Mykola Semena: Two Years of Silence

Published: 01.07.2019,  Views: 1173

Member of PEN Ukraine, the distinguished journalist of Ukraine, author of books A Crimean Report and Mustafa Dzhemilev: The Man who Defeated Stalinism, laureate of the Pavlo Sheremet Prize, and the Sakharov Prize For Dignity. In 2017 for his journalistic activity he was unjustly sentenced by Russian-controlled court in Crimea to two and a half years of suspended imprisonment with a ban on public activity for two years.

On April 19, 2016 employees of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) came to Mykola Semena’s house in Simferopol. It was seven o’clock in the morning, the city was just awakening when agents started the search at the journalist’s home.

That morning six more Crimean journalists and photographers were searched. They were suspected in cooperation with the Crimea. Realities publication (Radio Liberty’s special project), which named Crimea’s annexation as annexation, condemning it and publishing critical materials about life on the occupied peninsula. The FSB agents would purposefully break into houses at dawn to capture people still in slumber by surprise.

However, the FSB visit was no surprise for Semena. The journalist with a 50-year experience being a solid analytical and attentive-to-details reporter had long foreseen such course of events.

“When I found out about a battalion of the Russian cyber troop in Crimea I understood they will come to me sooner or later. I had a spyware installed by fraud on my computer. Since then secret services would always be in my laptop. Outdoor surveillance was installed, and going out each time I noticed I was being watched,” Mykola Semena told PEN Ukraine back in 2016. “Once I wrote an article which said that secret services’ activity against journalists is a manifestation of non-professionalism, because what to spy for if it you can just open a newspaper or a website, and read what is written by a journalist. This obviously was the last drop. When I published the controversial text “Blockade as a Necessary Step to Liberation of Crimea”, they came.” 

For this article on Crimea.Realities website the occupation authority in Crimea accused Mykola Semena in public calls for violation of Russian territorial integrity. All of the journalist’s equipment as well as 900 GB of archive materials collected for decades were taken away from him.

The laptop was not returned. On September 22, 2017 the case was closed with a sentence to two and a half years of suspended imprisonment on probation, and a ban to engage in public activity for three years. Following the appeal the Supreme Court of Crimea cut the term of the ban on public activity to two years. In case of its violation the 69-year-old journalist will face replacement of the suspended imprisonment to the actual one.

Mykola Semena did not plead guilty. In his texts he particularly emphasizes that he was exercising the right to “freedom of expression”.

 “Justice is my Craft”

Mykola Semena was born in 1950 in the Chernihiv region. His first notice in the newspaper – about the role of monuments – was published in 1966, when he was still at school. In his final year together with his friend, Dmytro Illienko, he was working in an editorial office of a local newspaper for the whole summer. Then Mykola realized that journalism was his vocation. Later on Dmytro Illienko got involved in this field becoming a military journalist. Following his retirement he moved to Donetsk where in 2014 he protested against Russian occupation of Donbas. Dmytro was tortured to death by pro-Russian separatists.

Finishing school Mykola Semena served in the army, and later worked at a local newspaper. Then he joined Department of Journalism at the Taras Shevchenko National University. In 1980s he moved to Crimea. At first he worked in Sudak, then in local publications of Simferopol. At the beginning of the 90s he took up a job of a correspondent for the Russian “Izvestia” newspaper.

“Over thirty years of work I have dedicated to this land, in Crimea. I was editing regional newspapers, but for the longest period I was doing the best, in my opinion, role in journalism – I was a personal correspondent in the region from mainland media,” Mykola Semena said before the annexation. “Having arrived “clean slate” in 1983 and hardly knowing anything about Crimea, I learned the history of the peninsula in detail, and most importantly the complex history of peoples of Crimea as well as its nature and geography. I wrote plentifully for Crimean newspapers, and then for Izvestia, Mirror of the Week, The Day Newspaper, and magazines People’s Deputy, Crimean Studies, Ukrainian Journal. My creed, speaking lavishly, has become a rule: “Justice is my craft”. With all of my heart I have become attached to these people, their problems and hopes. My children were born and schooled here. My mother is buried here.”

