Crimean Tatar civic journalist Nariman Memedeminov, who was imprisoned in 2018. (Credit withheld)

Crimean Tatar civic journalists risk persecution to cover their community in Russian-annexed Crimea

After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, some Crimean Tatars–the indigenous population of the Crimean peninsula–had to flee for the Kyiv-controlled part of Ukraine. But most have chosen to remain. As the Russian-appointed new authorities established blanket censorship, squeezing out independent media outlets, a new phenomenon emerged–civic journalism. Members of the Crimean Tatar community–who had not previously worked as journalists–started photographing and filming raids and searches of homes and offices as officials cracked down on the Muslim-minority Crimean Tatar community. 

When CPJ conducted its most recent prison census in December 2019, Russian authorities were holding four Crimean Tatar journalists on various terrorism and extremism charges. Those who are still free continue to take risks to report on rights violations against their fellow Crimean Tatars. 

CPJ spoke to Taras Ibragimov, a Kyiv-based journalist for U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), reporting on Crimea. Ibragimov is also a freelancer writing for other news outlets on Crimea. 

CPJ also spoke to Lutfiye Zudiyeva from the Crimea-based human rights group Krymskaya Solidarnost (Crimean Solidarity), which has reported on the crackdown on Crimean Tatars and supports journalists covering their stories.

Their answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Taras Ibragimov, Kyiv-based journalist for U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)

How do you, as a journalist, get information about the situation in Crimea?

I reported from Crimea for four years [when] I had an opportunity to report directly about people who were persecuted by the Russian authorities. Early this year, the Russian authorities barred me from visiting the Russian Federation, which means I can’t visit Crimea. But I have many contacts and friends there. It helps me get information from lawyers, human rights activists. I also get information from a human rights group, Krymskaya Solidarnost, which is based in Crimea and also helps journalists. 

A lot of information on Crimea come from civic journalists. How would you describe this phenomenon in Crimea? 

In fact, there are no professional journalists left in Crimea. The Crimean Tatars understand that except for them [civic journalists] there would be no one to inform about the real situation. It all started when active people simply visited courtrooms and reported directly using mobile phones. Then Krymskaya Solidarnost was established and it helped civic journalists a lot. I organized about a dozen training sessions for journalists. The authorities noticed the phenomenon and started persecuting journalists. Journalist Nariman Memedeminov was the first to go to jail. He was one of the founders of [civic journalism in Crimea and] Krymskaya Solidarnost. Memedeminov was sentenced to two and a half years in jail for “propaganda of terrorism” in 2018. This September, he should be released from jail. He became a symbol and an example of how journalists should work.

How do civic journalists work; do you have many contacts with them?

I get information from Crimea with the help of civic journalists. I am in contact with some 20 people. Krymskaya Solidarnost does not give numbers of how many people work for them; how many of them are civic journalists. It is not safe. Even with me, Krymskaya Solidarnost does not share the numbers, but I am sure that they have their representatives in every city in Crimea. 

Let’s say, someone’s home is raided in some remote village. Krymskaya Solidarnost immediately receives information about it. If a civic journalist finds out that somebody’s home is searched in their village, he or she immediately films it and transfers the video or photos to Krymskaya Solidarnost. I mainly report on trials in Crimea. So, my contact group also includes some five lawyers, who are specializing in political cases. I personally work a lot with Lutfiye Zudiyeva, who is one of the leaders of Krymskaya Solidarnost. She is still free but I am sure it is only a matter of time. I am sure that as long as Crimea remains occupied, these people will be jailed – sooner or later.

Lutfiye Zudiyeva, Crimea-based human rights group Krymskaya Solidarnost

How many people work as civic journalists and how do you cooperate with them in Crimea?

We have civic journalists in many places in Crimea. As a rule, they report on human rights abuses. I will refrain from talking about the technical side of reporting because it is dangerous, as the [Russian] authorities are seeking to get information about them and trying to stop [independent] information coming from Crimea. The authorities want to know in what ways Krymskaya Solidarnost works and how we manage to gather information and disseminate it so quickly. I will talk only about matters which are publicly known and will not damage our work. 

All the information from our correspondents now come to an account of Krymskaya Solidarnost. Earlier, people were publishing information on their personal pages on Facebook or other social media. Now, the information is spread only through Krymskaya Solidarnost. It allows us to protect a person who transfers us the information. Some people agree to work publicly, some continue to spread news from their personal accounts, but it is dangerous. Those in detention might have to spend long years in prison. It is better to keep people anonymous and disseminate information through Krymskaya Solidarnost. Our organization publishes different posts, video, and news, especially about trials.

But you yourself are working publicly.

I have chosen to be public about my work because this status helps me cooperate with international and Ukrainian organizations. These actors need to verify the information coming from Crimea. They need to contact a real person, who lives in Crimea, not deal with anonymous sources. Krymskaya Solidarnosthelps to verify the information. 

On the other hand, I think that being a public person gives me some safety. It might help if I am detained. It also helps to understand better why one or another person is persecuted. The authorities fabricate legal cases against the activists in Crimea. Sometimes activists are accused of terrorism, some of extremism. But not all journalists should work the way I do. We leave it to a personal decision. I have chosen my way. I don’t want an iron curtain to fall upon Crimea.  

Aren’t you afraid you can end up in jail?

This is the question I have asked myself many times. Every person has a feeling of fear on the physical level. I have four kids and I would like to see them growing up. But every person has moral values. My values do not allow me to lead a different way of life. I cannot be silent and close my eyes to the facts that many people are sentenced to 15 or 20 years in jail. Just for nothing. Probably, my wish to help people is stronger than my survival instinct. 

[CPJ called the Administration of Simferopol, the Law department, several times for comment but no one answered the phone.]