Journalists across Europe will on Thursday 16 September mark the tenth anniversary of the death of Ukrainian internet journalist Gyorgy Gongadze – a classic example of the impunity of powerful people who instigate violence against journalists.
(* Details of London event at the end.)
The importance of the campaign to bring those who ordered Gongadze’s killing to justice was grimly underlined in recent weeks by the disappearance, and feared murder, of investigative reporter Vasily Klimentyev in Kharkov on 11 August.
The instigators of Gongadze’s murder were at the very top of the Ukrainian political pyramid. Former president Leonid Kuchma, current parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn and some of their cronies discussed harming him – shortly before he was kidnapped, beaten, strangled and beheaded by a gang of policemen.
The gang leader, Aleksei Pukach, is now awaiting trial, and three of his accomplices are serving prison sentences – but the instigators of the crime have never been brought to justice.
The conversations in Kuchma’s office about harming Gongadze are known to the world, because Mykola Melnychenko, a former presidential bodyguard, released tape recordings of them two months after the murder.
But the chain of command that led from Kuchma’s office to those who killed Gongadze, founder of the Ukrainska Pravda web site, has – so far – been covered up.
Former home affairs minister Yuri Kravchenko – who was apparently assigned during those conversations to have someone sort Gongadze out – died in mysterious circumstances (shot himself in the head twice, allegedly). Two other key internal affairs ministry officials who were probably involved both fell into a mysterious coma and then died.
The Ukrainian general prosecutor’s office effectively sabotaged the investigation of how Gongadze’s killing was ordered and organised. It at first denied Gongadze was missing, then mishandled evidence, and for years failed either to follow basic policing procedures or to resist political pressure to cover up for the instigators.
After the “Orange revolution” of 2004, many Ukrainians hoped the case would be solved – but it wasn’t, and “Orange” president Viktor Yushchenko pinned medals on prosecutors who obstructed the investigation.
The disappearance nearly three weeks ago of Vasily Klimentyev, 67, editor of Novy Stil (New Style), a muckraking local paper in Kharkov, is a sober reminder of the dangers facing journalists who try to expose corruption in high places.
Klimentyev disappeared on 11 August, while preparing to publish an article about Stanislav Denisiuk, a senior tax official whose wrongdoing he had previously scrutinised. Four days later Klimentyev’s mobile phone and door keys were found and a murder case opened.
The investigation was last week transferred to the internal affairs ministry’s national detective unit, after internal affairs minister Anatoly Mogilev said that “current and former representatives of the law enforcement services” were under suspicion.
In the ten years since Gongadze’s murder, Ukrainian media have grown to operate relatively freely – particularly on the internet, where Ukrainska Pravda, the site he founded, is leader among many high-quality news sites. Even TV has a greater variety of reporting than in Russia.
But physical threats to journalists, especially those who write about state corruption, are all too common. This weekend Valery Ivanovsky, editor of the Zhitomir-based newspaper Silske Zhittya newspaper, was teargassed and stabbed.
* A delegation from the National Union of Journalists of the UK and Irelandwill go to the Ukrainian embassy at 60 Holland Park, London W11 3SJ (nearest tube Holland Park) at 11.0 am on Thursday 16 September. In previous years the delegation has been received by the ambassador. The NUJ has actively participated in the international campaign to bring the instigators of Gongadze’s murder to justice, and in supporting trade union initiatives among Ukrainian journalists, over the last ten years. For more details contact NUJ General Secretary, Jeremy Dear, at the NUJ offices.
* The International Federation of Journalists, the Gongadze Foundation, the Institute of Mass Information and the NUJ have produced four reports on the Gongadze case, which can be downloaded here: http://www.ifj.org/en/articles/joint-statement-on-ninth-anniversary-of-gyorgy-gongadze-s-death
* A conference is being held in Kyiv on 16 September on the issue of impunity for attacks on journalists, involving Article 19, the IFJ and other press freedom organisations.