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Social media and resistance: citizen reporters in Crimea

The peninsula has long left the front pages of international media. What remains is a brave and tireless group of citizens, who risk more than most to get information out of an increasingly isolated place.

September 4, 2018 - Maria Baldovin - Articles and Commentary

Right after the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, the peninsula has increasingly become isolated and information about it inaccessible. As pluralism of media has disappeared, with the closure of several Ukrainian and Tatar language media and the getaway of many independent journalists from the peninsula, the only available information is broadcasted by Russian media, which nevertheless narrate only part of the story. Though we know that the situation in Crimea is not as rosy as the rhetoric of “Crimea coming back to the motherland” would like to show. Ethnic minorities and opponents to the occupation are having a hard life under the Russian regime, whose local authorities and security services are turning the screw on independent and dissident voices. Thanks to some of them and to their disclosures, especially through social media, it is possible nowadays to have a more complex picture of the events and to partially break the silence on what is going on in Crimea. We collected their voices.

A matter of conscience

“The situation of media in Crimea has dramatically worsened since 2014: it was time to act” commented Michail Batrak on my question about the rising phenomenon of citizen journalism in Crimea. Michail has started to cover the trials of dissidents and political prisoners in Crimea. Among them, the case of Vladimir Baluch, who has been on a hunger strike for several months now. Michail’s words are echoed by Remzi Bekirov, Crimean Tatar and active member of a network for the families of political prisoners called Crimean Solidarity: “In todays Crimea, citizen journalism is not only a relevant phenomenon, but even a necessary one”. Elmaz (who chose anonymity) comments: “I did not even know that this is called citizen journalism, I have just started to describe what I was experiencing on social networks. Some of the media started quoting my sentences, some of them without asking me for permission. But I don’t mind, as long as people are more aware about our situation”.

These common citizens have started to cover the increasing repressions, searches and arrests going on in the peninsula. All of them have one thing in common: they have not chosen to become reporters, they were forced by the circumstances. One can call it a matter of conscience.

How does it all work? This kind of information could not exist without a community based on mutual solidarity and trust. Whenever a search occurs, the word is spread through social media, in order for the information to be as viral as possible. In this way, it is made sure that someone can come and cover the event. If these people did not record them, many of these cases would never be available.

The job not only entails a high emotional component, made of anger, sorrow and hope, but it also implies very high risks.

Occupational hazards

Independent journalists in Crimea face high risks, be they professional or not. Arrests, searches and threats are almost a daily occurrence among dissidents and independent voices, who challenge the by now monolithic information provided in the peninsula. And as the professional independent journalists already fled, activists are the next ones to be targeted.

The story of Nariman Memedeminov, member of Crimean Solidarity and a citizen reporter, is a clear example of this worrying trend. Memedeminov, who was already a target for local police due to his participation in demonstrations, was taken from his house in the morning of March 22 and still sits in a pre-trial detention centre in Simferopol. While he is officially accused for allegedly spreading terrorist ideas, many of his compatriots – among whom the well-known lawyer Emil’ Kurbedinov – believe that he was punished for his activity as a reporter. The community around Memedeminov has managed to mobilise a part of the Ukrainian journalistic community, but except solidarity actions nothing has really moved. Memedeminov’s name is therefore still present on the so called “Sentsov’s list”, 70 political prisoners for whose liberation the Ukrainian film director has undergone a hunger strike.

“The risk of being arrested is always present” comments Michail Batrak, noting how many criminal cases in Crimea are manufactured, meaning that no evidence is provided against the accused and that the alleged proofs – on the contrary – are falsified.

Remzi Bekirov remembers when he was arrested last year, while filming during a search at an acquaintance’s house: “They took us to the district police and then we were subjected to administrative arrest for alleged ‘unauthorised rallying’: this is how they call our presence, when we go to report such events”.

Threats, of course, are also very common: “I constantly receive written threats, but I try not to think about it, because I do not want them to reach their goal, which is to scare me and silence me” says Elmaz.

Aleksej Šestakovič experienced psychological and physical violence, after which he was forced to leave his hometown, Sevastopol. Aleksej is an old-time anarchist and ecologist activist and, with regard to his activity, comments that “every activist must also be a bit of a journalist”. Aleksej’s YouTube channel features numerous films shot over the last few years.

At the beginning of March, Aleksej was arrested along with another activist and – he reports – he was tortured by the police during the ten days of detention. Just out of prison, having ascertained that he was no longer safe, Aleksej has left the country and is now in Italy: “If I were still in my house, I would continue to receive threats of arrest, I would be continually persecuted. The agents of the secret services were telling me: ‘sooner or later we will send you to jail’”.

What’s next for Crimea

What to expect from the future? Crimea has almost disappeared from newspapers and international political agendas. Only rarely – and recently in the occasion of the World Cup taking place in Russia – is the state of affairs of the peninsula mentioned, but the impression is that Sevastopol and Crimea are now considered as Russian new federal subjects.

There are still those who resist the abuses, not merely striving to survive, but actively opposing, always in a non-violent way. Different feelings, however, often coexist in this act of resistance: what can be achieved with all this?

Remzi Bekirov has no doubts about what he wants from the international community and the media: “From Ukraine and the international media we expect concrete actions regarding political prisoners. We cannot stop talking about the Crimean Tatars and these issues must continue to be addressed in the newspapers “.

To all this, Remzi adds a request for recognition, something that personally touches him: “I would like us to be considered as all the other journalists, I wish we had the same rights, so that civic journalism in Crimea would not disappear”.

On the other hand, Elmaz’s comment is more bitter and resigned: “I do not know what we can expect from the international community and media” she comments “if four years after the annexation they have not done anything meaningful”. Elmaz asks to keep the spotlight on Crimea, but remains very pessimistic about the fate that awaits all those like her: “As for the inhabitants of Crimea – activists, journalists, or anyone else – no one can defend us. We can only rely on ourselves “.

Her resignation echoes like a warning to the whole world, a prayer to break the total silence that has fallen on the peninsula.

Maria Baldovin is contributor for the Italian online newspaper East Journal. Interested in human rights, social movements, Russian politics, memory politics and transition societies

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