With the Crimean government pushing ever closer to Russia, the territory’s independent media is coming under increasing attack.
Officials have cut the signal of Crimea’s largest independent broadcaster, Black Sea TV, and there are several reports of journalists being beaten and detained by “self defence” forces, groups of men wearing pro-Russian ribbons who have started patrolling streets and standing in front of government buildings.
“I am afraid for my life and the lives of my colleagues,” said Sergey Mokrushin, a 26-year old reporter for the Centre of Investigative Journalism, which operates a news website and produces two television shows for Black Sea TV. “But it will not stop us.”
On Saturday about 50 men, some carrying clubs, stormed the Center’s office in central Simferopol, breaking windows and denouncing the organization for telling lies. From this building “does not come true information,” the leader of the group said. Mr. Mokrushin and his colleagues cowered behind a locked door in another room, madly downloading computer drives in case the group began smashing the hardware. The men eventually left and the Centre reopened.
That kind of intimidation has become more commonplace since Russian troops entered Crimea last week and a new local government declared itself independent from Ukraine. On Thursday, the Crimean government announced that it had moved up the date of a referendum on the territory’s future to March 16 from March 30. The government has also said that it has formally asked Russia to begin the process of integrating Crimea into the Russian Federation.
Most Crimeans are now getting nearly all of their news from Russian television and the government-run local broadcaster. They tend to follow the Moscow line on events in Ukraine, describing the Ukrainian government in Kiev as illegitimate and warning of violence and instability across the country.
Journalists who report otherwise are finding life harder. Mr. Mokrushin said the government is selecting which journalists to invite to press conferences and shunning others like the Centre, which has about 25 staff and receives most of its funding from organizations in Ukraine, Europe and the United States. It has also indicated that it will close media outlets that report what the government considers false information. Some of the Centre’s reporters have already been beaten and had their cameras taken away by self-defence groups, said Mr. Mokrushin.
Seated in a meeting room at the Centre’s office, Mr. Mokrushin said the Centre’s journalists are used to intimidation. He has been offered bribes before and threatened. But this is more menacing, he added.
Black Sea TV is still available online and over satellite, although it’s not clear how long that will last. The only independent TV channel left in Crimea is ATR, a mainly Tatar-language broadcaster and it is taking precautions, such as moving offices and posting guards outside its operations.
Andrei Kanishcev, a well-known photo journalist in Simferopol, was roughed up two days ago by self-defence men. He was on his way to a grocery store when he spotted a popular blogger surrounded by a group of men. When some of them started hitting the man, Mr. Kanishcev pulled out his camera and began taking pictures.
Mr. Kanishcev said he was taken to a police station by the men where he was told the self defence group was now in charge. They took the flash card out of his camera and let him go. “None of these [self-defence] people were here 12 days ago,” he said in an interview Thursday. “Now they feel themselves like they are in power.”
He used to be an active blogger, posting pictures of his work and news reports online. Not now. He has decided to lay low for a while. “I’m afraid,” he said.
Follow me on Twitter @pwaldieGLOBE