Attacks on the Press 2000: Ukraine

LAST YEAR, PRESIDENT LEONID KUCHMA RAMPED UP his habitual censorship of anti-government newspapers and his attacks and threats against independent journalists. Late in the year, the abduction and presumed murder of Internet journalist Georgy Gongadze brought the plight of Ukrainian journalists into sharp relief, while allegations that Kuchma may have directed the killing sparked a political crisis that threatened to bring down his government.

Gongadze disappeared in mid-September after weeks of police surveillance. He was the editor of Ukrainska Pravda, an online news site that reported regularly on corruption among the president’s advisors. Early in the year, Ukrainska Pravda had exposed extensive irregularities during Kuchma’s campaign for a referendum to curtail the authority of the parliament.

Gongadze was a pioneer among Ukrainian journalists in that he chose to publish his work on the Internet. Because Ukrainska Pravda did not depend on paper supplies and printing presses, which are subject to state influence or control, Kuchma’s bureaucrats found it harder to interfere with its distribution. But like the few other investigative journalists in Ukraine who have dared to criticize the government, Gongadze faced frequent harassment and intimidation. On the evening of September 16, he disappeared on his way home.

On the night of November 2-3, a farmer discovered a headless corpse outside the town of Tarashcha, and local journalists immediately speculated that it might be Gongadze. On November 28, Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz, Kuchma’s longtime rival, released an audiotape on which he claimed that Kuchma, his chief of staff, Volodymyr Lytvyn, and Interior Minister Yury Kravchenko could be heard discussing ways to get rid of the journalist. Kuchma and his aides immediately challenged the authenticity of the tapes, but by year’s end technical experts had determined that the conversations on the tape were not fabricated, though they were unable to confirm the identity of the speakers.

Although the headless corpse was soon identified as Gongadze by his colleagues and later by his wife, authorities delayed conducting a full autopsy. The missing head was never recovered, and the time and cause of Gongadze’s death were never formally determined. The prosecutor’s office claimed it was impossible to do so, given the body’s severe decomposition.

Ten days after the official DNA test results were announced, the prosecutor’s office agreed to hand over the body to Gongadze’s mother and wife for burial. However, authorities refused to issue an official death certificate, claiming that the identity of the corpse had not been determined with absolute certainty.

Gongadze’s family refused to accept the body under these conditions and called for another autopsy. By the end of January, the Council of Europe had pledged to carry out the autopsy as well as an analysis of the tapes.

After conducting extensive research into the case, CPJ concluded that Gongadze was murdered in reprisal for his journalistic work and included him in its list of journalists killed in 2000.

Another editor, Yuly Mazur of the Odessa daily Yug, was also presumed to have been murdered for his journalistic work in 2000, although CPJ could not identify a clear motive for the killing. Mazur’s body was found on the street in Odessa. An official autopsy concluded that the cause of death was ethyl alcohol intoxication. His colleagues, however, insisted that he had never drunk alcohol and had received threatening phone calls prior to his death. Yug had recently run a series of articles implicating a local police chief in corruption.

Clumsy attempts by the government to muffle the Gongadze affair provoked a week-long series of demonstrations in which protesters raised the slogan “Ukraine without Kuchma” and called for the resignations of the president, the interior minister, the Security Council chairman, and the prosecutor general. The government also made numerous attempts to muzzle the few publications who covered the Gongadze scandal from a critical perspective. Just days after Moroz released his tape of Kuchma’s alleged conversation about Gongadze, for example, a state-run printer refused to print the Socialist Party weekly Tovarysh.

Even foreign media outlets were openly harassed in response to their coverage of the Gongadze scandal. The Kyiv office of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty endured several hostile tax audits and was threatened with closure. Tax police forced Lidia Wolanskyj, a Canadian national who published an English-language business magazine called The Eastern Economist, to leave the country after subjecting the magazine to similar bureaucratic harassment. Wolanskyj’s departure followed an editorial in which The Eastern Economist criticized the ineffectual government investigation into Gongadze’s disappearance.

Ukraine’s poverty and economic underdevelopment inhibit the development of an independent press, making individual journalists and media operations vulnerable to pressure from the government. Media outlets struggle to attract investors and sell advertising space, as well as to find affordable newsprint, office space, publishing facilities, and distribution networks. Government officials frequently harass companies that lease office space to independent media outlets.

