On Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, the Russian authorities are suppressing freedom of speech so that no one will really know what has happened there. Journalists in particular are under threat.
The case of Ukrainian journalist Mykola Semena is one example of the situation in Crimea, which Russia has illegally occupied since 2014. His opinions were published in 2015 by Radio Liberty, a US government-sponsored news outlet that the Russian authorities dislike. His crime: he discussed Russia’s annexation of Crimea and supported a blockade of the peninsula. On April 19, 2016, Semena’s house was searched by the FSB, the Russian security service. Within a couple of days, they brought charges against him. His case is in Russian court now, and he faces a sentence of up to five years in prison.
Since then, Semena’s health has been deteriorating—because of the terrible circumstances and because he is in his sixties. According to a conclusion by the Kyiv Institute of Neurosurgery, the journalist needs an operation. The International and European Federation of Journalists issued a statement urging the Russian authorities to allow Mykola to leave Crimea for treatment in Kyiv. Nevertheless, the sick journalist did not receive permission to do so.
Semena’s situation is just the tip of the iceberg. Russia’s repression of free speech in Crimea is systemic. Restrictions were put in place immediately after the arrival of Russia’s “little green men” in the spring of 2014. I was there at that time and saw it firsthand.
Two days after occupying Crimea’s government buildings, the occupiers were out on the street. The government quarter was surrounded by a paramilitary group, the so-called self-defense units. Almost nobody was allowed to go there, but thanks to the soldiers’ carelessness, I went in. There, I found a car equipped with broadcasting equipment with an inscription on the side: the word “Мир,” or “Mir,” representing a Russian TV and radio company.
That car was serving all of the Russian journalists there, indicating that they were all working together and had been coordinated from a single site. They had passes to the occupied parliament building, but no foreign journalist was allowed in. This was obviously a planned operation providing Russian journalists with exclusive information.
During the annexation and afterward, the Russian government took measures to significantly reduce the chance that objective information about the events in Crimea would reach the rest of the world. On March 9, 2014, Ukrainian television channels on Crimean territory were taken off the air.
Additionally, the local authorities and related groups unlawfully detained journalists on the peninsula. For example, Crimean Self Defense, the paramilitary group, detained David Geoffrion, a French citizen and cameraman for the French TV station Canal+, verbally charging him with espionage. After four hours of negotiations, including an intervention by telephone of the International and European Federation of Journalists, he was finally freed. All in all, between September 2014 and September 2016, twelve journalists were unlawfully detained by the occupier’s law enforcement agents.
In October 2015, the Russian state media regulator Roskomnadzor limited online access from Russia and Crimea to the websites of several information agencies, including the Crimean Center for Investigative Journalism, News from Crimea, and Black Sea News. Since then, Russia has restricted access to pro-Ukrainian media sites and other groups on social media.
Ukraine-oriented media groups have been persecuted with a special fervor, and particular attention has been paid to Crimean Tatar media; Crimean Tatars were forced to move their main TV channel, ATR, to Kyiv.
In 2014, Russian lawmakers passed a law that penalizes public or media appeals that deny Crimea is part of Russia, carrying up to five years in jail.
Besides Semena, four Crimean journalists have been accused of violating the new law. Andriy Klymenko and Anna Andrievska are out of danger now; they left Crimea and moved to Kyiv. In November 2016, the FSB arrested Olexiy Besarabov and Dmytro Shtyblikov, who had worked at the analytical center Nomus in Sevastopol. They, like Semena, could be sent to prison.
Meanwhile, the head of the Crimean branch of the Russian Union of Journalists, Andrew Trofimov, has publicly said that the state of freedom of speech on the peninsula is fine. The same view has been expressed by the Russian Union of Journalists’ secretary, Andrew Medvedev.
What is the truth? There is no way to know, because of restricted access to Crimea. Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE representative for freedom of the media, intended to establish an international mission on freedom of speech to Crimea. But the project was frozen, though no official reason has been given. Russia obviously did not want to allow access to Crimea.
The struggle against freedom of speech in Crimea is a key part of an even more dangerous process. Russia is repressing anyone who does not agree with Crimea’s illegal annexation. The Kremlin is not interested in information about its political crimes becoming known, and activists predict that the number of victims of “Russian justice” will increase significantly. Among other things, it means that the fight against independent journalism and freedom of speech in Crimea will continue.
How can this process be halted? How can Russian criminal activity in occupied Crimea be stopped? Establishing a special international permanent institution monitoring the status of human rights on the peninsula would be a first step. This will not stop Russian arbitrariness and repressions, but at least such an institution will restrain its activity.
Yuriy Lukanov is an independent journalist with Ukraine’s Human Rights Information Centre and an international advocacy specialist. He tweets @YuriyLukanov.