As of today, the only television station in Crimea that broadcasts in Crimean Tatar, Ukrainian and Russian languages, ATR, ceased operating. It was forced to shut down because it was not able to re-register under Russian law by the April 1 deadline.
The Crimean authorities claim that ATR’s closure has nothing to do with politics. That sounds like an April Fool’s joke – except that it’s not.
At a news conference several days ago Sergei Aksyonov, the de-facto prime minister of Crimea, accused ATR of deliberately making mistakes in their registration documents for political reasons. It is difficult to take such an assessment seriously, considering the level of harassment that ATR and several other media outlets in Crimea have been subjected to in the past 12 months.
Harassment against ATR is part of a broader pattern of gradually pushing Ukrainian media from Crimea’s air waves and stifling all pro-Ukraine media. Authorities raided offices of several media outlets, sometimes confiscating or damaging their equipment. Numerous journalists and bloggers critical of the authorities have been detained, harassed, or attacked. International bodies justly criticized the stifling of Crimea’s independent media. Last month, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s representative on media freedom described the situation in Crimea to be “at an all-time low.
When I met ATR’s deputy director last fall, she described the growing pressure and official warnings the channel received for reporting on subjects like the wave of intrusive searches of Crimean Tatars’ homes, schools, and mosques that took place last September. After the channel covered a mass gathering of Crimean Tatars in May 2014, the prosecutor’s office issued it a warning for reporting allegedly “extremist” calls made at the gathering. The channel’s leadership argued that ATR was not inventing the coverage but reporting the news as it happened. In response, the authorities threatened the station with imminent closure, calling the channel’s editorial policies “provocative”, aimed at creating “anti-Russian” public opinion, and inciting distrust towards authorities among the Crimean Tatar population.
Indeed, since March 2014, the authorities regularly use the term “provocateur” to describe anyone who criticizes local authorities or Russia’s actions in Crimea.
In his statement about ATR and other media in Crimea, Aksyonov also noted that protecting Ukraine’s interests in Crimea today is “pointless and unnecessary.” This statement seems to show the real reason why, as of today, the ATR channel broadcasts nothing but a black screen: because it reported on the news that the authorities did not like. Such is the devastating new reality of Crimea, where plurality of opinion and free media are no longer respected or welcome.