Attacks on the Press 2001: Ukraine

Legal harassment, violence, and death continued to stalk Ukrainian journalists in 2001. Two murders underscored the continuing dangers, as did the stalled investigation into the murder of Internet journalist Georgy Gongadze. More than a year after Gongadze’s headless corpse was discovered in November 2000, and after months of allegations about possible presidential involvement in his death, the case remained unsolved.

The high-profile Gongadze scandal, branded “Kuchmagate” after audiotapes implicating President Kuchma in the murder were released in November 2000, sparked a domestic political crisis and compromised Ukraine’s reputation abroad. In July, U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice stressed that U.S.-Ukrainian relations largely depended on the outcome of the case and other democratic reforms. Despite tremendous international and local pressure on Kuchma throughout 2001, Ukrainian authorities seemed determined to obstruct the investigation.

Adding insult to injustice was Kuchma’s June speech marking the country’s Day of the Journalist. “It is hard to remember some significant event, pluses or minuses in the life of our society,” he said, “that have not been freely written about, including by those who call themselves the opposition media.”

Kuchma’s claim angered a press corps chilled by two years of press freedom assaults. Though the Gongadze murder occurred in 2000, it dominated Ukrainian news throughout 2001, with almost monthly developments that often bordered on the bizarre.

In February 2001, Kuchma announced that Russian forensic analysts had confirmed that the headless corpse found in 2000 was Gongadze’s. In early March, after the Prosecutor General’s Office ordered another forensic examination of the body, DNA analysis conducted in Germany concluded that the body was not Gongadze’s. Soon after, Kuchma invited the U.S. FBI to help in the investigation. The FBI found that the corpse was Gongadze’s after all.

Another bombshell came in May, when Internal Affairs Minister Yuri Smyrnov announced that the murder had been solved. He claimed the crime was an act of hooliganism linked to an elusive mafia boss named Cyclops. Smyrnov also announced that the two perpetrators were dead. In a statement, CPJ expressed severe doubts about Smyrnov’s statements, but the prosecutor and law enforcement officials clung to their theory.

On the first anniversary of Gongadze’s disappearance, his widow, Myroslava Gongadze, called for the creation of a special international commission to investigate the case. CPJ supported the request, as did the Council of Europe, but the Ukrainian government did not respond.

In an attempt to close the case, the pro-Kuchma Labor Ukraine political party hired the private American investigative agency Kroll Associates to investigate Gongadze’s murder. While Kroll concluded that no convincing evidence implicated Kuchma in the murder, critics charged that the scope of Kroll’s investigation was very limited. Nor did Kroll determine a motive for the crime or name its perpetrators. No significant developments have been reported since then.

In 2001, two journalists were murdered in Ukraine, and both cases remained unsolved at year’s end. On June 24, Oleh Breus, publisher of the regional weekly XXI Vek in the provincial city of Luhansk, was shot dead outside his home. Although the ongoing investigation had produced no results at press time, a confidential source told CPJ that evidence links Breus’ murder both to his business interests and to material published in XXI Vek. CPJ continues to follow the case.

Igor Aleksandrov, director of Tor, an independent television company based in Slavyansk in eastern Ukraine, was brutally attacked by club-wielding thugs on the morning of July 3, as he entered Tor’s offices. He was rushed to the local city hospital, but he never regained consciousness and died from head injuries four days later.

Aleksandrov’s colleagues believe the murder was connected to his television program, “Bez Retushi” (Without Retouching), which often addressed government corruption and organized crime. In late August, law enforcement officials arrested a suspect and claimed that Aleksandrov’s murder was a case of mistaken identity, unconnected to his journalism.

In December, a parliamentary commission examining the case voiced its doubts about the “mistaken identity” theory and accused the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) of falsifying evidence. Despite these concerns, the Prosecutor General’s Office charged the suspect, and the Donetsk Regional Court scheduled his trial for September 11, 2002. Due to domestic outrage over this long delay, the court first rescheduled the trial of the alleged murderer for late January 2002 but then postponed it until early March, the local news agency Interfax-Ukraina reported. Aleksandrov’s colleagues and family still believe that he was killed because of his work, and CPJ’s research on the case also indicates the murder came in reprisal for his hard-hitting television program.

