Silencing Dissent: Russia Finds Top Crimean Journalist Guilty of “Separatism”
25 September, 2017

On September 22, a Russian court declared Mykola Semena, one of the most well-known journalists in Crimea, guilty of “separatism.” The judge sentenced Semena to a 2.5-year suspended sentence and three years of probation.

The ruling effectively brings the Russian “authorities” long-standing efforts to silence the journalist to a successful conclusion. Since January, when Russia opened the case against Semena, he has been deprived of his ability to work. Now, he will face a three years of restrictions on “public activity” — including journalism.

Regarded as one of the best journalists in Crimea, Semena published his first article as a schoolboy in 1967. For the next fifty years, he worked as a correspondent and photographer for publications like the Ukrainian newspaper “Den” (“Day”) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) rounded up Semena and a number of Crimean journalists for “conversations” about their professional activities.

This was just the beginning. The FSB also began monitoring the office of RFE/RL’s Krym Realii (Crimea Realities) site, where Semena worked. A virus infected his computer and sent all of his information to the FSB. It also periodically took screenshots of his desktop as he was working on articles.

READ MORE: How Crimea Became a Testing Ground for Russia’s Surveillance Technology

In this way, the FSB obtained hundreds of images of Semena’s work, which became the “evidence” against him. Last spring, FSB agents arrested him.

On April 19, 2016, a prosecutor in annexed Crimea opened a criminal case against Semena based upon an article he wrote about Ukraine’s civic blockade of the peninsula. The prosecutor accused Semena of “threatening Russia’s territorial integrity.” Besides screenshots from his computer, the case lacked almost any other substantial evidence, the journalist’s lawyers say.

Semena was kept in Crimea under travel restrictions. Without a judicial ruling, Russia’s Federal Financial Monitoring Service also included his name on a list of “extremists.” In January 2017, Semena was finally handed an indictment on charges of “separatism.” The prosecution initially requested a three-year suspended sentence.

The case materials against Semena reportedly included denunciations from former colleagues, who allegedly testified to his “disloyalty.” However, the journalist’s colleagues in Ukraine, Russia, and Europe continue to express their support for him.

Photo credit: Alina Smytko/ (RFE/RL)

Journalists’ unions have also called for Semena’s release and for him to be allowed to travel to Kyiv for medical treatment. Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE Representative for Media Freedom, also demanded that the criminal case against Semena be dropped. And Ukraine has called on Russia to end Semena’s prosecution.

Although Semena will not be sent to prison, his guilty verdict last week represents the suppression of another independent voice in Crimea.

Earlier this spring, Hromadske spoke with Mykola Semena — then under house arrest — about his impending trial, his decades of media experience, and the state of affairs in Crimea.

Where does your case stand now? At what stage is your criminal case? What’s at its core?

The core of the case is that, on behalf of the Russian Federation, I’m am being charged with writing the article “Blockade – the Necessary First Step in the Liberation of Crimea,” published on the site Krym.Realii, [because] this article seems to contain calls for the violation of Russia’s territorial integrity. We are denying this fact, saying that it was simply part of the global discussion on the status of Crimea. Article 29 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation gives every person the right to express their opinion on any problem, at any time. On the site, the article was published under the heading “opinion,” which fully corresponds with the constitution.

Therefore, we are arguing that there was no crime in my actions. The lawyers already filed four motions to stop the case due to the absence of a crime, but so far the investigation has denied this. And now the discussion will be moved to the courtroom.

And what could you face?

According to article 280.1 — which is included in the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation and under which I am incriminated — up to five years in prison.

Can you work as a journalist now?

No, I can’t. Because they placed restrictions on me leaving Crimea and “on good behavior.” This wording, “good behavior,” prevents me from doing everything I did before. Yes, it’s practically a ban on [my] profession. Therefore, I am engaged with my own court case. We hope that we can prove our case.

How many years have you worked as a journalist? How old were you when you started?

My first newspaper article was published in 1967. You can count, how long I’ve been a journalist... [he smiles].

Fifty years already?

It was in school, in the eighth or ninth grade. It turns out I’ve been in the media for half a century. I’ve worked in Crimea for more than thirty years at least. And all that time as a journalist.

Photo credit: Alina Smytko/ (RFE/RL)

What was your first article about?

