SIMFEROPOL—The white VW Transporter came to a halt on Gorky Street, in downtown Simferopol. Heavily armed men, some of them in black balaclavas, others wearing Cossack fur hats, jumped out of the van and rushed into the building next door. One of them stood guard, his handgun drawn, surveying the street nervously.
Soon the men reappeared carrying out all kinds of TV studio equipment: cameras, lights, sound controls, boxes full of hastily cut cables. They had just stashed everything in the back of the van and were about to take off, when one of them noticed me taking photos of the heist from across the street with my phone, and started running toward me. Another one followed. In a few seconds, before I even knew it, I was on the ground, a gun pointing at my head.
"Give me the phone," the first man shouted at me in Russian, while the other one stood by. "Give me the phone, or I'll shoot you right here."
It seemed to me that time had suddenly slowed down, that I was not there, but was looking at myself from a distance, without fear or even concern. I understood what he meant, but did not immediately follow his orders. I had instinctively slipped the phone in the pocket of my pants and for a split second thought of defying my assailant, of telling him that, no, I didn't have a phone, or that, yes, I did have a phone but had taken no pictures, or that, yes, I had taken pictures but he could look through them and erase the ones he didn't like. I don't know what I was thinking. The journalist in me said, no, don't give him the phone, but the helpless man lying on the ground with a gun pointing at his head didn't want to play hero: he reached into the pocket and brought out the phone. In another second, it was snatched and gone.
I stood up, dazed. I looked around and saw my photographer, Boryana Katsarova, wandering off into the street, without direction, stunned. Then we caught each other's eye: we were alive; it was all going to be all right. I didn't know it yet, but she had managed to photograph the attack against me, until, in the very last moment, one of the Cossacks had seen her and had run after her, wrenching her professional Nikon camera out of her hands.
I had been attacked because I was photographing a brazen midday raid against a TV studio—part of the Associated Press network, as I learned later. Boryana was attacked because she had photographed the attack against me, as I was photographing an attack against AP. But a security camera, dispassionately recording all events in the street, had caught the incident by chance—the video footage was later traced and uploaded on YouTube by Ukrainian journalists. The incident occurred ten days before the referendum.
The message was clear: information about the state of lawlessness in Crimea had to be suppressed, as much as possible. According to the official narrative of Russian state media and the new Crimean government, everything was going well on the peninsula: a fair and well-organized referendum was on its way, there was no military occupation at all, and there was no fear among the population. Life was normal, as it had always been. People were going to restaurants and even the theater. The sun was shining brightly and the trees were blooming; children's pealing laughter bounced off the pavement. Only certain journalists—most of them foreign—were trying to whip up anxiety.
Yes, Cossacks in military fatigues and volunteer self-proclaimed "self-defense" units patrolled the streets, and phantom troops with automatic weapons and without insignia were guarding major facilities. Armored vehicles rolled down the roads throughout the night, but all this was being done simply in the name of order and security.
That was what Boryana and I had been told by pro-Russian militias at the fully militarized checkpoint controlling entry into Crimea a few days earlier, when they searched our car and decided to confiscate our protective gear: expensive body armor and helmets, all clearly marked with the large lettering PRESS. "You are simply provocateurs, trying to distort the picture in Crimea," one of the men in fatigues told us, though I had tried to explain to him that we brought body armor and helmets just as a contingency, in case anything critical happened. "There is no war in Crimea, and you don't need protection. You're smuggling in military equipment," he replied, handing over our gear to his inferiors, who, like hungry wolves, immediately began to try it on.
My photographer and I were hardly the only journalists to suffer intimidation and harassment while in Crimea. Quite a few colleagues, as well as whole media outlets, both foreign and domestic, felt the threat and mounting pressure leading up to the referendum in what Reporters without Borders called an "increasingly oppressive climate of censorship in Crimea." The AP studio raid we had witnessed was just one example, but there were many others. Reporters were beaten or had their equipment confiscated, and some were abducted (later released), while others were simply not allowed to enter Crimea. Underneath the bright surface of things, a darker, less visible undercurrent pulled in ominous directions and journalists were in the best—or worst—position to feel its tug.
