Dangerous Reporting: A series of profiles about foreign journalists imprisoned, in hiding, or silenced by courts for reporting on the most sensitive subjects in their countries
By MAEVE DUNIGAN
Capital News Service
COLLEGE PARK, Maryland – In the early morning of April 19, 2016, Russian forces, some donning balaclavas to mask their identities, forced their way into journalist Mykola Semena’s home in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea.
They ransacked his home office until a computer hacker among them found an external disc drive hidden in a shelf behind some books, Semena told Capital News Service in an email. It contained nearly every article from his award-winning, 50-year career, as well as his current freelance work for the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
“I’ve finished my work!” Semena, 67, said he remembers the hacker exclaiming before an investigator began writing a report on the search.
On the same day, Russian authorities raided the homes of seven other Crimean journalists suspected of filing stories for RFE/RL’s “Crimea Realities,” a website which had been set up shortly after Russia invaded and occupied Crimea in 2014.
In a bid to deny their ability to continue to work in Crimea, authorities also banned the reporters from news conferences and public events. But only Semena was arrested and his name added to a list of Crimean residents labeled “terrorists or extremists.”
He was charged with separatism and violating Russia’s territorial integrity by writing articles opposing Russia’s occupation and calling for an international blockade to end it.
Semena was not allowed to leave Crimea during the course of the investigation. In September 2017, he was found guilty and given a two-and-a-half year suspended sentence. He was also banned for three years from practicing “public activities,” which has been interpreted to mean journalism.
“I acknowledged (in court) that I was indeed the author of this text, but I do not admit I was guilty because there are no violations of the laws in this text or in any other texts,” he told CNS.
Semena’s case is only one example of how Russia has tried to eliminate independent media in Crimea by forcefully quieting opposition to its occupation.
The Embassy of the Russian Federation to the United States has declined to comment on any of this information.
Working in retirement
An award-winning journalist, Semena started working as a reporter in the 1980s. He worked for publications including Izvestiya, a Russian newspaper, as well as Den, a prominent centrist Ukrainian newspaper. He was awarded the title of Honored Journalist of Ukraine in 2009.
Semena retired seven years ago at the age of 60 but continued to write as a contributor for RFE/RL’s “Crimea Realities.”
About four years into his retirement, Russia annexed Crimea, the southern peninsula of Ukraine jutting into the Black Sea. In September 2015, Semena published an opinion article calling for a continued economic blockade of the Russian-occupied peninsula. This article was in response to a previous piece posted on the site opposing the blockade.
“The blockade must be complete, systemic and must be designed to be immediately followed by release,” he wrote. “Kyiv should not allow for Crimea to remain under Russian occupation longer than under the German one,” a reference to World War II.
A revolution with a price
In February 2014, Ukraine’s capital city, Kiev, became home to a revolution. Thousands of protesters marched in the streets, demanding that their country cease the corruption they attributed to then-President Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In November, Yanukovych had announced he was suspending talks with the European Union regarding a trade agreement that would have benefitted Ukraine by opening its borders to EU products and easing travel restrictions.
Yanukovych worried about the potential of sacrificing trade with Russia. His choice infuriated many Ukrainians. Protesters demanded that Yanukovych resign.
Peaceful anti-government demonstrations soon turned violent. After a series of clashes between protesters and police, Yanukovych resigned and fled to Russia. Soon after, Putin deployed Russian troops to Crimea, where they seized the Crimean Parliament in Simferopol.
“The overthrow of Yanukovych dealt a severe blow to Putin’s geopolitical ambitions,” wrote Russian human rights activist Mikhail Savva, in a translated response to CNS questions. Savva, who lives in Ukraine, also is a political scientist and an expert on Semena’s case.
As the country recuperated in the aftermath of a revolution, Russian troops inched closer. On March 18, 2014, Russia declared it had annexed Crimea.
The annexation is considered illegal under international law. Following the annexation, the United States and the EU imposed sanctions against the Russian government and certain individuals and businesses.
“Russian authorities violated their own legislation during the annexation of…Crimea,” wrote Savva.
Western ideals clash with Russian force
Semena’s arrest was not the first time he had dealt with Russian authorities, he said.
In May 2014, shortly after Russia invaded Crimea, Semena was having a meeting with a Polish journalist in a Crimean Tatar café when he was detained by Russian intelligence officers who had been following the Polish journalist.
“This detention became the first signal for me,” Semena wrote. “I realized the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (was) wiretapping my phones.”
Within weeks of the Russian occupation of Crimea, RFE/RL established “Crimea Realities,” which is “independent news, information that people can’t get otherwise, information that allows them to figure out what’s going on around them,” said RFE/RL spokesman Martins Zvaners.
RFE/RL President Thomas Kent has made several statements on Semena’s situation in an attempt to raise international awareness.
“The case against Mykola Semena is part of an orchestrated effort by Russian authorities in Crimea to silence independent voices there,” he said in a video posted by RFE/RL in September. “It’s also intended to obstruct the journalistic mission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.”
According to Maryana Drach, the Ukrainian Director of RFE/RL, the media organization has also been co-funding Semena’s legal defense.
Ukraine has one of the most progressive legal frameworks protecting media freedom of any country in Eastern Europe, according to Freedom House, a U.S.-based advocacy organization.
However, Crimea is no longer part of that framework. Occupying Russian forces shut down many media outlets and replaced them with Russian news sources. Being a journalist in Crimea is now difficult and dangerous.
The United States and Ukraine relationship was established soon after Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. According to the U.S. Department of State, the relationship is based on cooperation in areas of defense, security and trade.
“I think that the United States has been very supportive of Ukraine in terms of the current situation,” said Roman Popadiuk, the first United States ambassador to Ukraine from 1992 to 1993, referring to economic support, humanitarian assistance to those who have been displaced by the Russian occupation and military support to Ukrainian forces.
In May, President Donald Trump assured Ukraine of American support and that the United States would continue the blockade.
On Sept. 25, the State Department released a statement that “the United States is deeply troubled by the decision of a court in Russian-occupied Crimea against Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist Mykola Semena.”
The statement added that “Crimea remains an integral part of Ukraine, and the United States remains steadfast in its support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.”
The physical toll of detainment
Semena was not allowed to leave Crimea while the criminal investigation was underway, even though he required surgery for a heart condition. In fact, he had to have permission just to travel outside the city of Simferopol.
“I still periodically go through supportive care courses that provide temporary relief,” he wrote. “But (they) do not eliminate the need for more effective treatment.”
Semena still strongly believes in the importance of unbiased Crimean media.
He wrote that Crimean journalists must continue to “distinguish reliable information from propaganda” and “be able to assess Crimean events from the standpoint of international law and human values.”
“You need to be able to see the truth,” he wrote.