These murders led to a strange government decision. In December, the Internal Affairs Ministry authorized journalists covering sensitive topics, such as corruption, to carry guns with rubber bullets. Authorities appeared to be either acknowledging their powerlessness to maintain law and order or abdicating their responsibility for doing so. Either way, the move drew widespread criticism from the media and press freedom organizations.

In April, citing declining press freedom and human rights conditions in Ukraine, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Monitoring Committee recommended suspending Ukraine’s membership in the Council of Europe. While Ukraine retained membership at year’s end, the Monitoring Committee’s highly unusual step demonstrated the gravity of human rights and press freedom abuses in the country.

Ukraine’s new Criminal Code, which took effect in September, repealed criminal penalties in libel cases. It also introduced severe punishments, including fines and prison terms, for obstructing journalistic work and for persecuting journalists who criticize the government. Whether officials will enforce the new law remains to be seen. In May, CPJ named Kuchma one of the Top Ten Enemies of the Press. See CPJ’s 2001 Enemies list.

January 30

Yanina Sokolovskaya, Izvestia

At around 8:20 p.m. on January 30, an unidentified, knife-wielding assailant assaulted Sokolovskaya, Kyiv correspondent for the Moscow daily Izvestia, in the entranceway of her apartment building.

The journalist managed to escape and hide in an apartment on the ground floor, and the assailant fled after threatening to return to finish her off, Sokolovskaya told local media. She suffered knife cuts on her hands and face.

Izvestia editor Mikhail Kozhokin told Russian television that Sokolovskaya had been under surveillance for a week prior to the attack, presumably by the Ukrainian police or security services.

Kozhokin claimed that the attack was provoked by Sokolovskaya’s recent interview with Yuliya Tymoshenko, a former deputy prime minister who had recently been ousted from the government amid charges of corruption. The interview was published January 26 in Izvestia‘s Moscow edition and on the paper’s Web site, but it did not appear in the Ukrainian edition.

Sokolovskaya agreed with her boss, arguing that the assault was related either to the Tymoshenko interview or to a series of articles she wrote on the alleged involvement of President Leonid Kuchma and other high-ranking officials in the September 2000 abduction and murder of Internet journalist Georgy Gongadze.

Two days after the attack on Sokolovskaya, Ukrainian deputy prosecutor general Sergei Vinokurov told reporters he had no evidence linking the assault to her reporting.

On February 5, police announced they had arrested a suspect who confessed to attacking the journalist in order to rob her. Neither the journalist nor her alleged assailant recognized each other in police lineups, however.

Sokolovskaya accused police of trying to present the attack as an attempted robbery in order to close the investigation as soon as possible.

February 5

Lyudmila Kokhanets, Golos Ukrainy

Kokhanets, a reporter for the Kyiv daily Golos Ukrainy, was attacked in the entryway of her apartment building.

She said that the unknown assailant choked her and demanded that she stop reporting on President Leonid Kuchma’s alleged involvement in the September 2000 abduction and murder of Internet journalist Georgy Gongadze.

The attacker let Kokhanets go, saying he would return if she continued to cover that story. Kokhanets told local reporters that she had received several telephone threats before the attack.

March 9

Dmytro Shurkhalo, Postup

Shurkhalo, a reporter with the independent daily Postup, in the city of Lviv, was detained by police at the railway station in the capital, Kyiv, where he was covering an opposition protest rally.

At around 7 p.m., Shurkhalo began interviewing students who were arriving from Lviv to participate in the rally. While he was conducting the interviews, a police officer approached him and asked for his identification papers.

Shurkhalo complied and presented his press ID to the officer, who passed it on to a man dressed in civilian clothing, and that man in turn passed it on to someone else. The journalist was immediately approached by another police officer and asked to show his identification papers again.

