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Harassment and Misinformation Against Ukraine Journalists

  • Cecily Hilleary

Armed men check journalists documents around the regional parliament building in the Crimean city of Simferopol March 1, 2014.

Armed men check journalists documents around the regional parliament building in the Crimean city of Simferopol March 1, 2014.

The past week has been an unnerving week for journalists working in Crimea. On Sunday, about 30 masked men stormed and briefly occupied [see video] the Crimean Center for Investigative Journalism in Simferopol, an agency which trains journalists and produces investigative TV reports.

The following day, an unidentified individual assaulted Tatyana Rikhtun, chief editor of the Sevastopol-based news website 911Sevastopol, as she was filming Russian soldiers who had surrounded the Sevastopol headquarters of the Ukrainian navy. Her attacker also seized her camera.

The European Federation of Journalists says 167 journalists have been injured in Ukraine since the beginning of the political crisis in November 2013, 42 of them in mid-January alone.

One journalist, Vyacheslaqv Vereymi, died February 20 after a brutal attack, and untold numbers of journalists report being threatened, harassed and intimidated—among them, reporters from Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty.

“Certainly it is a challenge to cover events in Ukraine nowadays,” said Maryana Drach, director of RFERL’s Ukrainian service. “Our Crimean correspondent has recently faced threats. Our Kyiv colleague and video journalist who was sent to Kharkiv was beaten by pro-Russian activists while he was conducting a live broadcast.

"Then they took him from the occupied regional administration building to the monument of Lenin in Kharkiv and forced him to kneel down and kiss the Russian symbol--the St. George’s ribbon which commemorates Russians who fought and died in the Second World War," she said.

Drach relates another incident involving a RFERL stringer in Donetsk conducting man-on-the-street interviews.

“She saw a group of people were beating a journalist colleague, and when she approached them, she herself was beaten and her camera was broken,” Drach said. “There have been three incidents with RFERL Ukrainian service correspondents within the last week alone, so I’m seriously concerned about the safety of my colleagues.”

Drach says a group of RFERL reporters in Crimea were asked by locals, which side of the crisis they supported.

“When they told them, ‘We are journalists,’” Drach said, “they were told that if they weren’t ‘pro-Russian,’ they weren’t ‘journalists.’ So this is the atmosphere in which journalists must now work in Crimea.”

On Thursday, independent journalist Dimiter Kenarov, reporting in Crimea for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, tweeted, “Masked gunmen just broke in a TV studio. Put a gun to my head and then took my phone away. I'm fine.” He later posted video of the incident (see below)

Silencing media outlets

Monday, Crimea's State Television and Radio forced off the air a popular independent broadcaster Chernomorskaya Teleradiokompaniya, or Black Sea television, leaving only the state broadcaster operating in the entire autonomous republic.

Also this week, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that on the orders of the pro-Russian prime minister of Crimea, two privately-owned Ukrainian broadcasters, Channel 5 and Channel 1+1, were forced to stop broadcasting terrestrially, and Russian state television is now broadcasting on their frequencies.

Countering Misinformation

With Crimean media effectively under Russian control, Ukrainians have begun organizing to counter what they say is a flow of misinformation and are websites that seek to dispel myths and misinformation being propagated by Russian media outlets.

The Ukrainian Crisis Media Center (UCMC) launched March 4 with the stated mission of providing the international community objective information about events in Ukraine and “threats to national security”

“We are a group of different professionals from different fields in international relations in corporate and public communications, in translations," said spokesperson Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, executive director of Yalta European Strategy (YES), the largest social institution of public diplomacy in Eastern Europe.

"And we feel that Ukraine is under a serious security threat of losing its sovereignty and territorial integrity and really needs an additional serious voice delivering the message to media outside Ukraine and also to people in Ukraine’s southeastern regions and Crimea,” she said.

Members donate their time and expertise, says Klympush-Tsintsadze, to make sure that information gets out—on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

In addition, they have rented a conference hall in a Kyiv hotel near the site where so many protesters died on January 20, where they will host press briefings by Ukrainian authorities, academics, diplomats, religious leaders—“people, “ Klympush-Tsintsadze,

She added they will include those “who have serious weight in society--Crimeans, Tatars, Russians, Jews, Christians--who will explain what is going on in the country.”

In Washington, U.S. Agency for International Development Assistant Administrator Paige Alexander said her agency was working with the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine and local journalists to help ensure the free flow of information around the country.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media warned that Ukraine faces a crisis of media freedom.

Speaking to reporters in Kyiv Friday following visits to Crimea and Simferopol, Dunja Mijatović, the top OSCE official on media freedom called on responsible parties to stop the war on information in Ukraine and work to ensure the safety of reporters across the country.

She also cautioned that Tatar journalists with Crimean state media are under political pressure from their superiors and that TV officials allow access to information only to those considered ‘loyal’ – or pro-Russian -- journalists.