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'In Putin’s Russia, It’s Hard for Independent Media. For Crimea, It’s Even Harder.'

Ukraine -- People gather to watch a TV broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin during his annual call-in live broadcast. Sevastopol, Crimea, April 17, 2014.
Ukraine -- People gather to watch a TV broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin during his annual call-in live broadcast. Sevastopol, Crimea, April 17, 2014.

The following is an excerpted interview with the head of the Crimea desk of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. The desk publishes the website Crimea.Realities in Ukrainian, Russian, and Crimean-Tatar languages in response to the need for accurate and uncensored information in all three of the peninsula’s languages. A resident of Crimea, the desk chief was repeatedly harassed by members of Russia’s security services (FSB) over the last several months, prompting him to relocate with his family to the mainland. His name is not used in this report.

RFE/RL: You have been a long history of work in Crimea for independent publications and press advocacy groups. What sources are there for people in Crimea to access unbiased information in the peninsula’s three main languages?

Crimea Desk (CD): After the annexation, practically all independent media outlets in Crimea were either closed or taken over by Russian structures. Out of the two independent TV channels available before, one, Chernomorska TV, was simply crushed, its building taken over, and its transmission stopped. The other, ATR, broadcasting in the Crimean-Tatar language, is now under harsh business and political control by the new authorities. It has been forced to change its editorial policy so that it now avoids criticizing the government. It tries to provide objective information, but its powers are very limited.

Reception of Ukrainian-language TV channels by analog or cable has been stopped; these information sources have been replaced by Russian channels.

The fact is that in this new Russian reality, the non-Russian language media has very limited possibilities. They do not get government support, nor are they allowed to receive help from the Ukrainian government (which was the case before Crimea's annexation). Immediately after the annexation, the Russian side did everything possible to break the banking and financial links to Ukraine. As a result, the banking system in Crimea is currently non-existent. In this new environment, it is almost impossible for mass media outlets to finance themselves to ensure their independence.

Of course, people who really want to get information will find it online, as the Internet is not entirely under Russian control, although some Internet sources have already been blocked.

RFE/RL: What is the concept behind the Crimea.Realities website?

CD: Crimea.Realities is a multimedia website published in three languages: Ukrainian, Russian, and Crimean-Tatar. Actually, these are three different sites, so to speak, as there is original information on each one of them, which may not necessarily appear on the other two. Of course, we translate and reprint the most important articles in all three languages. The site in Russian has the biggest audience, of course, since Crimea's majority are Russian speakers.

RFE/RL: Do you have statistics for traffic to the site?

CD: We get about 50,000 - 60,000 visits to our Russian-language site, some 3,000 -6,000 visits to the Ukrainian-language site, and less than 1,000 visits to the Crimean-Tatar site. One-third of the visits to the Ukrainian site are from Crimea, and about two-thirds are from Ukraine and other countries.

Ukraine -- Crimea Realities banner. July 25, 2014.
Ukraine -- Crimea Realities banner. July 25, 2014.

Regarding the Russian-language site, to date it has had some 2 million unique visits. About one quarter of the interest originates in Crimea. The biggest part, about 60 percent, comes from various regions of Ukraine, including the southeastern parts -- the Donbass region, Odessa, Kherson, Nikolaev, and all the regions Putin calls "Novorosija." We are seeing an increase in visits from Russia, which now make up about 5 percent, or sometimes even 10 percent, of total daily visits. Russian people also are eager to know what is really happening in Crimea, as Russian propaganda is not giving a true picture of developments there.

RFE/RL: How would you describe the site’s content?

CD: All of our original content, which is prepared by us and by our freelancers in Crimea, is about the situation there -- about politics and social issues…The rest is taken from other RFE/RL websites...Certainly no less than half of our content is our own production -- articles from our Crimean correspondents in Simferopol, from Kerch, Sevastopol, Yalta, and also contributions from our Kyiv-based correspondents who are originally from Crimea, but who have been forced to leave the peninsula because of threats and intimidation, but who are still tied to the region. They write about Crimean reality, about how the Kyiv authorities and Ukrainian society react to Crimean problems, how the refugees live, what issues they are having to face, etc. So a significant part of those who read our sites in Ukraine are, in fact, refugees from Crimea who have had to leave, but would like to return home one day.

RFE/RL: How would you describe the everyday environment for Ukrainians and Tatars in Crimea?

CD: For Ukrainians the situation is very complicated, because the authorities are taking all possible measures to force Ukrainians out of the peninsula. First of all, they create a difficult moral and psychological environment: to speak Ukrainian publicly is dangerous, as one can be attacked by pro-Russia citizens or by members of self-defense groups, or one can be subjected to other discriminatory measures -- though officially, use of Ukrainian is not banned.

We can't say that all education in Ukrainian has been stopped, but there is pressure and agitation for parents to move their children to classes taught in Russian.

