What does it take for a journalist to enter Crimea?

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”100124″ img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]Flying from Moscow to Simferopol is quick and relatively affordable if you’re travelling out of season, but according to Ukrainian law it’s also illegal. After the 2014 Russian annexation of the peninsula, Ukraine passed a law that prohibits travelling to Crimea via Russia. Violating it can lead to a fine and a ban on entering Ukraine.

Journalists who travel to Crimea via Ukraine need the necessary documentation to work in a territory that is de facto controlled by Russia. In addition to a Russian accreditation and work visas — obtained at the end of a long and demanding process that can prove particularly difficult for freelancers — journalists also need to make their way to Kyiv and present a series of documents to Ukraine’s ministry of information and immigration service, to obtain a permit to enter Crimea, which takes a minimum of one or two days. Then they can head south and make their way to what has become the border with Crimea, 668 kilometres away. Once on the peninsula, they are usually interviewed by FSB officers.

Anton Naumliuk, a Russian journalist who covers Crimea for Radio Liberty, has been travelling to the peninsula about six times a year recently, always via Ukraine. He says he’s noticed that the procedure on the Ukrainian side is becoming simpler and faster. He’s also seen the border gradually built up. “Two years ago there was nothing, just the ground,” he said. Now there’s portacabins and fences. In the summer, there can be long queues.

Journalists often encounter difficulties on the Russian side, he explained. “[FSB officers] ask you who you’ll meet. This interrogation can take hours. If the journalist is quite well-known they try not to do it. If you’re young, if you’re Ukrainian, or carry equipment, you’re more likely to be interrogated. It can be quite nerve-wracking.”

Journalists can be asked to display the content of their phones or computers, although, according to Russian law, they cannot be forced to provide passwords to law enforcement. Officers can search hard drives or flashcards. This means journalists are advised to wipe any sensitive information which could compromise their sources before crossing the border. FSB agents have also been known to ask journalists for their phones’ IMEI number, which could allow them to track the person’s movements when they are reporting in the peninsula.

On my way back from a recent reporting trip to Crimea I met Tetiana Pechonchyk, who monitors human rights violations in Crimea at the Human Rights Information Centre in Kyiv. Her organisation has been campaigning for an easier access for journalists to the peninsula, in a context where coverage by Ukrainian journalists has gradually become near to impossible. “Almost no Ukrainian journalist is able to work in Crimea. A lot of Ukrainian journalists who covered the occupation and persecutions connected to it left Crimea. Ten Crimean media outlets moved to mainland Ukraine with their staff. They continue to cover Crimea but a majority of the websites are blocked on the peninsula, while not being blocked in Russia,” she said.

According to the Human Rights Information Centre’s monitoring, the number of assaults against journalists in Crimea has gone down, but for Pechonchyk, this does not mean much: “They pushed most of independent journalists out. Once you’ve emptied the field then you have no one to repress. They were lots of physical attacks in 2014. In 2015 Russia used legal tools against media outlets. They wouldn’t give a Russian license to outlets. Then they picked journalists who work for the Ukrainian media and terrified them one by one. Small media and bloggers have started appearing in Crimea. The role of professional journalists has been taken over by average citizens who film videos of searches in Tatar houses, go to politically motivated trials to cover them. Now authorities have started persecuting citizen journalists as well.”

Naumliuk began reporting from Crimea because he saw what was taking place there as a continuation of the war in Donbass. “It’s a lot more important than it seems at first glance and offers some understanding into what happened after the breakup of the Soviet Union and what will happen to such a big territory, in places like Belarus and Kazakhstan,” he said. He mostly covers court cases, with a focus on persecutions against Tatars. He says very few foreign outlets work with him regularly, they’ll only ask for his help if something happens.

“[Without constant coverage] it’s super difficult to understand the situation. There’s no human rights organisations working on the ground and very few independent journalists. Very little information on repression against political prisoners goes out. For this reason, it seems nothing is happening in Crimea. It’s all very quiet. But if you speak with Tatars the picture changes. A majority of kids live without their father because of what has been happening,”Naumliuk said.

“I think that not enough journalists go, and that’s there’s not enough stories coming from Crimea, because of the travel,” Ola Cichowlas, who recently travelled via Ukraine to spend two days reporting in Crimea for the Agence France Presse, said in an interview.

“Meanwhile, the world has gotten tired of the story,” Pechonchyk said. Foreign journalists often come for the anniversary of the annexation, do a quick story and then leave.

According to the State Migration Service of Ukraine, 106 foreign journalists have travelled to Crimea via Ukraine between 2015 and March 2018.

In this context, the Human Rights Information Centre and other organisations have tried to push for a facilitated access for foreign journalists who travel to Crimea, but also for aid workers and lawyers for whom it can take much longer to obtain a permit. “The first issue in terms of access is security,” says Pechonchyk. “For a foreign journalist it’s safer to come to Crimea via the Russian Federation than enter via mainland Ukraine. You’re almost always interrogated by the FSB when you go via Ukraine, with a higher risk of being put under surveillance. If you fly to Crimea from Moscow you violate Ukrainian law but it’s safer.”

