IMC Recommendation No 6. Ukrainian terra incognita: how to write about the occupied Crimea without fakes and manipulations

May 27, 2020

With Russia’s occupation of Crimea and access to the peninsula becoming much more difficult, there has been a significant decline in the amount of media coverage of Crimea’s events and issues in Ukrainian media space. In recent years, this sad trend has been markedly stronger. The monitoring of Ukrainian TV channels’ broadcasts carried out by representatives of the National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting in previous years showed that from 1% to 2% of the channels’ airtime was dedicated to the occupied Crimea. According to the January 2020 monitoring by NGO Detector Media, the materials relating to the occupied Crimea in the news of all-Ukrainian TV channels made up from 0% to 1%.

Those rare news stories with regard to events on the peninsula that still pop up in the Ukrainian media mostly cover the actions of the occupying authorities and law enforcement bodies, i.e. trials of political prisoners, detention of activists, militarization, etc. The viewers, listeners and readers are told almost nothing about the life of two million citizens of Ukraine on the occupied peninsula.

At the same time, Russian media whose representatives have access to Crimea and the opportunity to film openly are much more active in covering Crimean issues. But they do it selectively and in a specific way, emphasizing “successes” and silencing “uncomfortable” topics. According to a study by NGO Institute of Mass Media, Crimean news in Russian media is covered in the best traditions of Soviet propaganda – most of them (33%) are dedicated to the so-called “improvement” of the situation on the peninsula following the 2014 events, with “KrymNash (Crimea is ours)” focusing on “Russian” Crimea as a fait accompli never to be changed running second (16.5%).

Distorted coverage of topics related to Crimea, in turn, spawns numerous myths in society contributing to a mental rejection of the peninsula by the population of Ukraine. To change this situation and increase the amount of media coverage of Crimea in Ukraine’s media space, the Independent Media Council offers a number of recommendations for the media on how to cover Crimea avoiding manipulation in their materials and not become a tool for disseminating false information.

Why cover Crimea?

Ukrainian media editors most often say that lack of materials about the current situation in Crimea is due to its being far, problematic, dangerous and not very interesting under Russian occupation. There is even an opinion that Crimea should return to Ukraine first, and then be written about.

There is a second reason: when Russia seized Crimea, most Ukrainian media lost their local news offices and journalists with whom they had worked for years. This happened because the occupying power was clearing Crimea’s media environment and eliminating those not in support of the Kremlin’s policy. Due to the presence of the Russian military contingent and security services on the peninsula, Ukrainian media cannot send their journalists there without exposing them to danger.

However, rare news related to Crimea in the Ukrainian media space creates a false impression for the population of Ukraine that it either does not exist or is a foreign, non-Ukrainian land. This is contrary to Ukraine’s general policy of not recognizing Crimea as “Russian” which most countries in the world support, including the European Union and the United States, as well as authoritative international institutions such as the UN, Council of Europe, and OSCE that adopt resolutions each year against Russia’s occupation of Crimea.

For Crimeans – both the residents of the peninsula and displaced persons – the lack of coverage of this topic by national media is also a signal that “Crimea is lost for a long time.”

Firstly, keeping Crimea in Ukraine’s media space and providing true and adequate coverage of the lives of Ukrainian citizens under Russian occupation will ensure the right of Ukrainian society to truthful information about the part of their country currently under occupation by the neighboring state. Secondly, it will strengthen the connection of the occupied territory with the free territories of Ukraine. Thirdly, it will signal to Ukrainian authorities that it is necessary to initiate the process of returning the peninsula to the control of Ukraine and  reintegrate it into Ukrainian society, and not just wait for the right moment to do so. After all, any editorial office providing its audience with truthful and impartial information about the situation in the occupied Crimea documents an important part of their own state’s history.

Covering Crimea-related topics calls for clear and strict security rules, both physical and digital. We offer a number of recommendations based on the journalists’ and editorial offices’ experience prioritizing the coverage of Crimean issues.