In March, a large fine imposed in a libel judgment against the Lviv daily Ekspres triggered demonstrations around the country that were supported by nearly 200 newspapers and several dozen television and radio stations. In September, some 200 journalists demonstrated in front of the Parliament building in Kyiv, demanding a US$100 cap on libel fines and other amendments to local press laws.

In the middle of the Gongadze crisis at the end of the year, Kuchma ordered the government to come up with a program to end censorship and provide legal protections for the independent press. Given the regime’s long record of harassing journalists and suppressing independent media, the move struck most observers as hypocritical.

Jed Sunden, Kyiv Post

Sunden, publisher of the Kyiv Post, Ukraine’s leading English-language newspaper, was stopped at Kyiv’s international airport and denied entry into the country.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it was not involved in the decision, while the Security Service, successor to the Soviet-era KGB, declined to comment. Sunden said the incident may have been related to his paper’s frequent criticism of the slow pace of reforms in Ukraine. The ban against him was lifted on April 13, following pressure from the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.

Valentina Vasilchenko, Antenna

Some four months after her investigative series on police corruption began appearing in the independent weekly Antenna, two men armed with blunt instruments attacked reporter Vasilchenko in the stairwell of her apartment building in the town of Cherkassy.

Vasilchenko refused to be hospitalized after the attack, but medical examination showed she had suffered a concussion, severe skull injuries, and several bruises on her arms during the attack, which took place at around 11:45 a.m. on August 14.

According to editors at Antenna, the attack may have been provoked by Vasilchenko’s series on the “Khristinovka Syndrome,” which appeared in Antenna over four weeks in April. The articles chronicled police corruption in the town of Khristinovka, including a case of manslaughter allegedly committed by police but blamed on an innocent man. (The defendant in that case was brutally beaten and had to be hospitalized on June 11, a day before he was supposed to testify in court. On July 19, another defense witness in the case was also assaulted. Vasilchenko covered both those attacks for Antenna.)

In an August 21 protest letter to President Leonid Kuchma, CPJ noted that police had made no progress investigating the attack.

Georgy Gongadze, Ukrainska Pravda

Gongadze, editor of the news Web site Ukrainska Pravda (, which often featured critical articles about President Leonid Kuchma and other Ukrainian officials, disappeared in Kyiv on September 16. On the night of November 2-3, a farmer discovered a headless corpse outside the town of Tarascha. Local journalists immediately speculated that it might be Gongadze. And in late November, a massive political scandal erupted after an opposition leader released an audiotape that seemed to implicate Kuchma and two senior aides in Gongadze’s disappearance. (See complete account on page 37)

Silski Visti

One of the most popular newspapers in the country, the Kyiv-based opposition daily Silski Visti, suspended publication under extreme government pressure that the paper viewed as official retaliation for its leftist political orientation.

Five days later, on October 4, the Supreme Arbitrage Court upheld the decision of local tax authorities to fine the paper about 1.8 million hryvnas (US$340,000) for alleged tax evasion.

The government first moved against Silski Visti on March 15, when tax authorities froze the paper’s bank accounts and seized over one million hryvnas (US$183,335) in unpaid property taxes. They also confiscated newsprint from the paper’s printer, thus blocking publication for several days.

On March 20, President Leonid Kuchma told the press that he had reversed these sanctions, and that the paper was free to resume publication. At the suggestion of several members of parliament, Kuchma also announced the creation of a special commission, to consist of tax officers, prosecutors, and press representatives, to arbitrate the dispute between the paper and the tax authorities.

All sanctions were officially lifted the next day. At the end of the summer, however, tax authorities again tried to collect the fine. Silski Visti‘s editorial staff refused to comply and sent the case to the Supreme Arbitrage Court.

On October 17, dozens of leftist and centrist lawmakers staged a five-minute walkout from parliament to protest the government’s persecution of Silski Visti. The paper resumed publication on October 21, but the fine was still pending at year’s end.

Yuly Mazur, Yug

Mazur, the 63-year-old editor of the independent Russian-Ukrainian daily Yug, was found late at night near his house in Odessa. He died before an ambulance could take him to the hospital. Forensic experts attributed the death to “ethyl alcohol intoxication,” Mazur’s colleagues told the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN.

However, Mazur’s colleagues suspected their editor had been poisoned. They said he was a teetotaler who had recently received telephone death threats, which they believed were provoked by Yug articles about corruption in local law enforcementy agencies. On December 3, however, the local police chief told journalists that he could see “nothing criminal in Yuly Mazur’s death.”