Russia claims “more freedom of speech in Crimea than in Europe”, while silencing another Ukrainian journalist
Three days after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly claimed that anybody can come to Crimea and see that there are no violations of human rights, Russia banned another Ukrainian journalist from Crimea for reporting on political prisoners. Alina Smutko is the third journalist or activist to be prohibited from entering occupied Crimea in just the last three months.
Smutko, a Ukrainian journalist and photographer, was handed the document banning her from entering “until 26 May 2028” when she tried to enter Crimea from the Chonhar checkpoint on 18 February. The document provides no specific reason, however the ban comes almost exactly three months after another Ukrainian journalist, Alyona Savchuk, was also banned for 10 years. In both cases, the document cites Article 27 § 1.1 of the ‘Procedure for entering and leaving the Russian Federation’, with this justifying a ban as being “for the purpose of ensuring the state’s defence capacity or security, or public order”. Savchuk and Smutko have both played an invaluable role in giving a voice and the faces to Russia’s ever-increasing number of political prisoners and their families. Smutko was, in fact, travelling to Crimea in order to prepare material for Krym.Realii on political prisoners’ families.
If Russia believed that these two young Ukrainians’ voices were a threat to its security worthy of a 10-year-ban, it clearly saw the danger posed by Oliver Loode, an Estonian civic activist, as even greater. Loode learned on 16 December 2018 that he had been banned from Russia and Crimea, while it remains under Russian occupation, until 2073! In Loode’s case, this is probably because of his involvement in the international movement #LiberateCrimea. Russia has just ‘issued an arrest warrant’ against Eskender Bariev, exiled Crimean Tatar Mejlis member and co-founder of this movement.
In the light of Lavrov’s assertions, it is worth reiterating that the ‘threat’ posed by the two journalists was that they told the truth about political prisoners in occupied Crimea, no more. They have ‘only’ been banned from a part of their own country, under illegal Russian occupation, unlike several Ukrainians living in Crimea. Nariman Memedeminov is a civic journalist active in Crimean Solidarity, the civic initiative defending political prisoners and their families and reporting on repression in Crimea. He has been imprisoned since March 2018 and is facing absurd charges pertaining to innocuous videos posted on YouTube before Russia’s annexation. 68-year-old journalist Mykola Semena received a 2.5 year suspended sentence and total silencing order for an article in which he expressed his opposition to Russian occupation of his home. He is still being prevented from travelling to Kyiv for urgently needed medical treatment
Lavrov did not appear at the Munich Security Conference on 15 February alone. With him was Maria Volkonskaya, the Chief Editor of the Kremlin-loyal Krymskaya Gazeta who brought a glossy English-language ‘Crimean Journal’ aimed at ‘proving’ how good things are in Crimea. This publication, which even looks Soviet, purports to tell “the inside story” about Crimean media and Crimea, and counter “the lies” and “fakes” that people in the west hear. One section even begins with the assertion that “Crimea has far more freedom of speech than in Europe”.
Ilmi Umerov, Deputy Chair of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, also knows about ‘freedom of speech’ under Russian occupation. The then 60-year-old who suffers from a number of serious illnesses was sentenced in 2017 to two years’ imprisonment on the basis of a falsified translation of an interview in which he welcomed stricter sanctions as a means of forcing Russia to stop occupying Crimea. He was later exchanged, together with Crimean Tatar Mejlis leader and political prisoner Akhtem Chiygoz, almost certainly for two suspected Russian state assassins imprisoned in Turkey. Both men are now unable to return to their homeland, as are many Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians whose opinions Russia clearly deems a threat to its ‘national security’.
Umerov was scathing about Lavrov’s attempts at Munich to deny discrimination against Crimean Tatars. The few ‘achievements’ Lavrov cited were essentially for propaganda purposes, he said, and the supposed ‘state language’ status of Crimean Tatar language was pure fiction. Russia is destroying Crimean Tatar cultural heritage, as seen with its supposed ‘restoration’, although in fact destruction of the renowned Khan’s Palace in Bakhchysarai. There are ongoing armed searches and arrests, with the number of political prisoners rising and well over 100 children deprived of their fathers. Russia’s militarization of Crimea has reached monstrous proportions, Umerov notes, and Moscow is changing the makeup of Crimea by bringing in people from Russia.
Lavrov’s speech at Munich was met with derision by the audience in Munich. He and Moscow’s latest English-language propaganda publication could be dismissed were it not for the evident intensification of efforts to silence reports of human rights abuse in occupied Crimea. The bans on independent journalists are coinciding both with a new offensive against Crimean Tatar rights lawyer Emil Kurbedinov and attempts by Russia’s censor Roskomnadzor, with YouTube’s collaboration, to force Ukrainian publications to delete material about political prisoners.