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Crimean Tatar TV Counts Minutes To Impending Shutdown

Crimean Tatar TV channel ATR has placed a countdown clock on-screen during its broadcasts.
Crimean Tatar TV channel ATR has placed a countdown clock on-screen during its broadcasts.

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine -- There is only one Crimean Tatar-language television channel in the world -- Simferopol's ATR television. But on April 1, this endangered species just might become extinct.

"We'll come to work as usual on April 1," ATR journalist Safie Ablyayeva says. "But we have no idea what we'll find, since we have just as much information as all Crimean Tatars."

ATR is currently broadcasting with a running countdown clock ticking down the seconds until the station's license expires. More than 190,000 people have responded to an online poll on the station's website, with over 99 percent expressing support for the channel.

Under Russian law -- which has been in force in the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea since Moscow's internationally unrecognized annexation of it in March 2014 -- ATR must register with the Russian telecoms oversight agency, Roskomnadzor, by April 1 or lose its right to broadcast.

But registering has turned out not to be as easy as one might have hoped. The Russian authorities have already sent ATR's paperwork back three times for corrections or additions.

"A month passes and then they give us some sort of formal objection," ATR General Director Elzara Islyamova told RFE/RL's Current Time television. "We either answer their question or make some sort of change and then resubmit and again we get a 30-day pause. You see, they can find such formal objections to delay the application for 100 years if they want."

The de facto authorities in Crimea, however, see things differently, arguing that ATR is intentionally trying to attract attention to itself. Sergei Aksyonov, head of the executive branch of the Russian government in Crimea, told a recent press conference that "they are purposefully trying to create a precedent by preventing Roskomnadzor from issuing the documents. They are making mistakes on purpose in order to create a conflict around the station."

The authorities have also refused to renew the license of QHA, a popular Tatar news agency. In January, law enforcement agencies raided ATR and confiscated some archival material and computer files.

ATR General Director Islyamova is certain the channel is being harassed for its editorial line. "Our policy is to show what is happening each day -- all the events that happen in Crimea," she says. "We, of course, cover social and economic problems among Crimean Tatars and all other groups in Crimea. Of course, there are moments when we are not pleasing the authorities."

Crimean Tatar activists and international human rights organizations charge that the Crimean Tatar community has been subjected to harassment since Russia annexed Crimea. Earlier this month, Amnesty International wrote that Crimea Tatars have been subjected to an "unrelenting campaign of intimidation" because of their unwillingness to recognize Russia's control over Crimea.

"The current government in Crimea doesn't want us to develop," says Zair Smedlyayev, the head of the election commission of the Crimean Tatar Kurultai, or governing assembly. "They want us simply to disappear as a nation. I am certain, though, that somehow we will manage to keep the channel [ATR] running."

ATR says negotiations with the authorities are still continuing and there remains a chance the station will not be forced off the air on April 1.

"Maybe we should start a petition of residents, of Crimean Tatars," one Simferopol local told Current Time television. "Most likely everyone will be against closing it down. It is the only Crimean Tatar channel."

Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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