On 17 June, just before the beginning of Ramadan, ATR, the only Crimean Tatar television station in the world, resumed broadcasting after two months off air. The station is now based in Kyiv, however, not Simferopol.
Prior to the annexation of Crimea, ATR was an increasingly influential source of news and comment on the peninsula. As one blogger from Simferopol, the administrative capital of Crimea, says: 'Over the past few years, many people – not only Crimean Tatars – got so used to the channel that it's hard think about the information space without it.' Indeed, ATR became – and remains – a symbol of the Crimean Tatars' return to their ancestral home.
Popularity has its price
ATR started broadcasting from the Crimean peninsula in 2006. The station initially made only short programmes, broadcasting up to two-and-a-half hours a day. But in 2011, the television channel began a new phase in its development following the involvement of Lenur Islyamov, a Russian businessman.
ATR became – and remains – a symbol of the Crimean Tatars' return to their ancestral home.
Initially, Islyamov helped ATR via donations, later purchasing a 25% stake in the company. After that, he raised his stake to 97%. Refat Chubarov, a leader of the Crimean Tatar community, remains a minority shareholder, as does Isa Khaibullayev, a local businessman. Today, ATR has an authorised capital of 40m hryvnias (£1.2m).
This influx of capital allowed ATR to start broadcasting 24 hours a day. Professional newscasters and journalists joined the team, and the channel had correspondents in Kyiv, Moscow, and Istanbul. Original content was provided in three languages: Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean Tatar.
Over time, the TV station developed into a sizeable media holding, including a children's channel, a Crimean Tatar-language radio station, a Russian-language station, and a news site. In 2014, out of 57 channels operating on the peninsula, ATR was the fifth most popular TV channel, and was first among local stations.
ATR's last broadcast from Crimea, April 2015 - 'Our nation survived Stalin. Surely we will be able to overcome today's problems'
Popularity, though, has its price. Islyamov was spending $300,000 (£190,000) a month on the media company, which by 2014 had more than 200 employees. But having made his money in the car trade, Islyamov, the owner of a bank and transport company in Crimea, could permit himself the expense.
ATR reached peak popularity at the beginning of 2014, when Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms appeared in Crimea and began seizing the peninsula’s infrastructure. Lenur Islyamov states that, at the time, the channel's daily audience rose to 4.5m viewers in Ukraine, and 1.5m (out of a population of roughly 2.3m people) in Crimea. 'Only we had live video from the scene,' Islyamov boasts. 'The whole world was watching.'
'Only we had live video from the scene,' Islyamov boasts. 'The whole world was watching.'
A difficult situation
Following Russia’s formal annexation of Crimea, ATR found itself in a difficult situation.
Whereas ATR had previously come out against the transfer of the peninsula to Russian control, airing such views was now illegal. The channel would either have to change its rhetoric, or close down.
Following annexation, many of Crimea’s press outlets closed down or simply left, including Chernomorskaya and the Center for Investigative Journalism in Simferopol, Evpatoriya's Morion station, Sevastopol's TV and radio stations Briz, Ukrainian Fleet, and the Civil Defence website, as well as BlackSeaNews (based in Yalta), and others. In their place, new, pro-Russia media outlets and channels started operating in Crimea.
Since going off air in April, ATR has found a new studio in Kyiv.
Just as ATR decided to change its line and remain in Crimea, so did Crimean Tatars attempt to integrate themselves into the peninsula's new institutions. The informal parliament of the Crimean Tatars – the Qurultai – allowed Islyamov to enter Crimea's local government (now under the aegis of the Russian Federation.) But this experiment failed: Islyamov held the post of deputy chairman of the Crimean government for all of two months.
Yet there are still several Crimean Tatars currently working in Russia-backed institutions. However, they took those positions on their own initiative, without the permission of the Tatar’s two representative bodies, the Mejlis or Qurultai. These institutions have influence over a large portion of Crimean Tatars: for instance, prior to 2014, Mejlis support guaranteed a 10% bump to any party in Crimea (Crimean Tatars make up around 13% of the population).
At the same time, the new Crimean authorities began their persecution of dissenting voices. Under various pretexts, searches were carried out in Tatar mosques, madrassas and homes.
Crimean Tatar leaders, such as Mustafa Jemiliev, Refat Chubarov and Ismet Yuksel were banned from Crimea. Several Crimean Tatars were detained by Russian police on suspicion of organising mass protests on 26 February 2014 – the day the Supreme Court of Crimea examined Crimea’s status – when the peninsula was still under Ukrainian rule.
ATR'S current studio in Kyiv.
ATR reported on all of these issues, provoking the ire of the Crimean authorities. In September 2014, the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Centre for Combatting Extremism accused the television channel of promoting extremism.
Several months later, in January 2015, police searched the station and confiscated its servers. Then, in March 2015, Sergei Aksyonov, the self-proclaimed head of Crimea, told RIA Novosti that 'the work of channels like ATR on Crimean territory cannot be allowed during war time.'
'I think they would allow the station to operate only if it became pro-government and propagandistic.’
Despite their attempts, ATR did not receive a Russian broadcast licence for its Crimean operation and stopped broadcasting on 1 April 2015. Islyamov's other media companies also failed to receive licences.
