Under Russian Control, Vigilantes and Police Detain, Beat, Threaten Reporters

Osman Pashaev, 37, is one of the most popular television reporters in Crimea. Pashaev, an ethnic Tatar, worked for years for the region’s Tatar channel ATR and recently founded his own internet channel.

Yesterday, Pashaev joined other Crimea journalists in covering the Tatar community’s public commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s deportation of the Tatars into exile – an ordeal in which nearly half of the 230,000 deportees died. As Pashaev and Turkish cameraman Dzhengiz Tizgin worked, they were accosted by armed men of the Russian-backed “self-defense” vigilante groups that now patrol Crimean streets.

All Pashaev’s colleagues knew was that he had disappeared.  Calls to his cellphone rang unanswered, as they did to the phones of several friends who had been with him as he worked.

Late last night Pashaev, Tizgin and the others were released.  The vigilantes had turned them over to the police forces of the Russian-backed Crimean regime headed by Sergei Aksionov, the titular prime minister. Early today, Pashaev wrote on his Facebook page: “Thank you to all, who supported us. The fact that you spread the work helped the most. We had no opportunity to let anyone know what was happening. They kept us facing a wall for four hours. The most terrifying thing is that because of me, five people were subjected to the sewer that is Aksionov’s “self-defense” [facility] located on Kirova 26 [in the capital, Simeropol]. I was not beaten too badly, just a few times on my feet. But the moral degradation was even worse than any physical pain. They stole three computer tablets, three routers, one computer and four smartphones.”

Aksionov’s Crimean authorities are threatening to charge the journalists with criminal “extremism.” This extremism amounted to Osmanov and other journalists trying to reach the government quarter in Simferopol yesterday, only to find it blocked off by the FSB [Russian secret police, the former KGB] during the Tatars’ commemoration of the deportation.

On Saturday, FSB  officers detained Polish reporter Waclaw Radziwinowich of the daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, along with two Ukrainians:  Mykola Semena, a former Izvestia correspondent now reporting for the Kyiv daily Den; and photographer Leniara Abubulayeva.

Radziwinowicz said when he showed the officers his documents and identity cards they accused him of being someone else, and of illegally having crossed the Russian Federation border in to Crimea. The three were held for nearly six hours and luckily were not beaten.

Such incidents are increasingly becoming commonplace in Crimea since its annexation by Russia. During February and March, when the Crimean conflict was at its height, about 120 journalists, local and foreign, were detained or kidnapped, beaten or threatened. The vigilantes and police confiscated or destroyed their equipment and otherwise obstructed them from reporting.

Today if you are a journalist in Crimea and the new authorities know your face and understand that report with any tone of independent thought, you are not safe. For myself, writing for a website uncontrolled by the government, І am not only not allowed into any official gathering or event, and it is clear that I can be detained at any moment by the self-defense units.

After Russia’s annexation, most of the peninsula’s media came under the control of the new Russian Crimean government. Those few, who have remained independent are constantly pressured and harassed. For example, Pashaev’s former employer, the Tatar channel ATR,  is denied official information or accreditation and is threatened with criminal proceedings.

Things became worse for us on May 9, when a Russian law criminalizing “calls to separatism” took effect. Under this law, any journalist who writes the phrase “occupied Crimea” can now be imprisoned for a few years or pay a fine of up to two years’ salary.

Since the Russian occupation nearly 100 journalists have left the Crimean peninsula because of threats, pressure and fear for their safety.  [After Osman Pashaev was released last night, he, too, left Crimea today, according to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group.]

Volodymy Prytula is the director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s new Crimean web site Krym Realii.