KIEV (Reuters) - When journalists in Crimea complained of a creeping climate of fear under the region’s new pro-Russia rulers, a top European official on media freedoms went to investigate.
She was greeted on the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula by a hostile crowd holding anti-Western placards outside a building where she met local media chiefs.
“This poster says ‘Press Freedom’,” the envoy, Dunja Mijatovic, said with irony as she pored over a laptop showing a digital photo of the protesters in Simferopol, Crimea’s main city. “It was very clear they don’t want me.”
Mijatovic, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, will deliver a report to the pan-Europe human rights watchdog next week.
What she found on her one-day visit on Wednesday, she said, were signs that Crimea’s self-appointed rulers are clamping down on media freedom and trying to silence their critics.
“It’s very worrying, the atmosphere, the conditions journalists work in, the attitude of the authorities, no rule of law,” said Mijatovic, a Bosnian who has been warning of the problems facing independent media in Ukraine for months.
She said she had gathered about 30 editors and reporters with various political views in one room in Simferopol. She declined to identify them but said it was tense in the room.
“It seems there is a direction the whole area is going in, and this means restricting critical, opposing voices,” she said in an interview in a Kiev hotel. “You have journalists being attacked and harassed. It’s happening to journalists who are not considered loyal because of the developments in Crimea.”
Since early December, after protests began in Kiev against now-deposed President Viktor Yanukovich, 170 journalists have been injured and one has been killed, said Mijatovic.
The dead journalist, Vyacheslav Veremiy, worked for the Ukrainian newspaper Vesti and was shot by masked attackers who pulled him out of a taxi on February 18.
Ukrainian state channels took a tough line against the protesters in the capital, describing them as nationalists, extremists and fascists. Russian state media did the same, whipping up opposition in Moscow before Russian forces took matters into their own hands in Crimea.
Mijatovic, an expert on media law, is worried media freedoms are now being trampled in Crimea in a way she has seen before in conflicts across the world, including in her own country.
Two days before Russian forces began seizing control of Crimea, two Molotov cocktails, or petrol bombs, were thrown through the window of independent Black Sea TV. On Tuesday, the authorities cut the power off.
Alexandra Kvitko, the editor-in-chief, suggested the channel was paying the price for broadcasting a reality different from the only one accepted by the pro-Russia authorities.
By Friday, two other Ukrainian channels had gone off the air and had been replaced by Russian state channels, foreign reporters in Crimea said.
Armed men also burst into the U.S.-funded independent Centre of Investigative Journalism in Crimea and a Reuters witness saw pro-Russia activists assault two journalists, denouncing them as “fascists” and “provocateurs”.
Mijatovic said the situation was still relatively calm in Crimea but warned that police were doing nothing to protect journalists and sometimes standing back to let attacks happen.
She said she was also worried about the situation in eastern Ukraine, where most people are Russian speakers and watch Russian state television, but Crimea was her immediate focus.
“There is a clear signal from the people in charge in Crimea now that they do not want foreigners there,” she said.
“The good thing is there is a lot of international media in Crimea but I don’t know for how long ... Just a single spark can escalate it and nobody would be able to control it any more.”
Editing by Giles Elgood