Four days ago, on Feb. 10, the ATR television channel began broadcasting a live stream of its empty, dark studio. The channel had to halt operations after the Ukrainian Treasury froze its financial assistance over its failure to comply with public procurement law.
The news sparked an outcry. ATR is a Crimean Tatar television channel and features broadcasts in the native language of the Crimean peninsula’s indigenous people. Since Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, the broadcaster has been a lifeline for a people who increasingly find themselves dispersed across Ukraine and even abroad. An estimated 246,000 Crimean Tatars lived on the peninsula, with at least another 30,000 in mainland Ukraine.
But that lifeline may soon be lost.
In addition, in January, the government shut down Ukraine’s UATV international broadcaster to make way for a new television channel targeting Kremlin-occupied Donbas. UATV’s closure meant the end of its Crimean Tatar service.
Meanwhile, a recent statement by David Arakhamiya, leader of the ruling Servant of the People faction in parliament, has left the Crimean Tatar community worried. Arakhamiya said he would consider resuming water supplies to Crimea, which Ukraine shut off after Russia’s annexation, in exchange for the Kremlin backing off from the Donbas.
With the Crimean Tatar media space shrinking and amid talks of concessions over the occupied peninsula, the Crimean Tatar community increasingly wonders whether Ukrainian government still stands with them.
Like many opponents of Russia’s takeover of Crimea, ATR was forced out of its home in 2015 after the Kremlin-appointed authorities suspended its broadcasting license.
After relocating to Kyiv, ATR received Hr 50 million (around $2 million) a year in aid from the state. This was over half of the channel’s annual budget of Hr 90 million, according to general director Lenur Islyamov. The rest came from sponsorships and grants. The channel didn’t have any commercial advertising.
In February, ATR received an installment of Hr 8.4 million (over $340,000) from the Ministry of Culture. But the Treasury ordered the money frozen. The officials decided that since the privately-owned TV channel received budgetary support, it had to hold open tenders for content production, according to the public procurement law.
Islyamov called the requirement absurd given that the Russian authorities regularly prosecute and jail dissenting voices and opposition journalists in Crimea. ATR has to hide the identities of its sources on the peninsula for their own safety, he said.
“We have to put out a call for a tender for filming in the occupied Crimea. Then we will have to disclose the names of reporters and put them at risk,” he told the Kyiv Post.
Culture Minister Volodymyr Borodyansky, who also oversees information policy, offered a tepid response, calling the conflict with ATR “a disagreement over the interpretation of the law” and saying they are looking for a solution.
Islyamov disagrees. He believes there are hidden forces that want to silence his channel. He has already laid off almost half of ATR’s 100-person staff.
“This is a huge blow to Ukraine in the information war,” he said.
Attitudes toward ATR in the Crimean Tatar community are varied, but many say the channel has served as a rare connection between mainland Ukraine and audiences in Crimea.
“This undermines the trust in Ukraine of Crimeans who are still loyal to it,” said Sevgil Musayeva, a Crimean Tatar journalist and chief editor of the Ukrainska Pravda news site, voicing a common sentiment. “They already see how little is being done from the Ukrainian side and feel forgotten. This serves them as a proof.”
ATR and its sister radio station Meydan are among six broadcasters that focus on Crimea and are accessible there. Part of their coverage is in Crimean Tatar, which the United Nations has included to its list of seriously endangered languages.
They are currently the only channels reporting the Ukrainian point of view in occupied Crimea. They are going up against a massive pool of Kremlin-funded propaganda outlets and pro-Russian Crimean Tatar media.
Since January, 23 Ukrainian TV channels have encrypted their satellite signals in a move to fight piracy. This means viewers in the occupied territories of Donbas and Crimea are no longer able to watch those channels for free.
While the Donbas will soon have a new TV channel with entertainment content from the major Ukrainian media groups, there’s no indication that the new broadcaster will also be available in Crimea.
Over six years of the illegal occupation, Ukrainian television’s interest in Crimea has dwindled.
In January 2018, the subject of Crimea accounted for 0.1% of the total weekly coverage on major Ukrainian TV channels, including the only public broadcaster.
Two years later, the problem remains: Monitoring of daily newscasts on the eight most-watched Ukrainian TV channels revealed a record low amount of coverage of Crimea. In January, there were only two reports on the peninsula when Russia was testing its hypersonic missile in the Black Sea.
“Ukrainian TV news producers didn’t find it worth covering other events in the Russia-occupied region,” the Detector Media watchdog wrote.
The lack of coverage is partly attributed to the challenges journalists have faced while reporting from the peninsula.
In January, Ukrainian journalist Taras Ibragimov, who covered the detentions and trials of Crimean Tatar activists, was banned from entering Crimea until 2054. Prior to the ban, he had been arrested four times.
No strategy for Crimea
Almost immediately after its annexation, Crimea was overshadowed by other, more pressing developments: bloody warfare in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas. The Crimean peninsula’s return was never included in the Minsk peace agreements to end the war in the east.
Moreover, over six years, Ukraine has not created a comprehensive national strategy for the de-occupation of the peninsula.
“There are no clear-cut answers for what to do with Crimea. I feel the uncertainty,” said Alim Aliev, a program director at the Crimean House cultural organization in Kyiv.
Former President Petro Poroshenko was a vocal advocate for the Crimean Tatars on the international stage and gave them visibility in the parliament and the government. However, he didn’t come up with a plan for returning Crimea to Ukrainian control.
As for President Volodymyr Zelensky, he promised to bring peace to the Donbas and pushed for the reboot of the stalled Minsk agreements and negotiations with Russia. This made many Crimeans feel that their homeland had been reduced to a low priority.
Some statements by high-ranking officials have fueled concerns that the current administration could even cede Crimea for the sake of regaining control over Donbas.
First, in a Feb. 5 interview, Anton Korynevych, Zelensky’s representative to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, said that “Ukraine isn’t ready for the return of Crimea.”
Then, Servant of the People’s Arakhamiya went even further on a live political talk show on Feb. 11. He said that he would agree to resume the water supply to Crimea if the Kremlin withdrew its armed forces from the Donbas and let Ukraine take control over its eastern border.
That statement sparked outrage in the Crimean Tatar community, where the general sentiment holds that resuming the water supply means admitting defeat to Russia and giving up any hope of returning Crimea to Ukraine.
Along with other economic sanctions, Ukraine shut off the water supply from the mainland to Crimea in 2015 in retaliation for Russia’s illegal annexation. Water shortages have been the main challenge for the Russian authorities in administering Crimea, making the water supply Ukraine’s only leverage in efforts to return the peninsula.
“The occupation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas are inseparable links in one chain,” said Musayeva.
The presidential office has attempted to play down Arakhamiya’s comments. On Feb. 12, Andriy Yermak, Zelensky’s recently appointed chief of staff, said that the party leader was simply expressing his personal opinion.
But many disagree. As a lawmaker and leader of the largest party in the parliament, Arakhamiya should know his words are taken seriously — especially abroad, said Aliev.
It sends a signal to Ukraine’s international partners that they can ease up on Russia, he added.
“Such impetuous remarks are dangerous because they suggest that Ukraine has begun the process of concessions, the process of ceding Crimea,” said Eskender Bariiev, head of the Crimean Tatar Resource Center in Kyiv.