Attacks on the Press 2003: Ukraine

The 2000 murder of internet journalist Georgy Gongadze continued to dog Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, who was fighting for political survival in 2003. Gongadze, editor of Ukrainska Pravda, an online publication that often reports on government corruption, disappeared on September 16, 2000. A headless corpse believed to be Gongadze’s was found shortly after his disappearance, but the remains were not definitively identified until March 2003.

In 2000, secret tapes were released implicating Kuchma and other high-level government officials in the journalist’s disappearance. The tapes, allegedly recorded by a former Kuchma bodyguard, launched the “Kuchmagate” scandal, which became a rallying point for domestic opposition and international criticism. Demonstrators continue to mark the anniversary of Gongadze’s disappearance with mass protests calling for the president’s resignation, and Western governments, international organizations, and human rights and press freedom groups regularly chastise Ukraine for its lack of progress in investigating the murder.

In May, a former prosecutor was convicted of obstructing justice, forging documents, and planting false evidence at the scene of the crime, but he was immediately amnestied on a technicality. In August, Igor Goncharov, a suspect in the case, died in police custody, and his body was cremated before an autopsy could be conducted. A former police officer, Goncharov headed a criminal gang accused of several murders and kidnappings. Shortly after his death, a Kyiv-based press freedom organization released a letter that Goncharov had written prior to his death accusing senior government officials of ordering Gongadze’s murder.

Prosecutors originally dismissed Goncharov’s allegations but in September declared some details of his letter true, paving the way for the investigation’s first major breakthrough in late October–the arrest of former police officer Oleksander Pukach. Pukach, who had overseen the initial police investigation into Gongadze’s death, had been identified in Goncharov’s letter as a suspect.

Goncharov’s allegations also buoyed Kuchma’s opponents in Parliament. Opposition parliamentarian Grigory Omelchenko, who heads the parliamentary commission investigating Gongadze’s death, has called on a Kyiv court to launch a criminal case against Kuchma and other officials in connection with Gongadze’s murder, adding that there was sufficient evidence to consider them accomplices. Instead, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in December granting Kuchma immunity from crimes committed while in office, the Deutsche Presse Agentur news agency reported.

Many of the officials implicated in Gongadze’s murder are currently immune from prosecution. The constitution bars the president from seeking a third term in office, but in December, the Constitutional Court ruled that Kuchma could seek another term. The court decided that Kuchma’s first term, which began in 1994, did not count because it preceded the country’s first post-Soviet constitution, which was adopted in 1996.

In 2003, a few legislative changes appeared to have strengthened the country’s media. Amendments to the Law on Television and Radio passed in May lifted limits on advertising revenues, a change welcomed in the broadcast community. And in April, Kuchma signed a law banning censorship. The law makes it a crime to “deliberately intervene in the professional work of journalists,” while limiting financial awards granted in defamation cases. The law also prohibits state and local government agencies from filing defamation lawsuits

While the law is a huge step in theory, media advocates have only cautious praise for the legislation because it has had little effect on government authorities, including their practice of issuing temniki, or secret memos used to influence reporting. The memos instruct journalists how to report on politically sensitive issues, such as ongoing scandals, demonstrations, and corruption. Media outlets that do not comply with the instructions are targeted with tax audits, lawsuits, license withdrawals, and other forms of harassment.

Because the majority of Ukrainians get their news from television, controlling the broadcast media is particularly important to the government. Kuchma and his supporters dominate the airwaves through their control of influential national channels. In March, an opposition member of Parliament asked the government Antimonopoly Committee to investigate violations of the Television Ownership Law, which prohibits anyone from owning more than two television channels. Kuchma’s son-in-law was among those under scrutiny, but the committee ruled in May that it could neither confirm nor disprove the existence of monopolies.

With a growing number of Ukrainians gaining access to the Internet, online publications are becoming more influential and are therefore more likely to be monitored by authorities. In July, the government put Ukraine’s Internet domain under the control of the security service. In January, the prosecutor general tightened accreditation rules for journalists to gain access to government press conferences and other government events by requiring media executives to submit detailed applications on behalf of journalists. These new guidelines make it difficult for freelance and online journalists to work.

The ongoing attacks and harassment of the Ukrainian press has led to a growing sense of solidarity within the media community. Some advocates say that journalists’ ability to rally widespread support has restrained officials who might otherwise have cracked down even harder on the press.