Russian authorities on April 1 shut down a television channel for Muslim Crimean Tatars, a Turkic ethnic group that opposed Moscow's seizure of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, despite an outcry from activists and the West.
ATR television channel was forced to go off air after Russia's state media regulator refused to give it a broadcasting license,.
The move also caused outrage in Kiev, with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tweeting: "You can shut down the channel but you cannot stop the Crimean Tatars' desire for freedom and the truth". The closure of a media outlet that served the Tatar minority for nearly a decade is the latest salvo in Russia's crackdown on the largely pro-Ukrainian community that has also included raids on the channel's offices.
"We stopped broadcasting at midnight," the channel's deputy general director, Lilya Budzhurova, told to reporters.
Budzhurova, who also reports for Agence France-Presse, said the staff of more than 200 people have refused to give up and were looking for ways to keep the media outlet alive in some form.
"If someone thinks that they can kill the channel -- which is one of a kind in the world -- then they are mistaken."
Since their annexation of Crimea the new Russian authorities have detained Tatar activists, evicted them from their local assembly and accused ATR, which broadcasts in Russian, Tatar and Ukrainian, of extremism.
"These are trying times for us," Sevgil Musayeva-Borovyk, a Crimean Tatar who edits Kyiv-based online newspaper, wrote on social media.
Speaking to Ukraine Today before broadcasting came to an end, Ibraim Umerov, a spokesman for Crimean Tatars in Ukrainian capital Kyiv, described what ATR is for the Muslim minority Tatar community."First it is damage for Crimean Tatars. Because it is their first TV channel. It is like their spirit, they're voice, and if they will lose this, it's like they will lose a big part of their life."
Musayeva-Borovyk said ATR was "the only Crimean Tatar channel which spoke about the culture and history of our people, which broadcast in our native language that unites us."
The Crimean Tatars, who have a distinct language and culture, make up around 13 percent of the population of the Black Sea peninsula.
There are about 300,000 Tatars, who are Muslims, among the two million people in Crimea, and local officials openly accuse Tatars of working against Russian interests.
The Tatars were exiled by Stalin to Central Asia during World War II, with almost half perishing in harsh conditions. They only returned to Crimea at the end of Soviet rule.
The US State Department Spokeswoman condemned Russia's closure of various Crimean Tatar media outlets, including ATR TV Channel. In a statement, Marie Harf said:
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has slammed pressure on the channel as "intrusion" against media.
The Kremlin has denied any discrimination against the Tatars.
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