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Crimean Journalist Risks Jail By Refusing To Follow Kremlin Line

Mykola Semena says he was prepared to risk his personal freedom to protect free speech and freedom of the press.

In February 2014, when masked Russian troops without insignia seized control of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, Simferopol-based journalist Mykola Semena grabbed his camera to photograph the invasion that was being denied by the Kremlin.

Weeks later, after Moscow's disputed annexation of the territory, Semena made a fateful decision.

Aged 63 at the time, he opted to remain in the regional capital with his wife in order to document how life was changing in Crimea under the new Russia-installed authorities.

More than ever in his 50-year career, Semena said recently, he saw the urgency of working as an independent journalist in Crimea.

To carry out that work, he became a contributor to RFE/RL's Krym.Realii (Crimea Realities) website, which was set up after Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and now operates out of RFE/RL's Kyiv bureau.

Meanwhile, Crimea-based media outlets were taken over by the Russian state or by pro-Russia managers.

We understood that some restrictions in journalists' work might appear, but we never thought that there would be any persecutions or repressions."
-- Mykola Semena

Journalists who didn't fall into line would either be forced out of work or forced out of Crimea.

Semena didn't fall into line.

Now he faces a possible five-year prison sentence on charges of calling for "the violation of the territorial integrity of Russia."

The separatism-related charges stem from an opinion piece Semena wrote for his Krym.Realii blog in which he criticized Russia's seizure of Crimea and expressed support for strengthening a blockade of the peninsula initiated by Ukrainian activists.

Semena's column was part of a wide-ranging discussion on the Krym.Realii website about options for Crimea and was written in response to an earlier column opposing the blockade.

'Betrayal Of My Profession'

Ahead of his March 20 criminal trial date at Simferopol's Zheleznodorozhny District Court, the now 66-year-old Semena told RFE/RL he was prepared to risk his personal freedom to protect free speech and freedom of the press.

He said the value of his work for the Crimean Desk of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service became clear after the Russian annexation, when other independent voices in media were suppressed.

"I was bringing up-to-date reports to the world from the scene of the events that were taking place," Semena said.

"They were observations of real life in Crimea," he explained. "They were timely. Very often, my reports gave information on the same day that events were taking place -- assessing those events and the political decisions behind developments as they were unfolding.

"To quit that job and leave Crimea would have been a betrayal of my profession," Semena said.

Semena was born in northeastern Ukraine, where he took his first journalism job at a local, state-run newspaper when he was still a teenager in school.

He moved in the 1980s to Simferopol, where he witnessed the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Remaining in the Crimean capital, he worked during the 1990s as a correspondent for Russia's Izvestia and Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspapers.

He also covered regional news for Ukraine's daily Den (Day) newspaper and the weekly Dzerkalo Tyzhnia (Mirror of the Week).

WATCH: RFE/RL Contributor Denies Russian 'Separatism' Charges

RFE/RL Contributor Denies Russian 'Separatism' Charges
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Semena also spoke at public forums about current affairs and social issues facing Crimea's ethnic Crimean Tatar minority.

But after the annexation, Semena abandoned all public appearances, saying that he felt he was being followed and placed under close scrutiny by the Russia-installed authorities.

"At first, in March 2014, there were still independent journalism facilities in Crimea," Semena explained. "I and several other Ukrainian journalists decided to stay. Press centers continued to operate and we used their services.

"We positioned ourselves as Ukrainian or independent journalists at that time, giving our identification and business cards to everybody without knowing what consequences might follow.

"We understood that some restrictions in journalists' work might appear, but we never thought that there would be any persecutions or repressions.

"Later, we found out that authorities gave the leaders of companies and organizations a list of media outlets and journalists that they were forbidden from giving information to."

"We were not allowed to attend press conferences," he said. "We were denied interviews and no information in any form was given to us."