Part I. Covering Crimea-related topics

1.Avoid manipulations

Working with topics related to Crimea calls for the ability to distinguish between typical manipulations and avoid them.

Manipulation No 1. “Those in Crimea are traitors because they supported Russia”

It is widely believed that “the majority of Crimeans supported Russia in 2014” and are “traitors of Ukraine.” These beliefs came into being influenced by Russian propaganda. However, they can also be heard in Ukrainian media as one of the reasons for not covering Crimean matters.

Such judgments are manipulative because they are not backed up by any objective, factual data or research.

The last sociological survey of sentiment in the occupied Crimea was conducted in 2015 by GFK on behalf of the Free Crimea project of Ukrainian political technologist Taras Berezovets. According to it, 82% of the peninsula’s population  support “Crimea’s accession to Russia.” This survey was conducted by phone when there was still a fixed telephone connection with the occupied Crimea. But it contains a significant error. Because at that time, the Russian law enforcement system and repressive legislation was already ruling in Crimea and any appeals for non-recognition of Crimea as “Russian” were punishable by up to five years in prison. Under such conditions, the answers provided by Crimeans to sociologists over the phone cannot be considered honest and correct. Ukrainian experts, too, later called this study unrepresentative. So whether the majority of people in Crimea are really for Russia, whether they have pro-Russian views having lived for six years in the Russian realities is not known for sure. And it is unlikely to be known before de-occupation.

It should also be acknowledged that the specific perception of reality by some Crimeans before the annexation was caused by information stagnation, lack of active Ukrainian discourse and the ignoring of Crimea’s social and political situation on the part of most media and civil society in mainland Ukraine. This, too, created favorable conditions for the flourishing of Russian propaganda and a utopian, sentimental longing for the supposedly carefree Soviet times.

Many countries around the globe have faced the need for painful integration of problem areas or groups into the general social “body”. In such cases, simply rejecting, withdrawing, or pushing away is both the simplest and the worst course of action, since only active struggle strengthens and consolidates national identity.

Manipulation No 2. “Crimea is not interesting to Ukrainian audience.” Many Ukrainian editorial offices justify their disregard for Crimean matters on this basis. But it is more of a manifestation of the editors’ subjective attitude toward Crimea-related topics than an objective reality. As proved by the studies (20162018) by leading Ukrainian sociological organizations, the majority of citizens of our state continue to consider Crimea Ukrainian, suggesting the possibility of its returning to the control of Ukraine. Everything that is transpiring in Crimea concerns the citizens of Ukraine staying there and having connections with the residents of different regions of the country. Being part of Ukrainian media audience, they too need objective information about the life in Crimea.

Another reason why Crimean topics are interesting is the unique historical experience. Despite the tragic situation, Ukrainian media have a unique chance to study the lives of citizens in different realities, document international crimes against their country’s citizens, and study modern methods of influencing society in the XXI century of one of the most totalitarian countries in the world. This knowledge will be invaluable for many years to come.

Manipulation No 3. “There are no Ukrainians left in Crimea”

This can also be heard in the editorial offices of Ukrainian media. This judgment is based on numerous publicly available pictures and videos featuring pro-Russian activists with tricolors in their hands telling how happy they are to live in “Russian Crimea.” Conversely, there are almost no such videos stating a pro-Ukrainian position. It is very easy accounted for: despite the fact that Ukrainian symbols, including the flag, are not officially banned in Russia, public expression of a pro-Ukrainian position poses a threat to the inhabitants of the occupied Crimea. Most political prisoners who have gone or are going through Russian prisons and torture chambers never camouflaged their pro-Ukrainian views, openly calling Crimea Ukrainian. Their example was a signal of danger to many pro-Ukrainian people in Crimea. That is why Russian voices in Crimea are strong and loud – they are mainstream. Being “Russian” in Crimea is en vogue, “correct” and most importantly, safe. But being Ukrainian and especially declaring it means a risk to life and safety of your loved ones. However, in the six years of occupation, ties with Crimea have not been severed. Many of its residents are citizens of Ukraine associating themselves with her.

