Attacks on the Press 2010: Ukraine

Top Developments
• Provincial reporters targeted in a series of attacks; editor reported missing.
• Television journalists continue to face heavy political influence.

Key Statistic
1: Mastermind identified in Gongadze murder. Prosecutors stir controversy by blaming only a dead official for the plot.

The disappearance of a critical editor, a series of violent attacks, and several instances of politicized government regulation fueled deteriorating press freedom conditions. Authorities brought charges against another suspect in the 2000 murder of editor Georgy Gongadze, but they ended their long investigation amid controversy by naming a dead official as the sole mastermind.


Main Index
Europe and Central Asia
Regional Analysis:
On the Runet, Old-School
Repression Meets New

Country Summaries
Other nations

Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Kremlin politician who served as prime minister under former President Leonid Kuchma, won the presidency after two rounds of voting that international observers considered free and democratic. Yanukovych outpaced 17 candidates in January balloting, then held off pro-Western rival Yulia Timoshenko, the prime minister, in a February run-off. Years of political squabbling between Timoshenko and her sometime-ally, former president Viktor Yushchenko, influenced voters’ choices, as did Ukraine’s disputes with Russia over natural gas supplies and the effects of the global economic crisis on national finances, analysts said.

To offset his pro-Russia image, Yanukovych traveled in the spring to Brussels and Strasbourg, where he met with European Union officials and promised to pursue press freedom and economic integration with Europe. “As president, I will guarantee freedom of the media and appropriate investigation of any facts of their oppression,” he told members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg in April. “Strict observance of fundamental rights and freedoms will remain constantly under my personal supervision in order to ensure equal opportunities for all,” the president said, according to his press office. The same month, the Interior Ministry announced it would be more aggressive in probing attacks on the press, and said that any allegations involving the police would be reported directly to the minister.

But the high-level statements did not reflect the situation on the ground, CPJ research showed. More than two dozen journalists were subjected to violent attacks in 2010, most of them in the provinces, according to the Kyiv-based press freedom group Institute of Mass Information (IMI) and local press reports. In at least 10 attacks, local officials or law enforcement agents were identified as perpetrators, CPJ research showed. “Ukraine took the Russian way of media development, which means state control over television, hardly available public information, and unsolved crimes against journalists,” IMI said in an October assessment of Ukraine’s press freedom record.

The most brutal assault happened in March in the western city of Kolomyya, where Vasyl Demyaniv, chief editor of the independent newspaper Kolomyisky Vestnik, was hospitalized with a fractured skull and broken knee after two unknown men attacked him in the street. Demyaniv’s colleagues said the attack was related to his critical reporting on local authorities. A few days before the attack, city officials had asked a court to evict the newspaper from offices it rented in a municipal building, according to news reports and IMI. Although police detained two suspects and brought them to court in September, both men said they were coerced into confessing involvement in the attack, the Kyiv-based news agency UNIAN reported. Demyaniv did not recognize the suspects, and prosecutors did not disclose any motive for the attack, the news agency said. The case was pending in late year.

Journalists cited several instances in which political pressure influenced news coverage. In May, journalists from two Kyiv television stations, STB and Channel 1+1, issued public letters accusing management of suppressing material critical of Yanukovych or the government. Both authorities and station managers denied influencing editorial policies.

Two independent television channels accused Valery Khoroshkovsky, head of the National Security Service (known by its Ukrainian acronym SBU), of improperly influencing the award of public broadcast frequencies. In June, a district court in Kyiv revoked frequencies awarded to Channel 5 and TVi in a January tender by the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council, local press reports said. The court acted at the request of the Inter Media Group, which news accounts said was owned by Khoroshkovsky and run by his wife. The company, which had competed for the frequencies, claimed the council lacked a quorum when the January awards were made.

In a letter to Yanukovych, Channel 5 and TVi accused the SBU chief of influencing the court and urged the president to intervene. In addition to his business interests and SBU office, Khoroshkovsky was a member of the High Justice Council, the government body responsible for nominating and dismissing judges at all levels. Khoroshkovsky denied involvement in the matter, and Yanukovych refused to intervene.

SBU agents were also accused of intimidating journalists. In June, a man who identified himself as an SBU agent threatened to deport Artyom Skoropadsky, a Russian journalist for the business daily Kommersant-Ukraina, if he did not stop reporting on opposition politicians and right-wing activists, the Web-based news agency Ukranews reported. The SBU press office denied that the individual making the threat was an agent. The following month, SBU agents in Kyiv summoned blogger Oleg Shinkarenko and forced him to write a statement pledging he would stop criticizing Yanukovych, the news website TSN reported. And in October, Konrad Schuller, a reporter for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, accused the SBU of following him and harassing his sources, local press reports said. The agency initially denied the accusation but later acknowledged following him, the local press reported. The agency said the journalist’s press accreditation had expired, an explanation that sparked skepticism.

One editor went missing while preparing a critical story about officials in the eastern Kharkiv region, according to a colleague and news reports. Vasyl Klymentyev, editor of the independent weekly Novyi Stil, was last seen leaving his home with an unknown man in a BMW on August 11. His deputy, Petr Matviyenko, told the Ukrainian service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) that he and Klymentyev had photographed what he described as the lavish homes of local officials just two days before the disappearance. Regional authorities reported finding the editor’s cell phone near a lake outside Kharkiv, according to local press reports, but no other progress was reported by year’s end.

Klymentyev’s disappearance resurrected the raw emotions and deep-seated feelings of injustice that had long surrounded the murder of the muckraking editor Georgy Gongadze. Gongadze went missing in Kyiv in September 2000; two months later, his decapitated body was discovered on a farm outside the city. On the 10th anniversary of the journalist’s murder, Ukrainian prosecutors announced they had finished the probe and had indicted Aleksei Pukach, a former Interior Ministry general, on charges of strangling Gongadze and ordering three other officers to behead the journalist. The officers had been sentenced to prison in 2008.

Authorities also named the late Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko as the sole mastermind in the murder. Kravchenko died of two gunshots to the head on the day in 2005 that he was scheduled to give investigators a statement in the Gongadze case. To great skepticism, authorities ruled at the time that Kravchenko’s death was a suicide.

Stirring renewed criticism, authorities declined to bring charges against Kuchma, the former president. Kuchma had been suspected in Gongadze’s killing ever since audiotapes made secretly by his former bodyguard surfaced in November 2000; on those recordings, Kuchma is heard instructing Kravchenko to “drive out” Gongadze and “give him to the Chechens,” according to transcripts obtained by news agencies.

Gongadze’s widow, Myroslava Gongadze, accused authorities in September of trying to close the case by laying sole blame on Kravchenko, local and international press reported. “Kravchenko did not have any personal motives to order Georgy’s murder,” she told RFE/RL’s Russian service.