Ten years after the murder of the opposition journalist, Georgy Gongadze, Ukrainian prosecutors announced that the investigation was completed and the case will shortly be referred to court. The investigation said the police killed Gongadze on the orders of the interior minister. Both at home and abroad, this decision was viewed as an attempt to cover up the real culprits. Meanwhile, freedom of speech is on the verge of collapsing in Ukraine, while the international community is becoming increasingly concerned.
On September 13, the Prosecutor-General’s Office announced that Oleksy Pukach, a former police general, killed Gongadze in September 2000 under the order of former Interior Minister, Yury Kravchenko. The Prosecutor-General’s Office said that Kravchenko ordered Pukach to kill Gongadze in order to stop his journalist activities. Pukach faces life imprisonment (Ukrainska Pravda, September 13; UT1, September 14). Kravchenko committed suicide in March 2005, hours before his expected testimony on the case, and the three policemen who helped Pukach kill Gongadze received their prison sentences several years ago. Questions still remain about Kravchenko’s death. Two bullet wounds were found in his head, so undoubtedly his suicide remains suspicious.
The Prosecutor-General’s Office conclusion leaves the main question unanswered: why did Kravchenko decide to eliminate Gongadze? Yury Lutsenko, who was an opposition journalist in 2000 and interior minister in 2005, said that Gongadze never wrote about the police. Therefore, Kravchenko had no reason to bear a grudge against him (Gazeta Po-Kievski, September 17). Gongadze’s mother and her lawyer suggested that the prosecutor’s conclusion was an attempt to whitewash the real culprits. “The Prosecutor-General’s Office wants to improve the authorities’ international image,” said Oleksy Podolsky, a journalist whom the police harassed in the early 2000’s. “They want to make the international community believe there is democracy in Ukraine,” Podolsky added (Kommersant-Ukraine, September 15).
The scandalous secret recordings allegedly made a decade ago in the office of the then President, Leonid Kuchma, by his bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko suggested that Kuchma, Kravchenko and the then Kuchma’s aide, Volodymyr Lytvyn, might have been involved in Gongadze’s murder. The prosecutor’s conclusion meant that Kuchma and Lytvyn were no longer suspects. Had the investigation confirmed Melnychenko’s version, the government’s reputation would have been damaged beyond repair as Kuchma wanted Viktor Yanukovych, who was elected president this past winter, to succeed him in 2004, which Lytvyn currently remains the parliamentary speaker and a key member of the ruling coalition.
Freedom of speech is in danger again after several years of relative freedom. A court in Kyiv confirmed last month that Channel 5 and TVI, two opposition television channels, would be deprived of several frequencies in and around Kyiv (Ukrainska Pravda, August 30). The Black Sea TV, an opposition channel, complained that the authorities wanted to close its political talk show (UNIAN, September 6). Interior Minister, Anatoly Mohilev, conceded that Vasyl Klymentyev, the editor of a Kharkiv-based weekly who disappeared in early August, could have been killed for his professional activities as he had criticized “some well-known people” (www.liga.net, August 30). Konrad Schuller, a journalist with the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, accused the Ukrainian security service of spying on him (Ukrainska Pravda, August 27), but Yanukovych’s aide Serhy Lyovochkin dismissed this as a “provocation” ahead of the Ukrainian President’s visit to Germany (Ukrainska Pravda, September 1).
Journalists polled by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation in early September assessed the level of freedom of speech in Ukraine at 4.3 on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being the worst score. This is better than 2.4 posted in a similar poll in March 2004, but much worse than 7 posted in March 2005. Most of the journalists polled blamed media owners for censorship, followed by editors, the Yanukovych administration, local authorities, and the ruling coalition (www.liga.net, September 16). The businessmen who control the mainstream media avoid criticizing the government for fear of repression, just as it was under Kuchma in the early 2000’s.
The international community has started to express concern. Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based international watchdog stated that freedom of speech has worsened under Yanukovych (Kommersant-Ukraine, September 2), and it also questioned the Prosecutor-General’s Office findings in Gongadze’s case (Kyiv Post, September 17). Several international journalist unions, including the International Federation of Journalists and the UK National Union of Journalists, called on Kyiv to launch a new investigation into Gongadze’s murder. They also doubted that the mystery of Klymentyev’s disappearance would be solved any time soon (Ukrainska Pravda, September 16).
Visiting US Under-Secretary of State, William Burns, said there were “grounds for concern” about freedom of speech in Ukraine. He said he discussed this with Yanukovych (Ukrainska Pravda, September 9). The US Helsinki Commission expressed doubts over the handling of Gongadze’s case by the Prosecutor-General’s Office and called on Yanukovych to launch a probe into Klymentyev’s disappearance (www.liga.net, September 16). On September 17, the EU issued a statement expressing concern over freedom of speech in Ukraine and hailed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) media commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic’s, intention to visit Kyiv in October to study the situation (Ukrainska Pravda, September 17). It will be difficult for Yanukovych’s administration to convince the EU at the Ukraine-EU summit scheduled for November that the country is still on the road to democracy.