When Shurkhalo explained that another police officer had already taken his identification papers a few moments earlier, he was arrested and his tape recorder was confiscated. While being fingerprinted, he was questioned about his newspaper’s ownership and editorial policies.

The next day, the Kyiv Municipal Court sentenced Shurkhalo to 15 days in prison for hooliganism and using obscenities.

On Wednesday, March 14, the court reversed its sentence and ordered Shurkhalo’s release.

June 7

Oleg Lyashko, Svoboda

The Minsk District Court in Kyiv found Lyashko, editor of the independent Kyiv weekly Svoboda, guilty of defaming former prime minister Vasyl Durdynets and Gen. Ivan Hryhorenko, the head of the Interior Affairs Administration for the Odessa Region.

The Prosecutor General’s office began investigating Lyashko for alleged criminal defamation in July 1997, according to the local news agency UNIAN. The charges stemmed from several articles by Lyashko that appeared in the independent weekly Polityka in July 1997. Lyashko accused Durdynets and Hryhorenko of arbitrary and heavy-handed rule. Lyashko also alleged that both officials had engaged in illegal activities.

The verdict came almost four years after charges were first filed against Lyashko and after an earlier trial ended in acquittal. Lyashko was given a two-year suspended sentence and barred from all journalistic activities during that time, according to CPJ sources in Kyiv.

Almost a year later, in June 1998, Lyashko was formally charged with defamation under Section 2 of Article 125 of the Ukrainian Penal Code. In November of that year, the case was submitted to Kyiv’s Pechersky District Court. On December 23, 1998, Judge Mykola Zamkovenko acquitted Lyashko of the defamation charges, ruling that the articles did not violate Ukraine’s mass-media laws.

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, which resulted in the June 7 verdict against Lyashko.

June 24

Oleh Breus, XXI Vek
KILLED (motive unconfirmed)

Breus, publisher of the regional weekly XXI Vek in the provincial city of Luhansk, was shot dead at approximately 11 p.m. while driving up to his house accompanied by his wife and a friend.

As Breus exited his car, he was shot four or five times in the head and back at point-blank range. Neither passenger was harmed.

Eyewitnesses heard the shots and saw two men fleeing, one of them holding a pistol. The Luhansk weekly Kuryer reported that both perpetrators left in a car that was parked nearby.

The motive for the murder remains unclear. As publisher of XXI Vek, Breus was mainly responsible for financial matters. He had other business interests apart from the newspaper and also held a senior position in the regional Communist Party of Workers and Peasants.

XXI Vek editor Yuri Yurov told CPJ that the newspaper generally reflected Breus’ political positions and business interests.

Local police have launched an investigation into Breus’ murder. At year’s end, a confidential source told CPJ that there is some evidence linking Breus’ murder to both his business interests and to material published in XXI Vek.

July 7

Igor Aleksandrov, Tor

Aleksandrov, 44 and director of Tor, an independent television company based in Slavyansk, Donetsk Region, in eastern Ukraine, was attacked on the morning of July 3.

Unknown attackers assaulted Aleksandrov with baseball bats as he entered Tor’s offices, according to local news reports. Tor deputy director Sergei Cherneta described the attack to the regional newspaper Donbass: “All of a sudden we heard…blows and screams, after that we heard a moan. I ran downstairs…. Our manager was lying in the lobby in a pool of blood with his head cracked open. Two large baseball bats were left nearby.”

Aleksandrov was rushed to the local city hospital, where he underwent surgery. The journalist never regained consciousness and died from the head injuries on the morning of July 7.

Aleksandrov’s colleagues believe the murder was connected to his television program, “Bez Retushi” (Without Retouching), which featured investigative coverage of government corruption and organized crime. The program often criticized Slavyansk municipal authorities.

Soon after the attack, Donetsk regional prosecutor Viktor Pshonka launched an official investigation. The chief of the Donetsk Administration of Internal Affairs, Gen. Vladimir Malyshev, stated that revenge was the leading motive in the murder but did not elaborate.

