Crimea: the women who fight for press freedom despite the serious risks they face

Does freedom of expression enable and protect other human rights? UNESCO says yes, choosing ‘freedom of expression as a driver of all human rights’ as the theme of the 30th World Press Freedom Day celebrated today. But freedom of expression is under global pressure. Reporters Without Borders describes  2023 as a year in which artificial intelligence challenges freedom of information, as does political actors’ involvement in misinformation, propaganda, and fake content in many countries. The organisation’s World Press Freedom Index 2023 classifies the state of journalism as ‘bad’ in 7 out of 10 countries, meaning that it is ‘satisfactory’ only in 3 out of 10 countries.

The current press freedom situation in Ukraine is particularly precarious due to the physical dangers facing journalists in the context of Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine as well as the attacks on communications infrastructure by Russian forces. Particularly in territories under Russian occupational control, such as Crimea, Kremlin propaganda and silencing of Ukrainian media seriously threaten freedom of the media and expression. In this context,  the work of independent and citizen journalists is crucial. Often, such journalists are the only sources of reliable information. But their work comes at great risk, with women journalists being particularly vulnerable to abuse, and many having dropped their profession or left.

Accounts of Crimea-based women journalists illustrate the findings of ‘The Chilling’, a major – and indeed chilling – study, published by the International Center for Journalists and UNESCO last year, which found that women journalists are disproportionate targets of online hate speech and abuse worldwide. Nearly three in four surveyed women journalists reported experiencing such abuse, which often is very personal and contains highly gendered components, such as slut shaming (stigmatising women for allegedly promiscuous or sexually provocative behaviour) or threats of sexual violence.

Crimean journalist Anastasia Zhvyk, a native of Sevastopol who is affiliated with the independent Meduza outlet, has been subjected to multiple forms of intimidation and harassment.  Right after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine started in February 2022, she was fined for “discrediting the Russian army” for having a “No to war” sticker on her car. On the day of the Crimean Bridge explosion in October 2022, police officers made their way into the apartment Zhvyk shares with her parents, confiscating her phone and laptop. A social media post which questioned the legality of the bridge was enough to land her in police detention, where she was interrogated and accused of working for ‘’foreign agents’’ before she was allowed to go. When information about her case was published on a nationalist website, hate messages and death threats started flooding in. “We’re going to stab you and bury you,” read one of the many abusive messages Zhvyk received, which she understood as “stop criticising Russia.” Shortly after this, she took her yellow Lada and dog Molly, left Crimea and managed to escape to Germany. Later, in December 2022, after she had already left, Zhvyk was the first person in occupied Crimea to be registered as a ‘’foreign agent’’ under repressive Russian legislation in force. 

Crimean journalist Iryna Danylovych, also working as a nurse, focused on exposing the poor state of the healthcare system in Crimea under Russian occupation. In April 2022, she was abducted by Russian law enforcement officers in civilian clothes during her commute and taken to a pre-trial detention centre in Simferopol, where she was unlawfully detained and subjected to beatings and death threats. She faced trumped-up  charges of  ‘illegal possession of explosives’ and   was  denied the right to a fair trial, with the case against her being based on false accusations and witness testimonies. In December 2022, the local occupation court of Feodosia found Danylovych guilty of the charges initiated against her and sentenced her to seven years in prison and a 50,000 ruble fine. The appeal hearing by the Russia-backed Supreme Court of Crimea took place on 2 May 2023, as a result of which the case was referred back to the initial court. Danylovych currently remains in pre-trial detention pending the re-examination of her case.

During her time in detention, Danylovych contracted a serious ear infection and almost lost her hearing due to systematic refusal of access to medical care, which made her unable to understand what was said in the courtroom during her trial. Danylovych still suffers from  serious ear pain and tinnitus, which she described to her father as “standing close to an aircraft engine.” Instead of granting her access to  adequate medical aid,  staff in the pre-trial detention centre told her  to “cut her veins.” By means of a dry hunger strike starting on 21 March 2023, Danylovych protested the inhumane treatment she had to withstand. After over two weeks, she was allowed a short medical examination and ended her hunger strike. However, the doctor confirmed a 50% probability of Danylovych losing her hearing due to the lack of prompt medical assistance. 

Both Anastasia Zhvyk and Iryna Danylovych worked tirelessly to ensure access to reliable and independent information about developments in occupied Crimea, being well aware of the risks that come with this job. The facts that one of them was forced to flee the peninsula after facing harassment and numerous death threats and that the other one has been held  unlawfully behind bars for more than a year and been subjected to  inhumane treatment show how alarming the state of media freedom in occupied Crimea is. The dangerous work of Zhvyk, Danylovych, and their peers  deserves particular recognition on this World Press Freedom Day.