His Excellency Leonid Kuchma
President of Ukraine
vul. Bankivska 11
Via Fax: 011-380-44-293-7364/291-6161/293-1001
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent organization dedicated to the defense of press freedom around the world, strongly protests the recent conviction of Oleg Liachko, editor of the independent Kyiv weekly Svoboda, on defamation charges.
On June 7, Liachko was found guilty by the Minsk District Court in Kyiv of defaming former acting prime minister Vasyl Durdynets and General Ivan Hryhorenko, the head of the Interior Affairs Administration for the Odessa Region. The verdict came almost four years after charges were first filed and after an earlier trial ended in acquittal. According to CPJ sources in Kyiv, Liachko was given a two-year suspended sentence and barred from all journalistic activities for the length of his two-year sentence.
Based on our research into the case, we believe that the verdict was a form of retribution for Liachko's critical reporting on official corruption. It sets a negative precedent for other independent journalists who have endured years of official harassment.
The Prosecutor General's office had originally filed defamation charges against Liachko in July 1997 following the June publication in the independent weekly Polityka of articles in which Liachko criticized the then prime minister, General Vasyl Durdynets, and the Interior Ministry chief for the Odessa Oblast, General Hryhorenko.
Almost a year later, in June 1998, Liachko was formally charged with defamation under Section 2 of Article 125 of the Ukrainian Penal Code. In November, the case was finally submitted to Kyiv's Pecherskyy District Court. On December 23, Judge Mykola Zamkovenko acquitted Liachko on the defamation charges, after determining that his articles had not violated Ukraine's mass media laws.
Liachko's ordeal did not end there, however. A year later, in November 2000, the Kyiv Municipal Court nullified Judge Zamkovenko's acquittal and sent the case to the Minsk District Court in Kyiv for a retrial. This trial resulted in the June 7 verdict against Liachko.
As a nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of our colleagues around the world, CPJ is deeply disturbed that the Ukrainian government has deprived a journalist of his right to practice journalism because he published politically controversial views. As Your Excellency is well aware, democracies depend on the free exchange of information and ideas. It is therefore incomprehensible to us that the peaceful expression of an opinion could ever be classified as a crime.
In light of the still unresolved investigation into the September 2000 disappearance and murder of Internet journalist Georgy Gongadze, the verdict against Liachko reinforces the pervasive insecurity of journalists who criticize government officials in Ukraine. We call on Your Excellency to ensure that Liachko's case is reviewed by independent judicial authorities, that the politically motivated criminal prosecutions of journalists cease, and that the criminal defamation law is repealed.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your reply.
Ann K. Cooper