A view of the Bay of Sevastopol on August 13, 2015 in Sevastopol, Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill in March 2014 to annexe the Crimean peninsula but Ukraine and most of the international community do not recognise its annexation.
A view of the Bay of Sevastopol on August 13, 2015 in Sevastopol, Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill in March 2014 to annexe the Crimean peninsula but Ukraine and most of the international community do not recognise its annexation. © Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images

The Journalists Risking All to Report from Crimea

Media workers face harassment, arrest and detention under Russian occupation.

Monday, 20 March, 2023

Taras Ibragimov, a journalist from Kyiv, first visited Crimea with a group of Ukrainian human rights defenders in 2016.

“It was important for me to see everything with my own eyes,” the 32-year-old said.  

Over the next four years, he made repeated trips to the peninsula to report on show trials and the harassment of minorities, building links with a wide network of human rights activists and lawyers. He published his material under a pseudonym on the Crimea.Realities website.

“Crimea at that time was scorched earth from the journalistic perspective,” he recalled. “Information was almost impossible to obtain.”

Ibragimov said he was particularly proud of his work training citizen journalists with the Crimean Solidarity public movement, explaining, “I understood that it is necessary to teach these people. In Crimea, there are just plenty of topics about which there are not enough hands to write.”

But then he began to notice surveillance near his hotel, and was detained three times. In May 2019, police took him to the immigration office where he was immediately fined 2,000 rubles (27 US dollars) for “illegal labour activity”.

In January he was banned from entering Russia and Crimea until 2054. Ibragimov is currently covering the war in Ukraine.

The media was one of the first targets for Russian forces when they occupied Crimea in 2014. At first, so-called “self-defence” squads hunted for journalists, kidnapping them on the street, taking away their equipment and threatening them with torture.

Later, employees of the Centre for Combating Extremism in Crimea  - an offshoot of a Russian state agency widely utilised as a tool of repression- and Russia’s Federal Security Service joined such efforts. They focused on initiating criminal cases against journalists and instituting bans on reporting.

More than ten reporters working with Crimean Solidarity are now in prison, recognised by Ukrainian and international human rights organisations as political prisoners. Others have been harassed to the extent that they are effectively prohibited from working.

Photographer Lenyara Abibullayeva worked in the information policy department of the Council of Ministers of Crimea from 2009 until the annexation of Crimea. She resigned when she was asked to renounce her Ukrainian citizenship.

She worked for a private news agency for a year, then began freelancing with several media outlets. In 2016, her apartment was searched; in connection, she was told with the case of Mykola Semena, a journalist arrested and prosecuted that year.

“The search lasted for three-and-a-half hours, all filmed,” Abibullayeva continued. “I asked them to give me my phone several times during the search, but I was not allowed to call a lawyer. Then a man in a military uniform came in and said that if I did not leave in 15 minutes, he would lead me out in handcuffs, at gunpoint. I packed my stuff and went with them to the Federal Security Service for interrogation.”

Abibullayeva’s laptop was seized and all her digital media searched, after which she was set free. But she could not get another job in journalism.

Repeatedly offered jobs in local media outlets, she needed official clearance from law enforcement agencies to be able to take up the position.

“I was among those who were not recommended for admission to the staff,Abibullayeva said. She now works in the tourism industry, and has been forced to take a break from journalism.


“The work citizen journalists do under the occupation is sometimes underestimated among professional journalists,” said 33-year-old Elmaz Akimova. “These are ordinary people: physicists, chemists, teachers, programmers, who, at the risk of their safety, began to do this because there was no other way out.”

A former student of philology, Akimova began posting short accounts on Facebook in 2018, and soon after started working anonymously with the Ukrainian media.

“The main difficulty of working in Crimea is the issue of security. Many of those who live in Crimea and write on their social media have been forced to constantly censor themselves since 2014,” she explained.

She went on to register as a journalist and receive a press card, but recalled constant harassment. Police officers stopped her from working several times, filmed her and photographed her documents.

Then, in summer of 2022, she was detained by the Federal Security Service.

“They took away documents, tried to interrogate me, checked my phone and wrote down the IMEI [a unique identification number],” Akimova said. “After this check, there were several attempts to hack my phone system and constant phishing attacks.”

Akimova left Crimea for a European country in January 2023, after officers from the Centre for Combating Extremism twice visited her at home.

A few media activists have continued to work openly in Crimea, despite the great risks to their security.

A biochemist by profession, 37-year-old Zidan Adzhykeliamov first got involved in citizen journalism in 2017. Six years later, he is a veteran of administrative arrest, fines, and surveillance.

“There was a period when three cars of employees were on duty near my house,” he recalled. “This surveillance lasted three days. My house was searched, formally for prohibited items and literature, but in fact to pressure me to stop covering the repression of the Russian security forces.”

Adzhykeliamov has been working for several years with the human rights media project Crimean Solidarity. The local media, he said, were funded by the Russian state and had become a propaganda tool.

“Someone has to show reality as it is,” he said. “I am certain that if it were not for the work that we have all been doing over the years, the scale and methods of repression would be much more extensive and harsh. We are watched, listened to and read.”

Adzhykeliamov said that he would not hide his identity, and not leave Crimea, even if he was arrested.

Another journalist from Crimea, who asked to remain anonymous, said that he had been working under a pseudonym for many years.

We know the consequences for those of our colleagues who can no longer enter here or are in prison,” he said. “The duration of my work is important for me, I am ready to sacrifice my name, I am not looking for fame.”

The risks for journalists on the peninsula had only increased since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he continued.

“No one will come from the other side of the administrative border and start working here in the current realities,” the journalist said. “ You know, there is an expression in English - No Man's Land - used during military conflicts. Crimea used to be a grey zone, but now it's even worse."

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