Attacks on the Press 2002: Ukraine

During 2002, President Leonid Kuchma’s relationship with the United States hit an all-time low over suspicions that he sold a sophisticated radar system to Iraq. At home, his presidency was threatened by court rulings that opened a criminal case against him (and that were later overturned) for alleged involvement in the 2000 murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze. Increasingly isolated, Kuchma lashed out at critics in the press.

In the run-up to March parliamentary elections, the government flagrantly violated press freedom and censored the media. Kuchma denied his political opponents media access, and influential state and private news outlets that supported the president turned into Kuchma mouthpieces. Journalists in the capital, Kyiv, reported receiving explicit directives, or temnyky (lists of topics), from the president’s administration, prescribing subjects to be covered and how to report them.

With the Internet becoming an increasingly popular source of information in
the country, state officials continued to call for regulation of critical Internet publications. Currently, Ukrainian legislation does not regulate Internet media, as it does other press outlets. Consequently, the Internet is significantly less vulnerable to government pressure and censorship.

Ukraine remained a dangerous place for the press in 2002. Those who dared to criticize or cover corruption or organized crime often faced persecution. For instance, in late January, an assailant threw acid at an editor from the Berdyansk Delovoi newspaper in southeastern Ukraine, damaging her face and eyes, in suspected retaliation for the paper’s reporting. In addition, throughout 2002, tax authorities harassed, detained, and beat journalists.

The 2001 murder of journalist Igor Aleksandrov continued to make headlines. In May, a court acquitted Yuri Verdyuk, a suspect charged with committing the murder. Verdyuk died two months later of a heart attack, days before the Supreme Court ordered a new investigation into the killing. At the same time, Prosecutor General Svyatoslav Piskun announced that authorities had identified the crime’s mastermind, claiming they had a photograph of him, but offered no further information.

Authorities initially made little progress in their investigation into the 2000 murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze, despite the fact that audiotapes implicating Kuchma in the killing had been released in November 2000. In fact, officials effectively blocked the creation of an international investigative commission and efforts by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation to aid in the inquiry. Unable to rely on Ukraine’s judiciary, Gongadze’s widow, Myroslava, has filed a lawsuit against Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office with the European Court of Human Rights.

The pace of the investigation seemed to pick up, however, after Piskun became prosecutor general in July. He assigned the case to a new investigative team and charged a regional prosecutor and an investigator for tampering with evidence and abusing their power. The case against the two officials went to court in December and remained ongoing at year’s end.

ýn September 16, independent journalists and opposition members, along with thousands of others, commemorated the second anniversary of Gongadze’s disappearance by holding nationwide anti-Kuchma rallies. A Kyiv-based state broadcaster and some regional broadcasters did not air coverage of the rallies in a timely fashion because the outlets went off the air that day for what authorities said were routine maintenance checks. Earlier in the month, Piskun announced that a headless corpse found in a forest near Kyiv was that of Gongadze. The journalist’s mother, wary of the findings, demanded that a French forensic expert be allowed to conduct another autopsy. Eventually, the Prosecutor General’s Office agreed to the examination. At year’s end, the new forensic work was under way in Switzerland.

In October, Ukraine lost another journalist. The body of Mykhailo Kolomyets, director of Ukrayinski Novyny news agency, was found hanging from a tree in a forest in neighboring Belarus. The Prosecutor General’s Office was investigating the possibility that Kolomyets had been pressured into committing suicide. The journalist’s colleagues believe he may have been targeted for his work, but the official investigation was still under way at year’s end.

Mounting allegations of state interference in the press prompted Parliament to hold hearings on “Society, Mass Media, Authority: Freedom of Speech and Censorship in Ukraine” on December 4. Journalists testified about the existence of censorship, including temnyky and intimidation tactics. An administration representative denied government improprieties but admitted to using temnyky, although he said they weren’t directives but merely suggestions. The hearings, while providing a forum for journalists to voice their grievances, produced no corrective actions.

On a positive note, increasing government pressure seemed to unify members of the media. In October, a group of journalists produced a Manifesto of Ukrainian Journalists, which acknowledged the existence of political censorship. The group threatened a nationwide strike and established the Kyiv Independent Media Union. To date, nearly 500 Ukrainian journalists have signed the document, and several hundred have joined the union.

May 22

Yuliya Makalova, VIK

Makalova, senior editor of the local radio station VIK in the city of Kherson, was assaulted and robbed while she returned to her apartment in the evening, according to international and local press reports. An unidentified assailant threw her on the ground, kicked her in the head several times, and stole her bag, which contained a tape recorder, a notebook, and a taped interview with a Kherson mayoral candidate. None of her jewelry was taken. The journalist suffered a concussion.

Anna Osolodkina, chief editor for VIK, said that she was “certain” the attack was linked to Makalova’s work because the journalist was investigating allegations of corruption in the Kherson City administration at the time of the attack. Local police officials opened an investigation into the assault but consider the incident a robbery.

November 1

Oleksandr Panych, Donetskiye Novosti

Panych, a 36-year-old journalist and manager for the daily Donetskiye Novosti, disappeared in late November from the southeastern city of Donetsk and has not been heard from since. Donetskiye Novosti editor-in-chief Ryma Fil said that Panych had written articles about drugs and business issues, The Associated Press reported. Panych disappeared several days after he sold his apartment for US$14,000. Soon after, investigators found bloodstains on the apartment’s carpet. Prosecutors believe he may have been robbed but have not ruled out the possibility that his disappearance is related to his journalism.