As for other areas of infrastructure serving the Ukrainian ethnic minority, well, it is almost completely destroyed. The Ukrainian Theater has stopped its work; all performances are now staged only in the Russian language. In cinemas, films are no longer screened in Ukrainian. The building of the Ukrainian-language newspaper "Krymskaja Svitlica" in Simferopol has been taken over, so the paper’s publication had to be moved to Kyiv.

For Crimean Tatars, the situation is a little bit different. The authorities are, as it were, "flirting" with local Tatars. They try to split them, try to set up a network of collaborators, and at the same time to force out their leaders, leaders of the Mejlis, who are pro-Ukrainian or pro-EU, pro-Western….There is a game of carrot and stick going on with the Crimean Tatars, whereas in the case of local Ukrainians, the drive is for ruthless Russification. Attempts to force them out continue. The main aim, the guiding principle, is that there should be no Ukrainians left in Crimea.

RFE/RL: Given that the environment is hostile, how do you hope to make your sites better known and expand your audiences?

CD: We understand only too well that we will have to work in a very difficult environment. It is clear that in Putin's authoritarian state it is difficult for any journalist to work in the independent mass media, including RFE/RL. It is even more difficult in Crimea. Although officially Russian law now applies there, in reality it does not function. There is complete lawlessness in Crimea now. Any member of a self-defense group can assault any journalist, forbid him to film, take away his camera. There have been many such incidents involving our journalists. Just before coming to this interview I got an e-mail that our multimedia editor, who was filming self-defense forces taking over a facility in Crimea, was attacked and threatened that his camera would be broken if he didn't stop filming. The reporter was forced to delete all the footage and had to leave the scene. In this case, fortunately, he was not physically hurt, but we have had many cases when our journalists were beaten.

RFE/RL: What kind of content gets the greatest interest among your audiences?

Austria--Russian and Ukrainian journalists at the OSCE office in Vienna speaking about safety. September, 2014.
Austria--Russian and Ukrainian journalists at the OSCE office in Vienna speaking about safety. September, 2014.

CD: Though our focus is the most active part of society -- young people between 25-45 and decision-takers -- our audience is very varied. Of course in the first place is news from Crimea, information about human rights violations, and about the violations of ethnic minorities' rights. We carry a lot of videos, so if we do a high-quality content piece with photos and videos, it generates great interest, no matter if the topic is political, social, or economic. We have a very good business correspondent who provides excellent economic analysis and has quite a following. Our superb field reports also generate huge interest. We are working on exploiting social networks more effectively in order to promote our content.

RFE/RL: What about attempts to rewrite history, for example, in schools? Can your service address this danger?

CD: At a minimum, we inform our audiences that this is happening, that the ideology of a greater, "imperial" Russia is being imposed. We try to invite Crimean historians to talk about modern Crimean history, about Crimea's relationships both with Ukraine and with Russia. What is important is that from the very beginning of our service, we have been producing a series of short video features to record the memories of the Crimean Tatars who survived the 1944 deportations. This year marked the 70th anniversary of the Crimean Tatars' deportations by Stalin, but there is no mention of this in the Russian history books from which children in Crimea will be taught at school and universities. So we record the testimonies of these people, of what they saw and what they experienced themselves. These are elderly men and women in their 80s and 90s, they are approaching the end of their lives, there are fewer and fewer of them every year, so we really focus on capturing their memories…This is one of the ways to counter the falsification of history.

RFE/RL: What feedback do you get from your audiences? How do you maintain a dialogue with them without endangering anyone?

CD: First of all we give the opportunity to Crimeans to blog on our sites. There are many such bloggers. They are not our correspondents, they are simply active Crimeans. Blogging on our sites of course presents certain dangers to the bloggers. For example, our blogger Liza Bogutskaya has been arrested recently. Her house was searched, all her recording equipment and a photo camera were taken away, and eventually she was forced out of Crimea. She had not hidden her identity. She was signing her blogs in her own, though slightly altered name, but it was clear to everybody who she was…And now, even as we speak, Russian border guards stopped and arrested another of our bloggers, Ali Özenbaş. As RFE/RL stands for open communication, we foster important dialogue with our readers in Crimea and provide an outlet for everyone's views, but it is a fact that people who publish on our site have to do it with great courage, aware of the risks they are taking.

We receive a lot of letters from Crimea and not only from Crimea, a lot of good letters which support what we do, but also a lot of bad ones with threats, cursing us, telling us to go to Ukraine, to America, that Russia will win anyway. We have noticed that some of these letters are written practically in the same manner, so it is very likely that they are initiated by one source to specifically undermine our morale. As time goes on, I hope we will be able to open a forum for our readers' comments. Such a forum is not enabled at the moment. We have refrained from doing so, as we need to wait for the situation and people's emotions to calm down a bit.

- Zydrone Krasauskiene