Multiple reporters have been harassed and beaten while trying to cover efforts by pro-Russian militants to seize areas of Crimea, raising serious concerns about the safety of journalists and their ability to report accurate information just days before Crimeans vote on their political future.
Ukraine’s Channel 5 television journalists and journalists from the Inter and STB channels were allegedly assaulted and had their equipment seized, AFP reports. According to accounts from the Associated Press, a group of reporters were setting up their cameras when “they were approached by unarmed men who took photos of their equipment and ‘accused the crew of being spies.’” An AFP corespondent “later saw five male journalists in hospital who had been severely beaten, their faces covered with blood, and who were being treated for head wounds.”
Security video footage from Crimea’s main port also shows a photographer being robbed of his camera at gunpoint for taking photographs of other journalists facing intimidation and harassment. On Thursday, freelance journalist Dimiter Kenarov, who’s reporting in Crimea, “tweeted that he’d had a gun pointed to his head outside a TV studio on Thursday” and had his phone stolen. Journalists from prominent international outlets faced similar harassment. Russian soldiers instructed reporters from the BBC Russian Services, “Don’t move or we’ll shoot,” while a team of CNN corespondents “was told to stop broadcasting or they would be told to leave their hotel in Crimea.”
International monitors describer the crackdown as an “information crisis,” one that could significantly undermine the dissemination of information ahead of the March 16th referendum to decide if Crimea will receive autonomy from Ukraine or join Russia.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) media freedom representative warned that “extreme censorship, shutting down media outlets and press hubs and attacks and intimidation of journalists must stop immediately.” However, the team says it has been barred from entering Ukraine by pro-Russian forces.
The allegations come after six Ukrainian channels were shutdown in Crimea and replaced with Russian broadcasts and a group of 30 masked gunmen broke into the Crimean Center for Investigative Journalism last weekend. On Thursday, a Russian lawmaker introduced legislation making media executives criminally liable for “the publication of false, anti-Russian information that provides information in support of extremist and separatist, anti-Russian forces, including portrayals of events beyond Russian borders.”
Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry claims that Russian reporters and producers have also been banned from entering Ukraine to cover the conflict.
In 2013, Freedom House reported that freedom of the press deteriorated after Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency. “The government maintained its grip on key television outlets and tightened controls over the internet during the year, and most state and privately owned mass media engaged in blatant propaganda that glorified the country’s national leaders and fostered an image of political pluralism,” the organization found.