New York, April 19, 2016 -- Russian authorities should stop harassing journalists in Crimea and should allow them to do their work without fear of retribution, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Federal Security Service (FSB) officers raided the apartments of at least seven people, including at least three journalists, in Crimea today, according to press reports.
Russia's FSB security service executed the raids on suspicion that the people had called for Crimean independence in articles for Krym.Realii, the Crimean regional service of the U.S.-government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), according to press reports. Russian law provides for penalties of up to five years in prison for publicly calling for separatism. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014.
"We call on Russian security forces to stop harassing journalists in Crimea for their reporting and expressed opinions," said CPJ's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, Nina Ognianova. "Russia has a record of equating criticism with extremism, and of using its broad laws to intimidate and silence the press."
In a statement published today, RFE/RL Editor-in-Chief Nenad Pejic said, "Seven people's homes were raided across Crimea, including some RFE/RL correspondents. One of those journalists is now facing up to five years in prison on criminal charges related to his work." RFE/RL did not name any of the seven people targeted in the statement.
Ukrainian and international media reports, however, said freelance photojournalist Lenyara Abibulayeva and reporters Nikolai Semena and Ruslana Lyumanova were among those whose apartments were raided. During the raid of Semena's house, FSB agents confiscated the journalist's reporting equipment and briefly detained him, according to press reports.
Citing Crimean lawyer Emil Kurbedinov, news reports said that Semena denied any wrongdoing, and had been banned from leaving Crimea. On his Facebook page, Kurbedinov said that the FSB suspected Semena of making public calls for Crimean independence.
Following the raids, Crimean prosecutors issued a statement that they were overseeing the FSB's investigation into an unnamed journalist in connection to his or her work for Krym.Realii. The prosecutors' statement did not specify any particular articles as having led to the investigation.
The statement also said Crimean prosecutors were seeking to block access to Krym.Realii in the region. "Content analysis of the news outlet depicts its aim to discredit the actions of the Russian Federation on the territory of Crimea, incite inter-ethnic hatred, and make calls to extremism," the statement said.
Crimea's chief prosecutor, Natalia Poklonskaya, wrote on Facebook today that Semena is under investigation in connection with an article published by Krym.Realii that she said quoted Ukrainian activists' calls to isolate the Crimean peninsula and to conduct military action to wrest the region from Russian control. Her Facebook post did not link to the article or provide its headline.
This is at least the second time since annexation that Russian authorities in Crimea have investigated a journalist on separatism charges, CPJ research shows. In March 2015, FSB agents raided the house of the parents of journalist Anna Andriyevskaya, telling her family that she was being sought on charges of making public calls for Crimean independence in a November 2014 article.
Russia's occupation and annexation of Crimea has effectively led to silencing of critical journalism by means of attacks, raids, official harassment, politicized prosecution, and forced exile of individual reporters and news outlets, CPJ research shows.