Attacks on the Press 2005: Ukraine


Expectations were high that new President Viktor Yushchenko would sweep away the legacy of repression left by Leonid Kuchma’s authoritarian regime. Yushchenko won a December 26, 2004, presidential runoff held after hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded the streets of the capital, Kyiv, to denounce an earlier, rigged vote in which Kuchma protégé Viktor Yanukovych was declared the winner. The uprising, termed the Orange Revolution after Yushchenko’s campaign color, was seen as heralding a new era in which democratic reforms would take hold, with the news media as guarantors.

Inaugurated on January 23, Yushchenko pledged his commitment to fostering a free and independent press, and he vowed to prosecute political crimes such as the 2000 slaying of Georgy Gongadze, editor of the opposition news Web site Ukrainska Pravda. Allegations of high-level involvement in the Gongadze murder had dogged Kuchma throughout his second term.

As hope met reality in 2005, the press and the public found the new administration moving forward on investigations and reforms but leaving much work incomplete. The government reported arrests in the Gongadze case, but many believed that the masterminds would remain unpunished. Broadcast reform was widely discussed, but action was far more limited.

Yushchenko’s platform called for reforming the National Television Company of Ukraine (NTCU), the Soviet-style, state-run television and radio broadcaster. The national television channel UT-1, which is part of NTCU and covers 98 percent of Ukraine’s territory, was widely discredited for broadcasting false and misleading reports in the months leading up to the Orange Revolution. But turning it into a publicly funded independent broadcaster proved arduous. Tatyana Lebedeva, chairman of the National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting (NCTRB), which is charged with developing a reform plan, told journalists and advocates at a May briefing in Washington, D.C., that there is internal opposition to revamping NTCU. In particular, some government officials backed the creation of a new state-controlled broadcaster.

With little progress to show, Yushchenko appointed Vitaly Dokalenko as the new president of the NTCU in late October. Dokalenko said his top priority would be ensuring that UT-1 provides unbiased coverage in the run-up to the March 2006 parliamentary elections.

Throughout the year, the administration was embroiled in a politically charged dispute with NTN television over the private station’s bid to expand its broadcasting to 75 Ukrainian cities. NTN broadcasts in Kyiv and is financed by the Donetsk-based oligarch Eduard Prutnyk, an adviser to Yanukovych.

The NCTRB rejected the application, first made in November 2004, and said the station could gain access to the public frequencies only through competitive bidding. NTN took its case to court in Kyiv and won approval of its license expansion. In October, the Supreme Court overturned the expansion, saying the station had to compete for the frequencies. Natalya Katerynchuk, NTN’s editor-in-chief, called the government’s opposition a politically motivated attempt to settle scores and silence a political foe.

Whether motivated by politics or a desire to foster greater access to the airwaves, Yushchenko made clear his displeasure with the existing distribution of broadcast licenses. In March, he told a Council of Europe conference that the media are “divided between three families.” By most accounts, those families include Kuchma’s son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk, who owns more than 280 television broadcast licenses; Kuchma’s former chief of staff, Viktor Medvedchuk, who controls all major radio frequencies; and the so-called Donetsk business group, which includes Prutnyk and two other oligarchs in the industrial east who control more than 180 television licenses. “We see and understand this problem, and we are ready to find ways to resolve it,” Yushchenko said, leaving unsaid what his administration specifically intended to do.

The president’s own honeymoon with the media came to an end in July, when a reporter from Ukrainska Pravda asked at a press conference how the president’s 19-year-old son, Andrei, could afford a BMW and an expensive mobile phone. An angry Yushchenko admonished the reporter to be polite and stop acting like a “hired killer,” local reports said.

About 200 Ukrainian journalists and media activists called for an apology in an open letter to Yushchenko published online by Ukrainska Pravda on July 26. Yushchenko replied, but he did not apologize: “I highly value the role of the Ukrainian journalists in the victory of democratic forces during the Orange Revolution, and respect the point of view which the Ukrainian mass media takes in the processes of the democratization of the country… It is good that we live in a country where no topic or person is taboo for discussion. It is right that the president and his family live under the watchful eye of the press, but it is not a reason to take away my family’s right to private life.”