Aleksandrov became well known in 1998, when prosecutors brought a criminal case against him for insulting the honor and dignity of a parliamentary deputy. The Slavyansk City Court initially found the journalist guilty but later reviewed its decision after criticism from Ukrainian journalists and international human rights organizations.

The deputy withdrew his defamation complaint against the journalist last year. That removed the immediate legal threat but did not clear Aleksandrov’s name, since his conviction was still technically under review. Claiming damage to his professional reputation, Aleksandrov appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, where the case was pending at the time of his murder.

In late August, law enforcement officials arrested a suspect, according to local press reports. The officials claimed that Aleksandrov’s murder was a case of mistaken identity and was not connected with his journalism.

A parliamentary investigative commission was established in September to examine Aleksandrov’s murder. In December, the commission voiced its doubts about the validity of the “mistaken identity” theory and stated that it knew who had really killed Aleksandrov, according to local reports.

While the commission refused to forward this information to law enforcement officials, it accused the Ukrainian Security Service of falsifying evidence in the case.

In mid-December, the General Prosecutor’s Office officially charged the suspect detained in August, Yuri Verdyuk, with Aleksandrov’s murder, local and international sources reported. On December 27, the Donetsk Regional Court scheduled Verdyuk’s trial for September 11, 2002. After public calls for an immediate trial, the court re-scheduled proceedings for January 2002; they were then postponed until March.

The journalist’s colleagues and family maintain that he was killed for his work, local sources told CPJ.

July 11

Oleh Velichko, Avers

Oleh Velichko, head of the Avers media corporation in western Ukraine, was brutally beaten by two unknown assailants.

The assault took place outside Velichko’s home between 11 p.m. and midnight. His attackers repeatedly said, “We are sick of you!” while they beat him, the Ukraina Sohodni news Web site reported.

Approximately US$250 was taken from Velichko during the attack, according to some local press accounts. He was taken to a local hospital where he was diagnosed with a concussion, broken ribs, and a bruised arm.

Velichko’s Avers Corporation owns the television station Avers and the local newspapers Avers Press and Lutskaya Yarmarka in the provincial city of Lutsk. Velichko’s colleagues believe he could have been attacked in retaliation for his television station’s news reporting.

Avers TV director Volodimir Sinkevich told CPJ that the station frequently criticized the misdeeds of local police officials, politicians, business executives, and gangsters. In recent weeks, Sinkevich said, the station had investigated the illegal construction of a private garage in a nearby national park.

The local police launched an official investigation into the assault, which they treated as a robbery. No progress was reported by year’s end.

August 26

Aleksei Movsesian, Efir-1 Television

Movsesian, a 23-year-old cameraman with the independent TV station Efir-1, in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk, was assaulted by an unknown individual.

The attacker struck Movsesian with a hard object between 11 p.m. and midnight while the journalist and a friend were walking in a park near Movsesian’s home.

Movsesian lost consciousness and fell to the ground; the attacker then trampled him. The journalist’s friend was not harmed in the incident, Efir-1 director Tatyana Kozhanovskaya told CPJ.

According to CPJ sources, Movsesian was taken to a local hospital, where he was treated for critical head injuries. In October, Movsesian regained consciousness and was released, the Ukrainian News Agency UNIAN reported.

Although local police have detained a suspect, they told the station director that their case hinges on Movsesian’s positive identification of that suspect, even though several other people witnessed the attack.

Police have not released the suspect’s name, and Movsesian was unable to identify him.

According to Kozhanovskaya, the police are treating the assault as a drunken brawl. However, a doctor at the hospital told Efir-1 that the cameraman’s alcohol level was below the legal limit.

Movsesian’s colleagues suspect the attack was linked to Movsesian’s work. “It is difficult not to connect [the attack] with local political developments,” Kozhanovskaya told CPJ. “Aleksei covered all the political clashes.”

One such clash occurred in April, when a faction of Luhansk City Council deputies forced Mayor Anatoly Yagofyorov out of office. During a City Council meeting, council deputy Vladimir Ladnyk allegedly assaulted Movsesian and tried to take away his camera. The police opened a criminal case against Ladnyk in connection with this attack.