WASHINGTON - RFE/RL contributor Mykola Semena was formally presented an indictment by Russian authorities on charges of “separatism” on January 20, in a case that has come to symbolize the suppression of media freedom in Russia-annexed Crimea.
The indictment, citing Article 280.1 of Russia's criminal code, states that an article written by Semena in September 2015 in which he opposed Russia’s occupation of Crimea contained “calls to action aimed at violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.”
Semena has been under criminal investigation since April 2016, when Russian security agents conducted a search of his apartment and the homes of six other journalists. Currently barred by authorities from leaving Crimea, he faces a potential prison sentence of five years.
In a January 24 statement deploring the deterioration of media freedom in conflict zones in Ukraine, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunya Mijatovic raised Semena’s case specifically, saying it “reminds us all of the arbitrary practice of silencing critical voices in Crimea.” She said, “It is totally unacceptable to persecute the journalist for expressing his views,” and demanded that the charges against him be dropped.
RFE/RL President Thomas Kent has assailed the charges as “part of a concerted effort by Russian and Russian-backed authorities to obstruct RFE/RL’s journalistic mission to provide an independent press to residents of Crimea."
The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv has condemned the case as evidence of “the Russian government’s growing crackdown on independent voices in Russia and Russia-occupied Crimea.” The International and European Federations of Journalists (IFJ and EFJ) have called the charges against Semena “unfounded.”
Human rights groups, which deny Semena has committed any crime, have demanded that the charges be dropped and restrictions on his travel be lifted to permit him to receive urgently needed medical treatment in Kyiv.
No trial date has yet been set.
Semena was recently awarded the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum’s Pavel Sheremet Journalism Award in absentia in Brussels on November 28, and the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine’s Igor Lyubchenko Press Freedom Award on November 2. Crimea Realities, the RFE/RL website to which he contributes that covers the peninsula, was a recipient of the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ 2016 David Burke Award.
Crimea Realities is published on the web in the Crimean Tatar, Ukrainian, and Russian languages and broadcast on medium wave radio. Despite being blocked by a majority of internet providers under orders from the peninsula’s Moscow-backed prosecutor’s office, residents continue to access the website, logging nearly 20 million visits in 2016.