aksyonov got very angry about this text and sued us,” he says.
On the eve of the court hearing, Yadukha says, FSB officers visited people who originally gave interviews to the outlet and demanded that they retract their words, but they did not follow the lead of the security forces.
Yadukha himself also attended “conversations” with representatives of the security services. The Counter-Extremism service, another Russian law enforcement agency, asked Primechaniya’s journalists to abandon their harsh language, which allegedly “rocked the fragile social balance”. FSB officers also expressed similar requests during ‘preventive conversations’.
“‘If you read your newspaper,’ they said, ‘you get the impression that after Crimea joined Russia, everything remained as bad as it was under Ukraine.’ To which I said: ‘In some respects, yes, it remains just as bad. And in some ways, for example, it became even worse than it was. This is the reality we live in,’” says Yadukha.
Today Primechaniya continues to work, but the editorial team has completely changed. For example, Yadukha no longer works there, though he says that his resignation was not due to any political reasons. Fatigue is to blame, he notes. Due to the modest staff, most journalists often had to work seven days a week, and it became clear that the team was no longer able to survive at this pace.
A new threat looms
RFE/RL journalist Vladislav Esipenko is still in Simferopol pre-trial detention center, where conditions have been compared to torture. An appeal against his arrest was dismissed by a local court.
Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists and other international organisations have supported his case. RFE/RL denies all charges against Esipenko and demands his release.
Today, a new threat looms before RFE/RL journalists, says Volodymyr Prytula: being deemed a “foreign agent”. Back in 2017, the Russian authorities recognised RFE/RL as a foreign agent, but in 2021 a new law came into force that permits this status to be assigned to individuals, which can lead to administrative and criminal charges. Thus, any person who has received even a small fee from the Crimea. Realities project, he adds, risks getting this status.
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