Local authorities close critical newspaper

New York, March 14, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the closure of independent weekly Dzerzhinets in the central Ukrainian city of Dneprodzerzhynsk and the harassment of its editor-in-chief.

Dzerzhinets was closed on January 30, after the Zavodskoi civil district court convicted the paper of defamation and incitement of religious and national hatred. Founder and Editor-in-chief Margarita Zakora said the decision is related to the paper’s highly critical articles about local businessmen and officials that revealed corruption in the city.

According to Zakora, authorities have tried to prevent her from launching a defense or filing an appeal by not informing her of court dates and blocking her access to case files. Zakora said she received a notice informing her of an appeal court session scheduled for January 30—three days after it occurred.

A week before, the same court ordered the seizure of property belonging to the journalist and the paper, and the payment of 140,660 hryvnias (US$29,071) in defamation damages to a local police chief for articles accusing him of corruption and intentionally violating the city’s laws.

This court session was also held without Zakora’s knowledge; she was informed of the decision January 31, when she found court notices stuck to her front door. Authorities have refused Zakora’s appeal, saying the time limit has passed. Zakora maintains she could not meet the deadline because she received the court’s notification too late.

“The closure of Dzerzhinets comes at the end of a seriously flawed judicial process which has denied our colleague Margarita Zakora the right to answer her accusers,” Executive Director Joel Simon said. “The paper Dzerzhinets must be allowed to appeal this verdict, which should be overturned. We also call on local police to investigate the attacks on Zakora and guarantee her safety.”

On July 12, pornographic cartoons of the journalist were pasted on the walls of her office building, the local library, and other public places. Dzerzhinets reporter Nadezhda Kuznetsova also received the cartoons and a copy of the paper by mail, which she turned over to the local prosecutor’s office.

On June 17, 2006 an unidentified gunman fired into her apartment window, days after the paper carried a letter to the editor critical of local businessmen. Police had opened a criminal investigation, but no arrests were made.