Yushchenko’s election reignited the long-stalled probe into the September 2000 abduction and murder of Ukrainska Pravda editor Gongadze. Investigators detained two police officers on March 1. Former Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko was found dead three days later—his death termed a suicide—just hours before he was to be interviewed under oath by investigators. On audiotapes made secretly by a former presidential bodyguard, Kuchma is allegedly heard to instruct Kravchenko to “drive out” Gongadze and “give him to the Chechens,” according to transcripts obtained by news agencies. Also in March, the Interior Ministry acknowledged that its officers had conducted surveillance of Gongadze shortly before he was abducted.

On August 1, the prosecutor general’s office announced that it had completed the first phase of its investigation and had identified four suspects in Gongadze’s slaying: police officers Nikolai Protasov, Aleksander Popovych, and Valery Kostenko; and Gen. Aleksandr Pukach, former head of the Interior Ministry’s criminal investigation department. The officers faced trial in late year, while Pukach was being sought on an arrest warrant. Prosecutor General Svyatoslav Piskun said authorities would continue to seek others believed to be responsible for ordering the murder.

In September, a parliamentary commission investigating the case accused Kuchma, the late Kravchenko, Parliament Speaker Vladimir Litvin, and former Ukrainian Security Services chief Leonid Derkach of plotting the journalist’s murder. The commission recommended that the prosecutor general open criminal cases against Kuchma, Litvin, and Derkach. But the commission, which dissolved after its sensational September 20 announcement, had no judicial authority, and prosecutors were not bound to act upon its findings. Its conclusions were met with virtual silence throughout the rest of the government: Yushchenko, the Interior Ministry, and law enforcement agencies offered no comment.

Gongadze’s widow, Myroslava, who was granted political asylum in the United States after her husband’s murder, said that Ukrainian authorities still lack the political will to solve the case. During a trip to Ukraine in April, she pressed Piskun to authenticate the bodyguard’s tapes so that they could be admitted as court evidence but did not get a commitment, the U.S. Public Broadcasting System program “Frontline” reported.

Despite arrests and reports of progress, the deep-seated flaws in the investigation led to additional political fallout late in the year.

In November, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France, found the Ukrainian government liable for 100,000 euros (US$118,000) in damages in a lawsuit filed by Myroslava Gongadze in 2002. The court ruled that Ukrainian authorities had failed in their duty to protect the life of the 31-year-old editor; had failed to thoroughly investigate his death; and had treated Myroslava Gongadze in a degrading manner by not giving her access to materials in the case and by issuing contradictory statements.

“By filing this lawsuit, I wanted to urge Ukrainian authorities to fully investigate my husband’s murder and punish the organizers and perpetrators of this crime who hampered the appropriate investigation with their deliberate actions or criminal inertia,” the Itar-Tass news agency quoted Gongadze as saying.

By the time of the ECHR’s ruling, top prosecutor Piskun was no longer involved in the case: He was fired by Yushchenko on October 14. The president’s office said Piskun had dragged out important investigations for too long. The former prosecutor’s deputy, Aleksandr Medvedko, was named to the post the following month.

High-level changes such as this were common during this period. In September, Yushchenko sacked his entire government, headed by his former Orange Revolution ally Yulia Tymoshenko, amid allegations of corruption. Yuri Yekhanurov, governor of the eastern Dnepropetrovsk region and a longtime supporter of Yushchenko, was approved by Parliament as acting prime minister on September 22 and immediately formed a new government. Its main task, he said, was economic reform.

After her dismissal, Tymoshenko said she would lead her political party, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, as an independent candidate in the March 2006 parliamentary elections, thus severing ties with Yushchenko. For his part, the president told reporters in October that his administration would ensure that the press could cover the campaign without fear of repercussions, UT-1 said.