WASHINGTON -- Two high-profile events in New York and Kyiv today indicate increasing public pressure for the release of imprisoned Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Ukrainian journalist Stanislav Aseyev, a case that has become emblematic of the Russia-backed separatist conflict in Ukraine’s eastern region.
PEN America dedicated its annual event marking the Day of the Imprisoned Writer (also known as “Empty Chair Day”) to Aseyev at a rally at noon in front of the Russian Consulate in New York. The event, co-sponsored by the activist group Razom for Ukraine, drew a crowd that included PEN America President Jennifer Egan, former RFE/RL President Tom Kent, writer Gary Shteyngart, members of the Ukrainian diaspora, and PEN America members and partners, who took turns reciting excerpts from Aseyev’s reporting.
PEN Ukraine, “Tyzhden” (The Day) magazine, and the Center for Civil Liberties, which played a leading role in the global #SaveOlegSentsov campaign, sponsored a coordinated Empty Chair Day event on Aseyev's behalf in Kyiv. The event featured readings and performances by Ukrainian journalists, writers, musicians, and human rights defenders, including actress Irma Vitovska-Vantsa, RFE/RL Donbas.Realii editor Andriy Dikhtiarenko, singer Oleg Kadanov, and former political prisoner Ihor Kozlovskiy.
RFE/R President Jamie Fly welcomed the events. "Despite disinformation, despite false charges, these events in support of Stas show that truth matters, and that those who write and expose the truth can count on public support around the world," Fly said. He added that "Stas must be released immediately by his captors.”
Aseyev was captured by Russia-backed separatists in the summer of 2017 after blogging for RFE/RL’s Donbas unit and the Ukrainian publications Mirror of the Week and The Ukrainian Week about the effects of Russia's intervention on daily life, schooling, politics, and culture in his native Donetsk. In August, the Appeals Chamber of the Supreme Court of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic, an entity that is not internationally recognized, found Aseyev guilty of “organizing an extremist community,” “espionage and incitement to espionage,” and public actions “aimed at violating territorial integrity.” He was sentenced to 15 years in a penal colony, with an additional ban on his journalistic activity. RFE/RL has condemned the ruling as an attempt by the separatists "to silence [Aseyev's] powerful, independent voice.”
In a press briefing in Kyiv on October 1, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said his government is applying “maximum efforts” to bring about Aseyev’s release “and the return of all our citizens.” Aseyev was added to a Ukrainian government list for a potential exchange in August 2017. He has been held incommunicado until now.
The Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties, PEN Ukraine, the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine, Human Rights Watch, European Federation of Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International, the One Free Press Coalition, OSCE Representative on Freedom of Media Harlem Desir, the U.S. Mission to the OSCE, U.S. Senators Robert Menendez and Marco Rubio, U.S. Congressman Eliot Engel, and Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich have all pressed for Aseyev’s release. The bipartisan U.S. Congressional Press Freedom Caucus called for Aseyev’s release in August 2018, describing him as "one of the few independent journalists to remain in the region under separatist control to provide objective reporting."
RFE/RL has also urged the release of Ukrainian Service contributor Oleh Halaziuk, who has also been held for over two years by Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk. Crimean contributor Mykola Semena was convicted of separatism by a Russian court in 2017 and is banned from practicing journalism and leaving the peninsula. On September 12, U.S. Charge d’Affaires William Taylor publicly noted the persecution of Aseyev, Halaziuk, and Semena during a presentation in Kyiv.
RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, known locally as Radio Svoboda, together with its subsidiary Donbas.Realities and Crimea.Realities regional units, averaged more than 6.8 million monthly visits to its websites in FY2019, and sets a standard in the Ukrainian media market for independence, innovation, and professionalism.
RFE/RL relies on its networks of local reporters to provide accurate news and information to 34 million people in 26 languages and 22 countries where media freedom is restricted, or where a professional press has not fully developed. Its videos were viewed over 2.6 billion times on Facebook and YouTube in FY2018. RFE/RL is an editorially independent media company funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress through the U.S. Agency for Global Media.