All Internet Activities Monitored

Meanwhile, Semena said, journalists who were "in the pockets" of the Russia-installed authorities began to write articles in pro-Russia media outlets that targeted the work of independent journalists, giving "distorted information" aimed at discrediting them.

"When we learned that so-called cybertroops had been created in Crimea, we understood that all the Internet activities were being monitored," he said.

Semena said that as Russia-imposed authorities continued their efforts to stifle criticism about Crimea's annexation, the Crimean-Tatar television channel ATR was pushed out of the peninsula along with the bureaus of all Ukrainian media outlets and RFE/RL's Crimean Desk.

"All Ukrainian media outlets were banned," he said. "Then Crimea's Russia-backed leader, Sergei Aksyonov, said in televised remarks that those media outlets were 'enemy media.'"

The chairman of Crimea's Russia-controlled parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov, also announced at a press conference that all journalists under investigation by the Russia-installed authorities were "enemy journalists."

Most journalists who refused to follow the Kremlin line either left the peninsula voluntarily, were forced out by authorities, or simply stopped working.

Semena was among a handful of independent journalists who continued to report from Crimea about the impact the Russia-installed government was having on the lives of Crimean Tatars and others who disagreed with the annexation.

On the morning of April 19, 2016, Semena heard a knock on his door. Agents of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) had arrived.

"They had a search warrant and told me that a probe had been launched into my articles," Semena said. "They confiscated my equipment, as well of the equipment of six other journalists they suspected were cooperating either directly or indirectly with RFE/RL's Krym.Realii."

Semena was briefly detained for questioning and then released on condition that he not leave Crimea or travel outside Simferopol unless he obtained permission from the Russia-imposed authorities.

Those restrictions have led to what Semena's attorney calls "serious health problems."

Risk Of Permanent Disability

Semena suffers from a heart condition and back problems. Doctors urged him to go in July 2016 to Kyiv for treatment at the National Institute of Surgery of Ukraine.

Doctors have said that without treatment Semena could become permanently disabled.

But authorities in Crimea have never responded to the Ukrainian institute's appeal for him to be allowed to travel to Kyiv for surgery.

Natalya Poklonskaya was the Kremlin-appointed prosecutor-general in Crimea at the time Semena was charged. She is now a deputy in Russia's State Duma.
Natalya Poklonskaya was the Kremlin-appointed prosecutor-general in Crimea at the time Semena was charged. She is now a deputy in Russia's State Duma.

Natalya Poklonskaya, the Kremlin-appointed prosecutor-general in Crimea at the time Semena was charged, has said she opened the case against him over a 2015 article in which he allegedly called for the "violation of Russia's territorial integrity."

Poklonskaya, who is now one of Crimea's deputies in Russia's State Duma, also accused Krym.Realii of being "a harmful service" that provides "justification for acts of sabotage and extremism" and incites "ethnic hatred."

But at Semena's initial hearing on February 28, defense attorney Andriy Sabinin filed a motion asking the Simferopol court to return the case to investigators because of what he said were "mistakes by linguistic experts" working for the prosecution.

Sabinin told RFE/RL that the prosecution's Russian translators "included their own judicial opinions," rather than literal translations of Semena's writing, when they filed evidence with the court.

The case against Semena has been widely criticized and dismissed as politically motivated by the United States, the European Union, other Western governments, and international rights groups.

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called the charges "absurd," saying Semena "simply expressed his opinion on the annexation of Crimea."

Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE's media-freedom representative, said it was "totally unacceptable to persecute" Semena for "expressing his views."

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has called on Russia to drop its charges, saying Semena was being prosecuted for "reports about the illegal occupation and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by the Russian Federation."

Semena told RFE/RL the charges against him should be dismissed on grounds that his articles were a "contribution to the international debate on Crimea's status, which is currently being discussed by the United Nations, PACE, the OSCE, and media outlets around the world."

He insisted that not only is he innocent, but there is "no evidence of a crime" because the right to express opinions "is an internationally recognized right for which nobody can be prosecuted."