By Myroslava Gongadze
It is a sad truth of today’s world that the life of a journalist is often a dangerous one. We in the media hear daily reports of crimes against journalists, from intimidation to murder, and it is even harder when these are committed against our friends, family, and colleagues. A culture of impunity often obstructs our search for justice for these crimes and allows those responsible, whether they are state authorities or powerful elites, to block the people’s quest for the truth in the bloodiest of ways.
I came face to face with this unacceptable culture in September of 2000, when my husband, journalist Georgy Gongadze, was murdered at the hands of Ukrainian authorities.
The Road to Justice
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Georgy was an investigative journalist, the editor-in-chief of Ukrainska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth), an independent online newspaper that criticized the authorities and exposed corruption and cronyism in the administration of then-Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. When Georgy disappeared on September 16, 2000, my first thought was that he had been kidnapped by someone he had angered with his reporting. The journalistic community in Ukraine launched a highly publicized campaign to find him, but the authorities showed little enthusiasm for investigating my husband’s disappearance.
To many of us, this lack of involvement came as no surprise since none of the previous crimes against journalists or dissidents in the country were fully investigated. But even I did not suspect that such high-ranking government officials as the president could be behind Georgy’s murder.
In the months after his disappearance, I learned—from recordings secretly made in the president’s office by his security officer, Mykola Melnychenko, and later authenticated by a U.S. forensic expert—how seriously his work had been taken at the highest levels of power. I learned of how actively then-Prosecutor-General Mykhaylo Potebenko and his office worked to sabotage the investigation and orchestrate a cover-up of top state involvement.
Georgy’s decapitated body was found in November 2000, badly decomposed. It would take four DNA tests to confirm the body was my husband’s. His head was not found until years later. He had been strangled to death, beheaded, burned, and buried by his killers: four members of the government police.
I was granted asylum in the United States in 2001 and moved with my two young daughters, fearing my life was in danger.
But finding and bringing to justice the perpetrators and instigators of my husband’s murder became my life’s mission. Fourteen years after Georgy’s murder, we have been able to get partial justice. Three policemen and their boss, Gen. Aleksei Pukach, are behind bars. The former minister of interior of Ukraine, who, according to court documents, ordered the murder, allegedly killed himself by shooting two bullets into his head. But the masterminds of the crime have not yet been held to account. Despite public knowledge of their alleged involvement in the crime, they still enjoy privileged status and material comfort.
I continue the pursuit of justice for my husband because I believe that investigating, not only exposing, crimes against journalists is our obligation to those who fight to bring the truth to the people.
The fight has not been easy. From the start, authorities tried to sabotage the investigation and destroy my husband’s and my reputation by fabricating information about his disappearance and death. I had to spend hours and days in the prosecutor’s office battling the officials. My law degree and a supportive group of friends and family helped me to withstand the pressure and stay strong. All this time, my family and I were facing danger: I was being followed, my phones were tapped, and every day I felt more pressure from the authorities.
Later, when I realized that it would be impossible to find justice within Ukraine, I appealed to international institutions like the European Court of Human Rights. In 2005 the court ruled in my favor, stating that Ukraine had violated Articles 2, 3, 13, and 41 of the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to protect my husband’s right to life. According to the decision, the investigation was not adequate and caused much psychological harm.
Impunity in crimes against journalists like this sends a message to perpetrators—that they can control the media by using force against its members, that intimidation can continue. Bringing those responsible to justice is the final hill we must climb in our quest to save the lives of journalists and to further the cause of free speech and expression.
We must actively support those devoted to seeking justice for these crimes. I know from personal experience that fighting cover-ups, using the courts, and dealing face to face with dangerous and powerful individuals is frustrating and difficult and requires many resources, including devotion, dedication, fearlessness, funds, and tireless energy. Those who pursue justice are frequently in harm’s way.
The cause needs an international support system. The United Nations has taken steps toward building this system by approving a resolution to make November 2 the International Day to End Impunity in attacks against journalists and adopting the U.N. Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. These steps must carry forward.
This year, 2014, will have the first international, officially sanctioned day in which to stand in solidarity against impunity.
In honor of this day, I ask governments to uphold their international obligations to protect journalists and seek justice no matter how high the search leads. I ask international human rights organizations to support the family and friends of those who gave their life for the public good, and for these families and friends to stay strong and never give up the pursuit of justice, whatever the obstacles. I ask all of us in the media and the watchdog community to find the courage to stand up for the memory of our colleagues who have died in the line of duty.
Myroslava Gongadze is a journalist and activist based in Washington. Her husband, the journalist Georgy Gongadze, 31, was murdered in Ukraine in 2000. In 2013, the Pechersky District Court in Kiev convicted former police Gen. Aleksei Pukach of strangling and beheading Gongadze and sentenced him to life in prison. In March 2008, the authorities convicted Pukach’s accomplices, three former police officers. Former President Leonid Kuchma was indicted in March 2011, but Ukraine's Constitutional Court deemed key evidence inadmissible. Myroslava Gongadze and her lawyer continue to push for a complete investigation into who ordered Gongadze’s murder.