In 2000, only four years after Ukraine adopted the Constitution that protected the rights of the press, a scandal broke out. Known as “tapegate”, former President Kuchma was recorded ordering the kidnapping and death of a Ukrainian journalist who was critical of his regime. The events that followed would set the precedent in Ukraine as a vicious cycle of violence towards journalists followed by demonstrations against it. Protests against the violence towards critical journalists have done nothing to prevent these actions, nor offered consequences for those responsible.
The Ukrainian Constitution was passed on June 28, 1996. It declared Ukraine a republic, with the power within the people. While censorship is prohibited and free speech and press are outlined, it is also stated that no citizen will be tortured or put under inhuman punishment. Up to the discretion of the government, these rights can be restricted if public safety is at risk. According to Dahl’s definition of a democracy, a democracy relies on the ability of citizens to express their needs, as well as have alternative sources of information. These two concepts rely on maintaining the rights of a free press. The direct contradicting of the freedoms outlined in the Ukrainian constitution, as well as restricting the press and offering violence and intimidation in its wake, are clear signs of democratic erosion within Ukraine.
The original red flag of backsliding was when Kuchma declared the need to silence Georgiy Gongadze. This was following Gongadze’s reporting on high levels of corruption in the state, published in his online newspaper, Ukrayinska Pravda. Gongadze’s body was found decapitated and tortured in September. Two months after this death, Ukranian politician Oleksandr Moroz called out then-President Kuchma for his involvement. He claimed that Kuchma’s bodyguard, Mykola Melnychenko, had proof of Kuchma’s actions. Shortly after, Melnychenko released what had sounded like Kuchma ordering the kidnapping and murder of Georgiy Gongadze. Melnychenko was charged with treason but released over a decade after the scandal. Four hours before Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko was supposed to testify on claims, he was killed with two gunshots to the head. It was ruled as a suicide. This was doubted amongst the general public. Four former surveillance officials have been charged with the death of Gongadze, but no mastermind has been determined in court.
This scandal contributed to mass protests in the capital of Ukraine from December that year to March in 2001. The mass demonstrations called for the removal of Kuchma from office, then more protection for Ukrainian journalists. The death was considered by many to be both censorship by killing, as well as unjust torture against a citizen. The protests brought about the organization Committee to Protect Journalist and the nonviolent resistance movement “Ukraine Without Kuchma!” However, these protests and organizations formed in wake of them, have done nothing but put a band-aid on a bullet wound. Significant intimidation has always stalked journalists in Ukraine, and many have reported direct attacks on their bodies by members of Parliament.
The best example of violence against journalist persisting after protests would be a car-bombing in Kiev in 2016. High-profile journalist Pavel Sheremet was driving a vehicle owned by his partner, Olena Prytula, on July 20, 2016. Prytula was the co-founder of online magazine Ukrainska Pravda, alongside Georgiy Gongadze. In broad daylight, on a busy street, Pavel Sheremet was murdered when a bomb in his car exploded. Ukrainian President Petro O. Poroshenko visited Sheremet’s funeral.
Following this brazen act of injustice, protestors once again flocked to the streets. Many took issue with how Poroshenko insisted that he was just as shocked. The demonstrators called for an intense investigation, and Poroshenko announced he would do just that. The investigation has been slow moving, with no suspects named and no trial taking place.
While intimidation and threats have plagued the lives of Ukranian journalists, the most recent incident was just in March. Police have been accused of physical assault on journalists that left one hospitalized.
Once again, Ukrainian journalists have suffered. Once again, the citizens’ cry for justice has done nothing to deter future violence. How are the peoples’ voices to be heard and changes to be made if they are doing everything in their power to do so- and nothing is happening? As it is, the world watches from the sidelines and views democratic backsliding in real time.
*Photo taken by unknown photographer during Euromaiden on 2.1.14. Described as “Ukraine Demonstration bei Demonstration gegen die Sichtheitskonferenz” (Ukraine Demo Munich), Creative Commons Zero License.