As Islyamov puts it: 'I think they would allow the station to operate only if it became pro-government and propagandistic, just like all the other stations in Crimea.'
Right up until the last moment, the station's viewers and journalists didn't believe the station would really go off air after nine years of broadcasting. But just before midnight on 31 March 2015, the editorial staff said goodbye – with tears in their eyes – to their viewers.
The Crimean authorities didn't leave Islyamov much choice. In Kyiv, however, discussions were already being held on the possibility of helping the channel with a move to the mainland. Indeed, Ukraine's National Committee on Television and Radio Broadcasting asked other broadcasters whether they could re-broadcast ATR on their own frequencies. And in April 2015, President Petro Poroshenko reported that he had given an order to 'do everything possible to restore ATR to the air across Ukraine, including Crimea'.
As Islyamov explains, the decision to move the main team to Kyiv came soon after: 'I realised once and for all – they wouldn't let us broadcast in Crimea.' After all, the more time they took to re-launch the channel, the more money it would cost.
ATR forms part of a larger media holding, including Lale, a children's TV channel, and the 15 minutes news site.
'It [ATR] is like a blast furnace. If it doesn't work, if it isn't used, then it falls apart. And if you want to get it up and running again later, then you'll spend more money and more time than you did the first time,' explains Islyamov.
Although ATR cannot operate from Crimea, the channel’s Ukrainian broadcast licence is valid until 2022. Ukraine's Ministry of Information Policy helped the channel to find a suitable television studio to lease in Kyiv; and the Crimean Tatar community in Ukraine's capital also assisted the channel.
The move may have come too late for some viewers though. As one former schoolteacher based in Simferopol said, ‘It's difficult to say what the Crimean Tatars think of this, but the majority of Ukrainians in Crimea don't even know that the ATR has moved to Kyiv. There's no information about this in the local media. But Ukrainians on the peninsula who use alternative sources of information are aware of this, of course, and are pleased by this fact.’
Some Ukrainians are less enthusiastic about the move. ‘I can’t say I watched ATR regularly, but I do have an opinion on the move from Crimea to mainland Ukraine. It seems to me that, as with Chernomorskaya, now it’s not a Crimean channel anymore, but a capital city channel for Crimeans. This isn’t a bad thing, but the function isn’t the same. I think that it will soon turn into a channel that just paints life in Crimea in dark tones, like Radio Liberty’s project about life in Crimea,’ said one woman in Simferopol.
'Ukraine gave us freedom of speech – that's the most important thing.'
While the state has offered no financial support to ATR, Islyamov is nevertheless grateful: 'Ukraine gave us freedom of speech – that's the most important thing.'
'The only people who are going to think about us is ourselves.'
Lenur Islyamov remains the main owner of ATR. And although from 1 April, expenditure has been reduced from $300,000 per month to $100,000, Islyamov hopes to cut costs even further.
In August 2014, Islyamov announced that he would make the ATR Group (including ATR, Meydan radio station and the news site 15 Minutes) a joint-stock company. The plan? To sell ATR's viewers 150,000 shares for 1,000 roubles (£11), but with Islyamov retaining a controlling stake. ATR has started showing promotional clips about itself: any viewer is welcome to come to the TV station and declare an interest.
However, without a Russian broadcast licence, Islyamov has had to put this project on hold. He plans to return to it in Kyiv – though details are yet to be revealed.
International grants are another possible source of financing. Speaking to journalists, Refat Chubarov, co-owner of ATR, Rada deputy and Mejlis chief, explained that they were counting on donors for ATR's continued existence. And to ensure its independence, ATR will not accept financial support from the Ukrainian government.
The issue of ATR journalists working in Crimea continues to develop – only part of the team has made the move to Kyiv. Currently, the station's journalists present themselves as employees of the ATR branch which is registered to Kvinmedia, a Russian company. But though the TV station is registered as a media organisation in Russia, it has no broadcast licence.
Journalists registered with ATR have been refused accreditation by Kryminform, the Crimean authorities’ press centre. Indeed, it seems that ATR journalists will continue to encounter problems operating in Crimea.
The fate of Islyamov's business in Crimea and Russia remains unclear: he hopes to defend his business in the Russian courts. ‘A wise man in Turkey told me I have business in my head, and Crimea – in my heart. It's a hard choice,’ he admits.
‘A wise man in Turkey told me I have business in my head, and Crimea – in my heart. It's a hard choice.’
Can people in Crimea still watch ATR? Given that the Russian authorities haven't figured out how to jam satellite signals (and that satellite dishes are still legal), ATR still has an audience in Crimea.
These signals can also be 'shared' from a single dish to multiple apartments. Moreover, the steppe areas of Crimea are well-equipped with satellite dishes – it's hard to receive an analogue signal here. And, of course, you can still watch the channel online.
Islyamov laughs when I ask him about distributing free satellite dishes to Crimeans: after all, a free satellite dish doesn't necessarily mean a loyal viewer.
'They'll watch ATR because they miss their native language, the feeling that you and the station are on the same wave-length. After all, the only people who are going to think about us is ourselves.'