For many years Mykola Semena was writing for the daily The Day Newspaper. He alone would cover all topics related to Crimea: from politics and history to public and cultural themes. “The important fact is he never avoided awkward moments and always responded to all intimidating processes and occurrences on the peninsula, especially in recent years before the annexation,” the editor of the correspondent network department of The Day Newspaper Olha Kharchenko says. “He has always been uncompromising and honest in matters of principle.”

Eskender Bariev, a Ukrainian Crimean Tatar politician and member of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, recounts that the position of Mykola Semena has always been pro-Ukrainian and pro-Crimean Tatar as well.

“I met Mykola back in the 90s; he was an activist, a leader of the international youth movement of the Crimean Tatar people,” Eskender Bariev recalls. “I read his articles, and he was one of the leading journalists in Crimea. He’s always had a clear understanding of the Crimean Tatar question.”

Back at the end of the 80s Mykola Semena actively wrote about the struggle for return of the Crimean Tatar’s homeland, their conditions in Crimea, and clashes with the police. He would deliver each piece of news systematically providing readers with a historical context. Many times he said that the topic of the Crimean Tatars had always been one of the most difficult for him, and one of the most interesting simultaneously. He was accredited and took part in every Kurultai session held in Crimea: from the very first in 1991 to the last in 2014.

In 1991 Mykola Semena was the only journalist from Crimea at the meeting of leaders from post-Soviet countries in Kazakhstan. That is where the Alma-Ata Declaration establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States was signed.

“At the final press conference he raised a question about how participating parties envisioned the program of the Crimean Tatars’ return to their historical homeland, and who will be financing it since the USSR had collapsed,”  Crimea.Realities editor-in-chief Volodymyr Prytula recalls

In 2010 Mykola Semena wrote a book Mustafa Dzhemiliev: The Man Who Defeated Stalinism. In 2017, before his sentence was announced, his next book A Crimean Report: Chronicles of Crimean Occupation 2014–2016 (nearly a thousand pages!) was published in Kyiv. In the foreword Mustafa Dzemiliev wrote, “It is important for me that Mykola has become the author of the first Ukrainian-language book about my struggle as well as the struggle of the Crimean Tatar national movement against the Soviet regime for the return of our people to the historical homeland. And what is even more important is that Mykola Semena has very subtly and clearly understood the whole tragedy of our people and significance of the united struggle of the Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians against the “Evil Empire” in its old and present forms.”

Following the annexation of Crimea which gave start to persecution of the Crimean Tatars on the peninsula, Mykola Semena would highlight these events and attend court hearings.

Work under Occupation

“I met Mykola a long while ago, in the early 90s. He was a top Crimean journalist, and I was a young reporter who learned a great deal from him,” Volodymyr Prytula recollects. “His texts sparked with profound analytics, solemnity, depth and their pro-Ukrainian inclination, which was a rarity among Crimean journalists. He combined a number of traits crucial for a journalist. On one side he was an analytical journalist, and on the other, a newsperson-reporter. Such combination is rare.”

When in March of 2014 Radio Liberty initiated Crimea.Realities project, which was chaired by Volodymyr Prytula, Mykola Semena was among the journalists considered for cooperation. For this project he would write author’s columns published in “Point of View” rubric. He had around a dozen of pseudonyms. He would cover all possible topics, from politics to daily life on the occupied peninsula. His texts were popular; people actively read and shared them.

At the beginning of May 2014 Semena was detained by the FSB agents for the first time. That day in one of the cafés in Simferopol the journalist had a meeting with a Polish colleague, Wacław Radziwinowicz, the then special correspondent of Gazeta Wyborcza in Moscow. Sipping coffee and discussing the situation in Crimea they were approached by people dressed in civilian clothes; they introduced themselves as agents of the FSB, showed they have weapons.