It is easy to notice Russian sentiments in Crimea because they are public and massive. But you need to be able to hear pro-Ukrainian voices carefully and cautiously. Among other things, scant Crimea’s news coverage by Ukrainian media does not allow them to be heard and seen.

2. Expand your Crimean contacts

If you think that traveling to Crimea is too risky for you and your editorial office, it should not be an obstacle to covering the peninsula’s life. Seek out your sources among the inhabitants of Crimea. There is an active civil movement there formed in the occupation years despite mass repressions, thanks to which the world can learn the truth about the situation under occupation. The Crimean Tatar association Crimean Solidarity is the most known active community. Its activists visit the trials of political prisoners, keep statistics of persecution, know about the repressive tendencies, being eye-witnesses to all changes.

The Ukrainian activists who established the Ukrainian Cultural Center in Crimea under occupation are less in number, but no less effective. They are well aware of humanitarian issues and can tell about the everyday life of the residents of Crimea in modern conditions.

One of the symbols of the Crimean resistance is archbishop of the Crimean Diocese of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine Klyment who also takes care of Crimean political prisoners. This is not a complete list of people who can be sources of truthful information for you despite the pressure from Russian security services.

3. Take care of your speakers’ safety

They know the local realities better than others and can tell how the statements made by the occupying power are at variance with the reality.

However, when communicating with them and quoting their words in your materials, be as careful as possible about your wording. Remember that they live in a territory where repressive Russian legislation applies specifically providing for criminal prosecution for not recognizing the “Russian status” of Crimea. Use your language prudently and responsibly, as it may affect the fate of your Crimean sources. Make sure to discuss the publication of their words in terms of whether these sources want to be named or remain anonymous.

4. Seek out qualified experts on Crimea

Sources of information about the situation in the occupied Crimea can be found in mainland Ukraine. But it is important to work with those experts who are really familiar with today’s realities of the peninsula. The very fact of being born there or forced to move out due to the occupation or having relatives in the occupied territory is not enough to consider the information obtained from such sources reliable and relevant to contemporary realities. Anyway, the situation on the peninsula is changing, and the markers used to track changes are not always clear or accessible to the average observer.

NGOs and human rights organizations working in mainland Ukraine are professional and reliable sources of information about the situation in Crimea. Most of them have on staff migrants from Crimea. These are professional people not relying in their judgments on subjective information obtained from their Crimean relatives or acquaintances, but on documents, evidence, facts, research, and their own work “in the field”.

The most well-known of such expert organizations are Crimean Human Rights GroupCrimean Tatar Resource CenterRegional Human Rights Center and others. They monitor the situation on the peninsula, are aware about all changes and trends and can speak about them in a professional way.

If you need to have an official position on the situation in Crimea, the state authorities of Crimea based in mainland Ukraine can be your source. These are the Representation of the President of Ukraine in the ARC, the Main Department of the National Police and the SBU in the ARC, the Prosecutor’s Office of the ARC and the Ministry for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories also overseeing Crimean matters, to name a few. Other sources providing information about the situation in Crimea can be the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People and the Crimean House, a state-owned enterprise headed by activist migrants from Crimea, and NGO Public Crimean Center for Business and Cultural Cooperation ‘Ukrainian House’ headed by former prisoner Andriy Shchekun.

Part II. Precaution, protection and sources

Safety first

Remember that Crimea is being controlled by Russian special services and a powerful law enforcement apparatus that clears the peninsula of any “hostile” or “undesirable” presence. This deters many from traveling to Crimea. Your editorial staff can choose from several options of working “in the field”, none of which will be ideal involving both the reputational and safety risks. There are three scenarios of physical presence in Crimea: your staff correspondent’s business trip, using the services of foreign correspondents or the services of local residents.

