More journalists obstructed on the job in Crimea

New York, March 13, 2014–Journalists covering the ongoing crisis in the southern Ukrainian autonomous republic of Crimea continue to be detained, harassed, and obstructed, according to news reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on all sides of the crisis to allow journalists to report freely on the events in Crimea and Ukraine. 

Attacks on local and international journalists in Crimea have been on the rise as the region readies for the March 16 referendum on whether Crimea should remain part of Ukraine or join Russia. Ukrainian and Western governments have declared the poll illegal. Since last week, local press freedom groups, including the Ukrainian Institute for Mass Information, have documented dozens of cases of obstruction, including the censorship of broadcasters, physical attacks on reporters, the detention and harassment of journalists, and the confiscation and destruction of press equipment.

Armed men in the regional capital of Simferopol today detained for several hours David Geoffrion, a journalist with the French television Canal +, Reuters reported. According to the local Center for Investigative Journalism–which has itself been subjected to harassment–Geoffrion was seized by armed men, who identified themselves as “Aksenov’s self-defense unit.” Sergei Aksenov is Crimea’s prime minister.

Geoffrion was reporting at a Ukrainian military base when armed men stormed the base and started shooting. When the journalist, along with others, tried to take cover from the shooting, he was grabbed by some of the armed men. His assailants seized his cellphones, but not his camera, local reports said. The Center for Investigative Journalism, whose staffers negotiated Geoffrion’s release, said that the journalist’s assailants demanded all video footage he had recorded in the city in exchange for his release. The footage was handed over, and Geoffrion was released. The armed men promised to return his cellphones the next day. It is unclear if the video recordings were ever returned to the journalist.

 “We again call on all parties in Crimea to stop censoring the media and obstructing the flow of information about the dramatic events in the autonomous republic,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “When self-proclaimed authorities take journalists hostage and confiscate documents and equipment, they forfeit the possibility of being viewed as legitimate–they become nothing more than common criminals. This thuggery should cease immediately.”

On Tuesday, armed men at an improvised checkpoint on the highway connecting mainland Ukraine with Crimea briefly detained three journalists for the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK and confiscated their reporting equipment. According to NRK, a group of about 20 armed men wearing black ski masks stopped Jan Espen Kruse, Kristian Elster, and Bengt Kristiansen on their way out of Crimea, and held them for about 30 minutes before releasing them.

The journalists said that the armed men accused them of being spies and confiscated three computers, all footage they had recorded in Crimea, USB drives, a camera, and protective gear including bulletproof vests and helmets, according to NRK. The equipment was not returned. According to the Norwegian English-language news website Local, Kruse said that some of the men at the checkpoint wore the uniforms of the disbanded anti-riot police unit “Berkut.”