“The journalists were forced to climb in a car with these people. They were brought to a former building of the State Security of Ukraine (SBU), questioned and detained there for 6 hours. Then Mykola was summoned to the FSB once more – inquired about Crimea.Realities,” Volodymyr Prytula says.

Right after the search in 2016 Mykola Semena himself said, “Writing the truth about Crimea for readers in Ukraine and Europe was my primary objective. I had not a single thought of leaving, although with time the danger was becoming more potent. At first we worked openly: presenting our Kyiv license, obtaining accreditation in press centers, introducing ourselves as correspondents of Ukrainian media. But before long the lists of “hostile” Kyiv journalists emerged: we were followed; our phones were tapped; right above the doors of the Radio Liberty office a camera appeared recording all who enter and exit.”

Volodymyr Prytula recalls that the press office of the Crimean police’s main committee entirely turned to the occupants’ side providing them access to lists of all accredited journalists there. “First of all they were interested in Ukrainian journalists and independent media criticizing local law enforcement bodies and authorities. And, of course, Mykola Semena was in the list,” adds the chief editor of Crimea.Realities.

For all this time the publication suffered hacker attacks; local providers were blocking the website. In summer of 2014 Volodymyr Prytula had in mind to transfer the project to the mainland Ukraine – for security reasons. In summer of 2015 all editors were already in Kyiv, Prytula himself moved out. However, the journalists stayed on the peninsula in order to expeditiously provide trustworthy information about events taking place Crimea.

“I understood that precisely at that moment and precisely in Crimea Ukraine’s destiny is at stake. Here is the very hotspot, the very frontline you could say. To move out? It meant to desert the front, for if editorial offices in Kyiv ever required special correspondents in Crimea, it is right now. For being a journalist meant not moving out of Crimea, but going to Crimea,” Mykola Semena told PEN Ukraine immediately after the searches.

Sentence for Principles

Investigation and trial of Mykola Semena’s case lasted for a year and a half. He was accused of a criminal offense stipulated in Article 280.1. (Pt.2) “Public Calls to Actions Aimed at Violating Territorial Integrity of the Russian Federation” of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. Matter-of-factly, this article was introduced into the Russian Criminal Code after the annexation of Crimea.

In court Mykola Semena was defended by human rights defenders of the Agora International Human Rights Group, Oleksandr Popkov and Andriy Sabinin, as well as one of the top Crimean lawyers specializing in political cases, Emil Kurbedinov.

“We had several lines of defense. One concerned the value of freedom of speech and the need to protect it. Our position was to acknowledge the right of a journalist to freedom of expression. No freedom of speech means no opportunity to defend any other freedoms and human rights, including the right to life and the right not to be subjected to torture. We witness what is going on in Russia where freedom of speech is virtually destroyed,” Oleksandr Popkov says.

The second line of defense is based on the international law. “The Constitution of the Russian Federation has a provision on priority of international agreements over national Russian legislation. According to the Russian law, Crimea has acceded to the Russian Federation. However, there is an international agreement with Ukraine regarding the state border; this agreement has not been revoked, it is valid. Respectively, the international agreement with Ukraine prevails over Russian legislation,” the lawyer explains. He adds that Mykola Semena’s position on Crimea being part of Ukraine is supported not only by Ukraine, but international institutions such as the Council of Europe, the UN and the General Assembly, the Venice Commission, etc. These were the arguments Mykola Semena’s defenders presented at the European Court of Human Rights.

“And the third line of defense was more procedural: regarding the FSB agents tapping Semena’s phone and reading his correspondence prior to the permission from the court. The judgement itself was based on some speculations and assumptions on Semena working in the interests of Ukrainian intelligence service and conducting subversive activity together with Radio Liberty, Crimea.Realities and Ukrainian journalists. It was very much like the KGB and the special department specializing in ideological diversions,” Oleksandr Popkov recounted. 

The court itself was held in a small hall inaccessible for journalists, relatives and the people supporting Mykola Semena.