1. Staff correspondent

If your editorial office decides to send your correspondent or filming crew to Crimea, you must decide whether or not to formally comply with Russian law.

One of the aggressor state’s requirements is the accreditation of foreign journalists with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia as stipulated by Article 55 of the Law of Russia On Mass Media. These are the general legal requirements in Russia. Accreditation is required of any foreign media whose representatives work in Russia. Please note that accreditations are not issued exclusively for working in Crimea, allowing you to work anywhere in Russia. In this way, journalists receive legal status to perform their journalistic duties in Russia and in territories de facto, albeit illegally, controlled by it. Analogous to it can be a stamp in the passport from the Russian border guards obtained at the administrative border checkpoints, at the entrance to Crimea. Accreditation will also make it possible for you to cover trials of citizens of Ukraine, residents of Crimea – participants in political cases considered in the Southern District Military Court in Rostov-on-Don. This court considers all “terrorism” cases initiated by Russian security services in Crimea. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is reluctant to accredit Ukrainian media, so the focus should not be on Crimea.

An important point is that if a journalist is accredited in Russia, this can in no way be seen as recognizing the annexation and “Russian status” of Crimea or as legitimizing the illegal occupation. Under international law, the occupying power’s status in an international armed conflict is always temporary, and the illegality of the forced annexation is jus cogens (a peremptory norm). In addition, only states as subjects of international law, not independent media, have the power to recognize or not to recognize the status of territories or new entities. Another important factor is that such accreditation is mandatory, i.e. the media workers in fact are left with no other choice but to obey the administrative orders of the occupying country. Therefore, while the fact of accreditation is insignificant from the point of view of international law, Russia does not abandon attempts to establish certain practices and a “people’s diplomacy”, apparently hoping that it may help achieve other states’ recognition of the annexation, in favorable circumstances. That is why getting your media staff accredited in Russia is still a moral dilemma and can pose a serious reputational risk to your media.

If the editorial office decides in favor of journalists’ work without complying with Russian laws, given that Crimea is part of Ukraine, they may be prosecuted by Russia’s punitive bodies. Lack of accreditation is what Russian security services pay attention to in the first place, and this can lead to negative consequences.

If your correspondent does not have Russia’s accreditation, your journalistic work in Crimea will be best qualified as violating the procedure for providing a mandatory copy of documents (Article 13.23 of Russia’s Administrative Code) and illegal employment by a foreign or stateless person in Russia (Article 18.10 of the Administrative Code). In addition to the fines, the latter stipulates the expulsion of the offender from the country. Also, based on the search results and the materials revealed, journalists may be charged with crimes against the state entailing criminal charges. If your correspondent is detained in the occupied territories with filming equipment, you will not be able to convince the secret services that you are “just a tourist and filming nature.” Such cases are already built into muscle memory of the Russian security services.

A. Do not carry important information with you

When traveling to the occupied territories, keep in mind that, unlike civilized countries, there are special rules in the “gray zone” of the peninsula that do not comply with either Russian or international law. You must be prepared for different scenarios, so the filming process should be organized in such a way that you do not walk on the street or use transportation with your footage without previously made copies. Overall, it is desirable to immediately send the information filmed to the editorial office, so as not to lose it. Your data media should be new since the information deleted using software is usually left on the media until erased by new information. The same applies to mobile phones and other media. During your stay in Crimea, “disappear” from social networks. Close access to your page and log out of all accounts. It is best to have a primitive phone without unnecessary software and contact lists.

You should not send correspondents with significant “digital footprints” on the Internet, especially if they have been active in expressing their position – they will be the prey of the FSB and Russian propaganda.