Pechonchyk believes the process enabling foreign journalists to travel to Crimea should be made simpler: “It shouldn’t be a permission, but a notification. People should be allowed to do it from abroad, via a consulate or an embassy through an online form, and they should be able to apply in English – it’s all in Ukrainian at the moment. This should be a multi-entry permit and the number of categories able to get it should be extended.” At the moment, the list only includes journalists, human rights defenders, people working for international organisations, travelling for religious purposes, to visit relatives or people who have relatives buried in Crimea. Researchers and filmmakers, for instance, are not included and struggle to go to Crimea legally.

Pechonchyk also believes there should be exceptional cases – emergencies – where journalists and lawyers are allowed to travel from Russia, to attend a trial, or report on an arrest, for instance. The existing legislation offers little clarity and seems to be mostly applied when Ukraine wants to punish individuals who supported the annexation, as happened in 2017 when they banned a Russian singer who was to take part in the Eurovision and had performed in Crimea.

But there seems to be little room for a debate on this in Ukrainian society at the moment. Difficulties of access also apply to journalists who visit the self-proclaimed separatist republics of Donetsk or Luhansk, who need a series of accreditations from the Ukrainian and the separatist side, are not supposed to enter the separatist republics from Russia, and can face backlash once they have travelled to the republic. This is what happened when in May 2016, personal information of journalists having visited DNR and LNR was leaked to Myrotvorets, a Ukrainian website known to be supported by Ukrainian police and secret services. The leak included journalists from more than 30 media outlets, who had been merely covering the war on the rebel side but were depicted by nationalists as “collaborating with terrorists”. No one was prosecuted for the leak.

Johann Bihr, who covers Eastern Europe for Reporters Without Borders, told Index: “It’s important that foreign journalists keep heading to Crimea and going back there. And we encourage Russia and Ukraine to facilitate access for journalists. If they fail to do so we face some kind of double penalty, where Crimea is abandoned by the international community because it has not been recognised and turns into an information black hole.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1525192972009-6f6057be-6973-0″ taxonomies=”6564″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Conflict with Russia prompts media restrictions in Ukraine


The armed conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine, the occupation of Crimea and Russian support for separatists in Donbas have lead to a large-scale media war, Mapping Media Freedom correspondent Tetiana Pechonchyk writes.

Faced with Russian propaganda, which attempts to stir up hatred, Ukraine imposed a number of restrictions in the media to protect its national security and territorial integrity against its aggressive neighbor. Those restrictions have manifested themselves  at different levels and in different ways and touched not only on the Russian media and journalists but also Ukrainian media workers and bloggers who have been accused of being too sympathetic to Russia. In some cases the restrictions have been disproportionate, they have narrowed the space for criticism in Ukraine amid an armed conflict that began in 2014.

The most well-known example is the case of Ruslan Kotsaba, a Ukrainian journalist and blogger, who was arrested in February 2015 for posting a video criticising the country’s military recruitment campaign and called on Ukrainians to boycott it. A month later, on 31 March, Kotsaba was accused of “treason” and obstructing “the legitimate activities of the armed forces of Ukraine”.

After nearly a year and a half in detention — during which Amnesty International named him a “prisoner of conscience” — Kotsaba was acquitted of the charges by the Ivano-Frankivsk court of appeal.

In a second case, Olena Drubych a journalist working for municipally owned Kharkovskie Izvestiya, was fired in March 2016 for republishing material from the Russian website Expert Online, which reported “the Russians celebrated the second anniversary of Crimea returning to the Russian Federation”.

Two reports to MMF involved Russian TV news crews, who tried to work in Ukraine covering events.

In September 2015, Katerina Voronina, a journalist for Russian TV channel NTV was detained along with her driver by representatives of the Right Sector, a far-right Ukrainian nationalist political party, near the administrative border between occupied Crimea. NTV said that the journalist was reporting about a blockade on goods going into Crimea, and was on Ukrainian territory legally. According to the Right Sector website, Voronina, who was questioned for three hours, was filming Ukrainian soldiers. Voronina was then transferred to the Ukrainian State Security Service where she was interrogated for six more hours before being released the following morning.

In April 2016 a film crew from Russian TV channel Mir-24 was denied entry to Ukraine at the Belarusian border by Vystupovychi crossing point border guards. The journalists were planning to visit the abandoned city of Pripyat to report on the anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. According to border guards, the four correspondents, who were Belarusian citizens, did not have any permits or other documents confirming the objective of their visit.

As Index on Censorship reported in May, the Ukrainian website Myrotvorets, which publishes the personal data of those it believes to support separatism in eastern Ukraine, posted the identities of over 4,000 journalists accredited by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Among those named were correspondents working for the BBC, Reuters, AFP, The Independent, Ceska televize, CNN, Al Jazeera, Liberation, ITAR-Tass and RT. Following the release, the site was criticised and announced it was shutting down, but was back online by 19 May.

Ukrainian authorities launched a criminal investigation but observers have little hope of an objective investigation. The website is openly supported by Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov and his advisor MP Anton Herashchenko.   

Following the initial post on 7 May, Myrotvorets released a second, larger list on 20 May, which contained 5,412 names including 2,082 Russian and 1,816 international journalists. The site has subsequently registered with Ukrainian authorities as a media outlet.

In 2016, Ukraine’s ranking in Reporters Without Borders press freedom index climbed 22 places to 107th out of 180 countries. According to Freedom House’s world press freedom index, Ukraine is a partially free country, up 11 places over 2015.

This article was updated on 2 September 2016 to provide context and clarification to the nature of the media environment between Russia and Ukraine.

Mapping Media Freedom

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