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Human Rights

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Muzzling the media
Vanessa von Struensee witnesses press freedom in Ukraine go from dismal to dangerous.

If forewarned is forearmed I should have known, right off the bat. During my first days in the country, in 2000, I proposed a human-rights law course, only to be told by a junior law-faculty member that ‘human rights is stupid’. I persisted and taught the course anyway.

Although Ukraine has a number of media outlets, press freedom under the administration of President Leonid Kuchma is illusory. ‘Kuchma and his people imposed very tough restrictions on the press,’ said Gennadiy Potchtar, head of ProMedia, an organization with some US Government funding that helps train local journalists. ‘You either write positive stuff on the President or you don’t write.’ That statement was echoed by both writers and academics I met during my stay. Recently, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists included Kuchma on its list of the 10 worst enemies of the press for his ‘habitual censorship’. And Ukraine is consistently included among the world’s most corrupt states by the watchdog group Transparency International.

In recent years, several journalists investigating corruption in the country have died mysteriously. Freedom of expression, particularly press freedom, has come under increased pressure. Editors in the independent media have been repeatedly harassed by government ‘inspectors’. Others have been charged with libel.

And some, like Géorgiy Gongadze, have been murdered.

In the spring of 2000 Gongadze founded the website Ukrainska pravda where he specialized in exposing government corruption. As a result he was barred from government press conferences. That summer he complained to the police about being followed. Then, on 15 September, the young journalist disappeared. Ukrainian officials decided that the case did not warrant investigation.

When my students discussed President Kuchma’s suspected involvement in the ‘disappearance’ of Géorgiy Gongadze the allegations were met with cynical acceptance. Nor did Gongadze’s murder, or indications that senior Government officials might have been implicated in his death, seem to have much impact on the Ukrainian public. There were scattered protests in Kiev but none in Donetsk, where I lived. As the case proceeded the Ukrainian courts and police did their best to obstruct justice and thwart any investigation. The Commission of Inquiry created by the Ukrainian Parliament was refused the resources it needed to carry out an investigation.

Then, in late November, the Socialist Party leader, Oleksander Moroz, made public a tape of conversations secretly recorded in the President’s office, directly linking Kuchma to the murder.

On the tapes Kuchma discusses ways of getting rid of the insolent Gongadze, including handing him over to Chechen gangs.

‘I’m telling you, drive him out, throw [him] out. Give him to the Chechens,’ Kuchma rages. ‘That Gongadze... goodbye, good riddance.’

With this new evidence the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe called on Ukrainian authorities to ‘conduct an expeditious, full and transparent investigation into the disappearance or death of Mr Gongadze and to make known the results of this investigation as quickly as possible... to bring to justice those responsible for committing this crime.’ The International Monetary Fund (IMF) responded by freezing a $2.6-billion loan.

But most Ukrainians, like my law students, reacted with a sense of futility and passivity rooted in the decades-old authoritarian Soviet political culture. Indeed there is a lot more that needs to be done to create an active, informed public in Ukraine. With few exceptions what currently passes for civil society in Ukraine are groups with a few good English-speakers who enjoy favoured relations with funders and international agencies. The problem is they neither share their knowledge nor seek to empower others.

This state of affairs partially explains how the Ukrainian Government could repeatedly advance crackpot explanations of Gongadze’s death. After first denying their authenticity, Ukrainian authorities finally conceded that the tapes were real. But the Government then claimed the conversations had been doctored and purposely edited to incriminate Kuchma. The tapes confirm that government ministries were used by Kuchma to intimidate political opponents, judges and journalists.

The secret recordings were made by Mikhail Melnychenko, Kuchma’s former presidential security guard, who leaked them to the International Press Institute in Vienna. Melnychenko claimed to have made 1,000 hours of digital recordings since 1998. He expanded his allegations in an interview with the New York Times, alleging that Kuchma had embezzled more than a billion dollars in government funds ‘for personal or political use’. Melnychenko was subsequently charged with libel and forgery by the Ukrainian Government.

While I was trying to discuss the dimensions of the Gongadze case with my students another crisis erupted, which Kuchma may or may not have engineered – the purge of the Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko.