“The first proceeding was held in a fairly large area where the press could fit – all subsequent in a small room. People wanted to attend the trial, but they were not allowed for there was no space. It was being done on purpose. And it was ridiculous. What sort of an open trial it is if there are only two or three seats for the people? Russian unjustice, as I call it,” says director and friend of the journalist Valeriy Balayan who shot the movie “WhoIsMrPutin” a few years ago.

Human rights defenders and colleagues of Mykola Semena regard this case as an ostentatious action aimed at intimidation of independent journalists in Crimea.

“After Semena’s search and initiation of criminal proceedings against him around journalists were forced to discontinue collaboration with us; nearly just as many moved to mainland Ukraine. Thus, over 50 journalists in Crimea have been subjected to pressure by Russian special services,” Volodymyr Prytula states. 

“All actions of Russian law enforcement officers were aimed at demolition of freedom of speech, intimidation of those covering the peninsula events “in an improper manner” leaving out the general ecstasy on accession of Crimea to Russia. All of these people were crushed; and nowadays we see bloggers, especially the Crimean Tatars, being crushed. This is a persistent single-minded policy of Russian authority,” Oleksandr Popkov concludes.

Life after Sentence

Not much is known about present life of Mykola Semena. He is not permitted to communicate with journalists, or write about his life in social networks. How he spends his days – his friends know. They say he reads mostly. Mykola Semena has a large home library.

Besides, twice a month the journalist comes for a criminal inspection in Simferopol, where he “check-ins” and attends “preventive talks” with Russian law enforcement officers. Mykola Semena is forbidden to leave the city boundaries.

“He is a brilliant journalist, a true master. Mykola has worked for all of his life writing articles for various publications, and now he is being deprived of his freedom. The punishment is suspended, but he cannot go to his summer house, seaside or for treatment. Moreover, he cannot make financial transactions or work. He cannot write on social networks. This is a harsh punishment, indeed,” Valeriy Balayan says.

Prior to the investigation, the journalist was diagnosed with vertebral and cardiac issues. In the course of proceedings his health condition deteriorated. In Crimea Mykola Semena could not receive qualified medical help, so journalists as well as human rights defenders together with a Ukrainian ombudsman Liudmyla Denisova appealed to Russian authorities with request to give him a permission to receive medical help on mainland Ukraine. They denied. 

In November 2018 the journalist had a surgery on gallbladder removal. A lawyer Emil Kurbedinov believes deterioration of Semena’s health is “a consequence of nearly three years of unlawful judicial persecution”, and life under constant stress.

Without a Voice

In the course of many years Mykola Semena would start his every working day pretty much the same: analyzing and gathering news. The journalist has always managed to be in the know, and have an ability to prepare a competent material on any topic. For this purpose Semena was keeping his own database on all aspects of life in Crimea. During the search it was taken away by the FSB agents.

In the same manner on a daily basis Mykola Semena would “go into the field”: meet people, record interviews with experts, take part in press conferences, scientific, public and cultural events. Day-by-day he would prepare a few materials for various publications. Apart from texts Semena created photo reportage, made portraits and genre footage. For pleasure he used to travel around Crimea and take photos of interesting places.

Nowadays, according to friends of the journalist, he has no choice but to take photographs of Simferopol’s landscapes. Mykola Semena is often seen with a camera in the city, on the bank of the Salgir River, but even these he cannot publish anywhere.

This autumn the term of Semena’s public activity ban is expiring. Does it mean that he will be able to resume writing freely about the situation on the occupied peninsula? Unlikely so. The trial itself and the sentence, which silenced Mykola Semena for 2 years, very clearly reflect the essence of life on the peninsula, life under the occupation. The ban on public activity is coming to an end, but not the danger and pressure aimed at independent journalists in Crimea.

Mariia Semenchenko, exclusively for PEN Ukraine

Photo credit: Radio Liberty

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Translated by Oksana Wasikowska