KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian publications complain of interference and attempts to suppress stories
For A country languishing in 121st place in the latest ranking on media independence, Ukraine made a lot of noise about World Press Freedom Day this month.
The country’s two main politicians issued competing paeans to the nation’s journalists and lauded them as pillars of its democracy, even as opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko accused president Viktor Yanukovych of trying to silence his critics and turn the country into an autocracy.
In rating Ukraine’s media alongside those of Colombia and the Seychelles, Freedom House noted the country’s “significant decline in press freedom” since Yanukovych took office last year and grabbed the main levers of political and financial power for himself and his allies.
Ukrainian publications complain of growing interference from officials and attempts to suppress stories that are critical of Yanukovych and his cronies.
Some cite a rise in physical attacks against reporters covering sensitive issues, and note that no one has been charged over the disappearance and suspected murder of investigative journalist Vasyl Klymentyev last August.
“We should ensure the completion of investigations into cases linked to the disappearance of journalists,” Yanukovych declared on World Press Freedom Day.
“The authorities will create conditions to allow journalists to feel free in our country. An independent Ukraine is not possible without an independent press.”
Few in Ukraine’s media will be reassured by such platitudes, but they carried added resonance due to Yanukovych’s sudden interest in Ukraine’s most notorious murder of recent years – the abduction and beheading of reporter Georgy Gongadze.
Gongadze’s headless body was found in woods outside Kiev in November 2000, six weeks after he vanished from the city, during the presidential reign of the less-than-media-friendly Leonid Kuchma.
Days later, an opposition leader revealed what he claimed were recordings of conversations between Kuchma and top aides, taped secretly by a presidential bodyguard.
On the tapes, a man who sounds like Kuchma orders officials to “deal with” Gongadze and suggests that he be “kidnapped by Chechens”.
Kuchma said the recordings had been doctored and denied involvement in Gongadze’s murder, but public anger over the killing helped inspire the December 2004 Orange Revolution, which brought to power pro-western leaders who promised to crack the case.
In March 2005, they announced the arrest of senior police officers for murdering Gongadze under orders from ex-interior minister Yuri Kravchenko.
Days later, Kravchenko was found dead at his dacha.
Despite suffering two gunshot wounds to the head, he was deemed to have killed himself.
Two of Kravchenko’s close colleagues also died before they could be questioned about the case.
Three police officers were jailed in 2008 for the killing of Gongadze, and the following year investigators finally tracked down Olexiy Pukach, the former interior ministry intelligence chief who had been on the run from charges of alleged involvement in the murder.
This elaborate web unexpectedly entangled one of Ukraine’s biggest political beasts last month, when Kuchma himself was charged with giving illegal orders to interior ministry staff that led to Gongadze’s murder.
Ukrainians, though well used to dramatic reversals of political fortune, were stunned; few had expected Yanukovych to turn on Kuchma, with whom his relations seemed cordial.
Even fewer believed the surprise development was about justice rather than politics.
The main theories are that Yanukovych is punishing Kuchma for failing to back him strongly enough during the Orange Revolution; or he is putting indirect pressure on Kuchma’s former chief of staff, the influential parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, or on Kuchma’s son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk, one of Ukraine’s richest tycoons.
Alternatively, the president may be trying to distract public attention from rampant corruption, stalled reforms and a stagnant economy, critics say.
Tymoshenko believes the Kuchma case is intended to defuse western criticism that Yanukovych is using Ukraine’s legal system as a weapon to neutralise personal enemies.
Prosecutors loyal to the president have opened several criminal cases against Tymoshenko and her allies, one of whom has been granted political asylum in the Czech Republic due to fears that he would not receive a fair trial in Ukraine.
It was particularly odd this month to hear Yanukovych, who previously showed little curiosity about the murder, pledge to “do everything to ensure that the investigation into the death of journalist Georgy Gongadze is brought to a conclusion and the guilty are punished”.
On the same day, Tymoshenko lauded reporters for risking their jobs and their lives “to convey the truth to people . . .”. It is becoming routine in Ukraine’s tawdry political world to invoke the ghost of Gongadze.
Finding out who ordered his murder, on the other hand, seems as unlikely as ever.