Simferopol, Ukraine – Journalists are finding themselves on the frontlines of Crimea’s information war. Channels are blocked, reporters are attacked and cameras are seen as weapons of mass media.
VICE News reporter Simon Ostrovsky says he is one of a number of journalists who have been detained by security forces.
When he and two cameramen walked up to a Russian checkpoint in Ukraine, Ostrovsky says he and a colleague were grabbed and thrown to the ground by guards who seemed to be part of the disbanded Berkut special forces.
“One of the former Berkut officers cocked his Kalashnikov and pointed at me and said ‘I’ll shoot to kill,’ and… so I just froze and then my other cameraman just made a run for it.”
He credits the cameraman for securing their release after ten minutes because he was filming the ordeal. Ostrovsky says the men who took them claimed they saw his colleagues with weapons and forced the detained cameraman to erase his card.
He says he has worked around the world but has never faced such hostility as a journalist. “The aggression is specifically targeted at journalists… the verbal stuff happens every place you go.”
There have been several other reports of journalists being attacked and detained. On Thursday, a French journalist was arrested in the Crimean capital of Simferopol and, according to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), two Ukrainian journalists were detained last week. All have since been released.
The Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE), states that there were 200 attacks against journalists and one reporter was murdered during Ukraine’s revolution which overthrew President Viktor Yanukovich.
However, threats to journalists in Ukraine are not new.
In 2013, RSF rated Ukraine number 126 in the world on the NGO’s world press freedom index, below South Sudan, and stated that the country had a “chronically high level of violence towards journalists”.
Also last year, a fourth ex-police officer was sentenced for the murder of opposition journalist Georgiy Gongadze whose decapitated body was found in the woods 14 years ago.
Tapes that were allegedly recorded by a bodyguard of the president who governed Ukraine at the time of the murder seemed to show that the president asked officials to “deal with” the journalist.
Local journalists though say that the current crisis has introduced a significant increase in threats.
“We have [had] some… cases of brutal behaviour but to compare it with today… it’s a small, small amount,” says the chairman of the Independent Media Trade Union of Ukraine Yuriy Lukanov.
He states that there has been an escalation in intimidation towards journalists, from initial demands not to film and now to beatings.
He also says the Crimean parliament has set up a very difficult process for journalists to get accreditation for Sunday’s referendum to obstruct full coverage of the vote.
The Crimean parliament did not reply to requests for comment from Al Jazeera.
Since Russian troops have moved into Crimea, most Ukrainian channels have been blocked and have been replaced with Russian channels.
Black Sea TV is one of those forced off the air.
In the station’s lobby, two police officers stand guard against possible attacks. Upstairs, manager Lyudmila Zhuravlyova sits in her office, a picture of the Virgin Mary hangs on the wall next to her.
Zhuravlyova says residents in Crimea can still access the channel through satellite and cable. However, viewership has been cut in half and some advertisers have left, putting the channel under financial stress.
She said she got a letter at the beginning of March from the broadcast provider saying that broadcasts of the channel would be stopped for reasons they could not state. She believes though that it was an order from Moscow.
“They don’t want people to know the real information, to have objective news,” she says. “We live in an independent country… we don’t live in [the] USSR any more.”
She compares a Russian channel using Black Sea TV’s frequency to a stranger living in her house and is afraid of Crimea becoming part of Russia. “We [will] try to work but I don’t know how… of course it will be really difficult for us to continue.”
While none of her employees have been attacked she says she does not know what may happen after the referendum.
Black Sea TV journalist Aleksander Jankowski did not want to wait around to find out.
After seeing armed men break into the Centre of Investigative Journalism in Simferopol, he felt it was no longer safe to work as a journalist in Crimea so he fled to Kiev. “I decided I have to go because it’s not so easy to work… everyday you go between these [armed] people,” he says. “You don’t know when these people go to your [office].”
He complains that the Crimean government offers information or access to meetings only to Russian reporters but says these Russian journalists too face dangers.
According to RSF, a journalist for a Russian news outlet was physically assaulted by armed men during the storming of a Ukrainian base in Crimea last week.
‘Let the audience decide’
It is not just Ukrainian channels that are facing censorship. This week, the OSCE criticised the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council of Ukraine for telling operators to stop airing some Russian channels.
In an email to Al Jazeera, OSCE’s representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic stated, “While I deplore any kind of state propaganda and hate speech as part of the current information war, everyone has the right to receive information from as many sources as he or she wishes.”
Switching off and banning channels is not the way to address these problems.
“Switching off and banning channels is not the way to address these problems; any potentially problematic speech should be countered with arguments and more speech.” The Ukrainian council would not grant Al Jazeera an interview.
Some journalists though would support the country blocking Russian channels. Jankowski says these stations are not independent and do not deserve the same rights as other press media. “This is not a classical media with… two [points] of view, this is a propaganda channel.”
Lawyer Tetiana Semiletko with the Media Law Institute in Kiev, said the decision to order the Russian channels off the air is not final and that all members of the council need to vote on the measure. “We could consider [this]… a bit excessive measure and that is not in line with the European standards.”
She says the council should instead file criminal complaints against what they see as hate speech or intolerance against those airing such views.
Nadezda Azhgikhina with the Russian Union of Journalists says cutting off both Russian and Ukrainian channels is very dangerous and people cannot accept such censorship.
“Let [the] audience choose what [they] would like to get.”