B. Keep in touch with the outside world around the clock

In the occupied territory, it is necessary to organize the filming process in such a way that the correspondents constantly – day and night – are in touch with their editorial office. In case of unforeseen circumstances, the editorial office will be able to quickly find out about the problem and inform the authorities and human rights organizations in Ukraine so that they can help protect the correspondents. Make arrangements with those you trust in advance and report everything that happens to you. Install software that automatically sends SOS signals with your whereabouts.

2. Have your lawyers’ phones ready at hand

If you are detained in the occupied territories by local law enforcement bodies, do not resist. This will only complicate your situation, as you may be prosecuted for “resistance to the lawful actions of a law enforcement officer.”

Find a way to report the detention to someone you trust. Demand a call to your lawyer. This is your legal right and it sometimes works even under occupation.

The main thing is to have the phone numbers of the lawyers working in the occupied Crimea so that they can provide immediate help.

Overall, taking into account all the risks and expanding your Crimean contact base in accordance with our recommendations set out above, you will be able to create interesting and useful Crimea-related content without making dangerous trips.

2. Foreign correspondent

If your representative is not a citizen of Ukraine, she / he must have permission from the Ukrainian authorities to cross the administrative border with the occupied Crimea. To do this, you must contact the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine. According to Ukrainian law, entry and exit to the Crimea is possible only through road checkpoints set up in Kherson Oblast. Such cooperation may be safer but also more costly, in line with Ukrainian law.

3. Locals

If you engage a local resident / journalist, you should be aware that you are exposing her or him to danger, since it may qualify as espionage or terrorist activity for the secret services. Such collaboration is of the highest quality since local residents know the situation best, but it is also the most dangerous for them. If you engage such persons, you should protect them as much as possible from being identified, including through “digital footprints”. Crimean organizations should be consulted on such a decision at all times.


Separate opinion

by member of the Independent Media Council Roman Holovenko on Recommendation No 6 “Ukrainian terra incognita: how to write about the occupied Crimea without fakes and manipulations”


I cannot agree that obtaining accreditation for journalists from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation in order to cover the events in Crimea is presented in this Recommendation as normal conduct.

Firstly, such accreditation causes a certain form of control on the part of Russian authorities over journalists, since, during accreditation, they provide certain personal data, which, in particular, allows for tracking their whereabouts.

Secondly, although accreditation from Russian authorities for covering the events in Crimea is not in itself a legal recognition of its affiliation with Russia, the facts of such accreditation could be presented in the information space to facilitate the legalization of the peninsula’s annexation.

Having proper accreditation clearly simplifies journalists’ access to events or simply to the premises of the Russian occupation authorities in Crimea, but does this allow them to obtain more information compared to the amount of information available in Russian media?

There is another aspect to potential legal liability in Russia for the journalistic activities of foreign media representatives having no accreditation from the Russian Foreign Ministry. However, the journalistic profession is about collecting, creating, processing and disseminating mass information primarily in the interests of media audiences. Accreditation applies only to such a component of a journalist’s work as gathering information, while the need for journalists’ physical presence at the scene has been reduced in the last decade due to the development of information and communication technologies.

On the one hand, in order to receive comments, you can now seek out the right person (participant, witness, expert) on social networks or elsewhere and interview them remotely via video conferencing. On the other hand, social networks are already producing more information than mass media. Therefore, at the stage of gathering information, journalistic work is increasingly reduced not so much to documenting facts at the scene, but to the ability to seek out the necessary information that has already been published on the Internet to further verify and present it to the audience along with other important information (event context, a different point of view when covering conflicts, comments, etc.). With nearly everyone having a smartphone, socially significant information will be documented mainly by ordinary citizens, not by journalists and cameramen. Although this does not mean that journalism can be reduced to merely copying information from social networks.

Therefore, the comparison of the shortcomings and opportunities provided by said accreditation of journalists covering Crimean issues, in my opinion, is clearly not more in favor of accreditation, so it can be acceptable only in extreme cases.

Member of the Independent Media Council                            R.B. Holovenko