In April 2001 the Ukraine Parliament passed a ‘no confidence’ motion censuring Yushchenko’s cabinet for ‘failing to improve the economy and leading the country to ruin’. The vote was supported by a coalition of old-line communists who disliked his free-market reforms, and by corrupt oligarchs who feared they might lose their place at the trough. According to opinion polls, Yushchenko was seen as Ukraine’s most trusted politician and a distinct threat to Kuchma’s power. But Yushchenko had also been agitating for an investigation into the murder of Géorgiy Gongadze.

Throughout these events the international community remained largely silent. Washington eventually granted asylum to Kuchma’s former security guard as well as to Gongadze’s wife and two daughters. And there was a half-hearted attempt at sanctions. But Ukraine’s strategic position proved more important than internal corruption and media freedom. Wedged between NATO’s eastern fringe and Russia, Ukraine is the main route for Russian natural-gas pipelines to Europe. With 50 million hard-working, well-educated people, the country retains a significant military-industrial base. Kuchma signed a ‘distinctive partnership’ deal with NATO in 1997 but maintained strong economic ties with Russia on whom Ukraine is energy dependent.

‘I’m telling you, drive him out, throw (him) out. Give him to the Chechens,’ President Kuchma rages. ‘That Gongadze... goodbye, good riddance’

In late April last year my human-rights course ended. Participants, both professors and law students, unanimously concluded that the situation in Ukraine was deplorable. Political gangs ruthlessly manipulate elections and crush legitimate opposition groups while citizens refuse to speak out for fear of retaliation. Numerous independent newspapers have been shut down and journalists crusading against corruption have been intimidated or murdered.

Now, more than a year after Géorgiy Gongadze’s death, Ukraine has emerged from new elections with Kuchma clinging to power. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said that the election marked progress compared to the previous parliamentary vote in 1998. But that’s not saying much. The most likely outcome is a hung parliament with Kuchma’s party courting the support of independents to win key votes.

None of this is good news for media freedom in Ukraine. The fractious campaign saw two candidates killed and the usual biased media coverage. Reporters Without Borders said ‘the elections came after four years of continuous degradation of freedom of the press’. Ten Ukrainian journalists have been killed since the last elections in 1998 and 41 seriously injured. The group said most crimes against Ukrainian journalists remain unsolved and that most of the victims had criticized the police, prosecutors or influential power brokers. It called the ‘guaranteed impunity’ of assassins and attackers ‘the main threat to media freedom in Ukraine’.

There is much that the West can do to help the people of Ukraine enjoy their rights. We can intensify support for civil-society democracy and human-rights campaigns. And we can embrace more strongly those who want open, democratic and humane systems.

One of the main undertakings should be developing the use of the internet in Ukraine. The web vastly improves the means by which human-rights concerns can be reported, reflected upon and addressed. We can help Ukrainians create an environment where human-rights violators can no longer hide from public scrutiny. This is especially true where traditional media are tightly controlled by Government. In Ukraine, national television stations are controlled by the state or tycoons friendly to the President. Regional media are generally controlled by regional authorities. And general news coverage overwhelmingly favours pro-Presidential parties.

During the recent elections, candidate Yushchenko criticized government officials denying access to the media; destruction of campaign materials; harassment of campaign workers by law-enforcement officials and the use of disinformation techniques, such as funding phony websites and fielding candidates with confusingly similar names. His grievances were bolstered by independent observers and groups such as the Committee of Voters of Ukraine (CVU).

The next few years will be critical both to the West and to Moscow. The United States has offered massive financial support to Ukraine, which it sees as a buffer to Russian muscle in the post-Soviet world. And despite serious human-rights violations, the US hopes to include the country in an enlarged NATO.

Vanessa von Struensee is a lawyer specializing in international law and human rights. She was a Fulbright Professor of Law in Ukraine from 2000-01. She continues to research the digital divide globally as well as energy issues involving Ukraine, Russia, and the ‘Stans’.

However, the future of democracy in Ukraine is far from certain. It is unclear whether Ukraine’s diverse opposition parties can unite to form a majority in parliament. Will Yushchenko, on his return to power, be able to relaunch nation-building policies and bring Ukraine into Europe? Or will the country continue to be run by Kuchma and his cronies? Only the strengthening of civil society will change the way the Ukrainian Government exercises power over people. Only improved freedoms for the Ukrainian people will mean that the death of Géorgiy Gongadze will not have been in vain.

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New Internationalist issue 346 magazine cover This article is from the June 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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