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Six Years On, RFE/RL’s Crimea Team Counters Kremlin Disinformation

RFE/RL’s Crimea.Realities unit marks six years of unflinching efforts to provide residents with accurate information and counter the propaganda reinforcing Moscow’s presence.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As Russia moves aggressively to consolidate its hold over Crimea, the Black Sea region it seized in 2014 from Ukraine, journalists with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Crimea.Realities unit are marking six years of unflinching efforts to provide residents with accurate information and counter the propaganda reinforcing Moscow’s presence.

“Our journalists have been there from the beginning, reporting on every possible platform, in Crimea’s multiple languages, for residents otherwise captive to Kremlin propaganda and disinformation,” said RFE/RL President Jamie Fly. “Russia is using Crimea as a testing ground for informational warfare, and our Crimea team is on the front-lines, responding with professionalism, integrity, and courage.”

Crimea.Realities, part of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, was launched in March 2014, just weeks after “little green men” in unmarked uniforms — later known to be special forces attached to Russia’s military — entered Crimea. Its reporters have provided authoritative coverage ofevery major story coming out of the region, including Russia’s military build-up, U.S. and European sanctions and the companies circumventing them, the persecution of the indigenous Crimean Tatar minority, court cases, the 2018 naval confrontation near the Kerch Strait, and threats to the peninsula’s precarious fresh water supply. It also serves as the trusted local news source for an information-starved populace, reporting on schools, roads, pensions, and health-care.

Designed for maximum accessibility, Crimea.Realities reaches audiences -– with high numbers in Russia — via dedicated web sites in UkrainianRussian, and Crimean Tatar that have been visited over 140 million times. It broadcasts 24/7 in Ukrainian and Russian on radio and twice-weekly on TV. It publishes on all leading social networks, including the Russian platforms VKontakte and Odnoklassniki.

Research by the Kyiv-based Institute of Mass Information in 2019 shows that Ukrainian mass media rely on Crimea.Realities for 18 percent of their reporting about the region. In 2016, the Russian research center Medialogiya recognized Crimea.Realities among the three most-cited information sources about Crimea; in response to political pressure, the group dropped Crimea.Realities from subsequent surveys.

As Crimea.Realities has built audience and influence, Russian authorities have taken notice. As many as 60 contributors to its local network have faced pressure and threats from Russian security services, forcing most to either leave the peninsula or their jobs. Many work under pseudonyms, while guests invited for interviews and on-air commentary often request to do so anonymously for fear of retribution. In 2016, journalist Mykola Semena became the face of Russian efforts to silence Crimea’s independent media after he was found guilty of “separatism” and banned from journalism for publishing an opinion piece denouncing the occupation. Contributor Taras Ibrahimov was recently barred from entering the peninsula for 34 years.

In addition to persecuting individual reporters, the Kremlin has targeted Crimea.Realities itself, designating it a “foreign agent” in 2017. Moscow’s stated intention to stand up a “sovereign” internet this year engineered to filter out unsanctioned media poses an additional threat to the outlet’s ability to operate.

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Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is a private, independent international news organization whose programs — radio, Internet, television, and mobile — reach influential audiences in 23 countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus. It is funded by the U.S. Congress through USAGM.