Censorship of pro-Ukrainian journalists and media was much more severe. While foreigners had at least some veneer of protection provided by their exoticism and the reflexive post-Soviet fascination with the concept of "abroad," Ukrainian media had no such privilege. At the height of the propaganda war in the first half of March, armed men took control of the radio and TV transmitting station in Simferopol, disconnecting the terrestrial signals of Ukrainian channels, including local independent Chernomorskaya TV, and replacing them with Russian, pro-Kremlin ones. Crimean residents with satellite, cable or Internet could still watch an array of different media, but access in smaller villages, where many still counted on old analogue antennas, was limited. Of course, the Russian state-run outlets did not report on this: why would they reveal that their opponents were being disarmed in the darkness? Why would the wolf cry wolf? The point was to pretend just the opposite: that life in Crimea was still safe, or if not safe, that danger came from Ukrainian fascist groups, banderovtzy, who were lurking right around the corner, looking for the opportunity to, metaphorically speaking, poison wells and steal children.
I saw the effects of censorship quickly taking root: talking to many ethnic Russians in Crimea at rallies or just in the street, I found they had absolutely no knowledge of the attacks against local and foreign journalists and were utterly surprised when they heard of them. On the other hand, when I covered the remnants of the pro-Ukrainian movement in Crimea, strangers would sometimes come to me and express sympathy for what had happened to us, having seen the security camera footage on cable TV or the Internet. The information gulf between the different groups in Crimea was truly astounding—neighbors living in parallel universes. Certainly, pro-Ukrainian media had their own biased agenda and would often trump up isolated incidents beyond their actual significance (and Ukraine has just retaliated by pushing off the air some Russian TV stations), but I found their coverage generally much more objective and informed.
Only one fairly independent local TV station, ATR, has continued to operate in relative freedom on the territory of Crimea. Founded in 2005 as a family-friendly "information-entertainment" channel, featuring everything from movies and cartoons to culinary and talk shows, it has completely transformed itself into a full-time news channel since the Maidan revolution in Kiev in mid-February.
"We dropped all the entertainment programs because these are serious times," the creative producer of ATR, Ayder Muradosilov, told me during my recent visit to the modern, high-tech headquarters of the TV station in Simferopol.
Although officially a mouthpiece of the Crimean Tatars, the Muslim ethnic group that makes up 12 to 15 percent of the local population and speaks a Turkic language, ATR broadcasts mainly in Russian in order to maintain its inclusiveness and popularity (the vast majority of Crimeans, regardless of ethnic origin, speak Russian). Until quite recently, it was considered a small regional network, ranking next to last among all Ukrainian TV stations, but its popularity has skyrocketed in the past few weeks, and ATR now ranks fifth nationwide, with a staff of about 150. Hungry for immediate information from Crimea that hasn't been tainted by the widespread pro-Russian chauvinism, audiences from all across Ukraine, from Lviv to Donetsk, have often tuned in to ATR, watching anxiously as events on the ground unfold. ATR's politics may be described as generally pro-Ukrainian and against the annexation of Crimea, but there is no denying that, in the absence of other outlets, the current secession crisis has given it a serious boost in popularity.
But problems are already beginning to mount. The owner of ATR, Lenur Islyamov, a famous entrepreneur of Crimean Tatar origin living in Moscow, is currently under attack in Russian state-run media, which try to paint him as an Islamic radical and a national traitor. At the same time, his numerous businesses have come under scrutiny in Russia, a not-so-subtle attempt by the Kremlin to force ATR into submission. On the ground, ATR journalists are sometimes harassed and often move around with bodyguards. The star correspondent of the channel, Zarrina Vaapova, had green paint thrown on her while reporting. "No journalist—foreign, local or even Russian—feels safe in Crimea right now," she says.
Muradosilov, the producer, agrees. "Every day the noose tightens a bit more," he says. "There is complete lawlessness in Crimea at the moment, and lots of psychological pressure is being exerted on our journalists. There is an open information war going on. And we are sometimes asking ourselves, Why haven't they pushed us off the air yet?"
Exerting excessive pressure on ATR could prove too much of a political liability for the Kremlin right now, while it is still trying to assuage the fears of Crimean Tatars, the only major group in Crimea truly opposed to the region's annexation. The new Crimean government has promised to provide more seats in parliament for Tatars, more funding for their culture, and to make the Crimean-Tatar language an official one on par with Russian and Ukrainian. Imposing direct censorship on the media flagship of the Tatar community at this juncture would contradict such policies and might easily backfire.
Now that annexation has occurred, however, there is no turning back. Russia's media environment, much less indulgent than Ukraine's, will soon be Crimea's. What has been intermittent harassment and intimidation could easily turn into systematic censorship in the long run. Even Crimean media outlets and journalists, who now enthusiastically support union with Russia, may soon find out they have willingly locked themselves in a cell and thrown the key away.
"I am very much in favor of Crimea joining Russia," one young Russian woman told me a few days ago in Simferopol. "What's happening right now is wonderful, yet I also worry. What will happen to the media? I fear that our press will lose much of its freedom."