It was a school look at the significance of monuments in our lives. I compared monuments and perceptions of them. It seemed to me that monuments had something of their own separate life, which affects how people perceive the world, in educational terms.

How were these three years [after the annexation of Crimea] special for you? Now, many are comparing this time with the way things were in the Soviet Union.

No. Of course, you can make this comparison, for the sake of curiosity. But...after the breakup of the Soviet Union, journalism entered a new stage, marked by an incomparably higher level of freedom of speech. It was possible to write about the things you couldn’t write about in the Soviet Union.

As for the years 2014–2016, in those years I worked more intensively than ever before in my life. I was giving no less that five or six reports from Crimea to the [Ukrainian] newspaper Den [The Day]. And also from 15 to 25 [reports] to the site Krym.Realii [RFE/RL]. These were surveys of all the life that I saw around me in Crimea.

It’s clear that I only wrote the truth, how it actually was, and many didn’t like this. We saw everything that was happening around [us]. We understood that there would be some kind of harassment but we hoped that it wouldn’t reach repression, firstly. And secondly, we hoped there would be conditions for working in one way or another.

We even had an office at Krym.Realii where a lot of people worked, we cooperated with them. Once, when I was going into the office, I saw a video camera placed over the door that was registering everyone who went there. On the other hand, in March 2014 the new “authorities” had already made a list of undesirable journalists and undesirable media, which was reported to all the heads of enterprises, industries, ministries, etc. It included specific orders not to provide the journalists from the list with any information. We weren’t admitted to press conferences or allowed to enter press centers.

They didn’t give us any press releases or information. In this case they wanted to cut us off from all life. We mastered new methods of working. Many journalists simply left because they didn’t see possibilities for themselves for work. But I understood, myself and many colleagues who stayed here, that our value lay precisely on the fact that we could give “hot” material specifically from Crimea. We believed that if we were to leave, it would be desertion. We could not afford such professional negligence — to leave our readers, not to provide them with honest information. But later, we felt more repression.

What are you planning now?

I hope that to some extent I will be able to defend my position in court. And then, depending on the verdict we will see what happens next.

What, from your point of view, do people who haven’t been here in the last three years need to know about Crimea?

The most important [thing] that people in Ukraine need to know about Crimea is that in these last years a catastrophic regression has taken place in Crimea in all sectors – in social and in economic life.

Of course, the “authorities” and the journalists under their control paint a positive picture of everything taking place. Through TV broadcasts, radio, and newspapers, the “authorities” prove that they are working around the clock to improve the lives of Crimeans. But in fact, Crimeans are being subject to ever higher taxes, prices are rising. For the money that Crimeans earn now you can’t buy half of what they could buy with Ukrainian money at the beginning of 2014.

Most of the oppression occurred in public life: it’s forbidden to form independent civil organizations, it’s forbidden to work as an independent journalist, it’s forbidden to take an active role in public life, otherwise the police or FSB will come for you immediately. If you merely don’t praise the “successes of the authorities.” People saw that they were simply deceived. They promised a lot, but none of the benefits have appeared compared to 2013. National minorities are especially targeted.

Education has been brought to an anecdotal state. Children are taught in such a way that they wouldn’t dream of teaching children in Ukraine. And they promised free medicine...they said that, with Russia, Crimea would receive free medicine...but it’s actually very expensive. And there, where it is free, people can receive help — even in emergency situations – after half a year, after a year — because of enormous lines, lack of necessary medications, a deficit of doctors [and] medical institutions. And all of this speaks to the fact that the Crimean population's discontent will grow. Therefore, one way or another, the “authorities” will come to a crisis and fail.

BACKGROUND: In February 2014, after the ousting of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, clashes erupted between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian protesters in Crimea. On February 27, Russian special forces, dressed in unmarked green uniforms, began seizing control over key government buildings in the peninsula. While the Crimean parliament building was occupied, the parliamentarians voted — some at gunpoint — to terminate the Crimean government and schedule a referendum on Crimean independence. The illegal referendum was held on March 16 to broad international condemnation. Around 95 percent of participating voters reportedly cast their ballots for independence, according to the peninsula’s separatist officials. Three days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Crimean separatist leaders signed a draft treaty admitting Crimea into the Russian Federation. The treaty was subsequently ratified by the Russian legislature.

/Translated & Adapted by Eilish Hart