Not safe to be opposition journalist in Ukraine
The week passed under the sign of the resonance of the disappearance of Georgy Gongadze, the editor and project manager of the opposition online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda. Georgy disappeared last Saturday (16 September 2000) and until now there is no information about his fate. Since it is not the first case of a journalist's disappearance and subsequent death, friends and relatives of the journalist are preparing themselves for the worst outcome. Since the time of independence no one murder (suicide) of the famous national journalists has been disclosed.
Around a year ago, Georgy together with several other open-minded journalists, founded the online newspaper. The electronic paper was immediately characterised as an outlet for containing very negative (critical) materials of the country's high officials. At the same time, it has become one of the first online publications offering a forum for the leaders of the national opposition from the both sides of the political spectrum.
Undoubtedly, high-ranged censors cannot be happy with the existence of the paper and particularly with its online form, which minimises any of their attempts to close down the media outlet. Georgy and his friends have survived many difficulties with the paper's financing, office space and computer facilities for its production. However, despite all the troubles, the newspaper is still on the Internet and gaining greater support and influence within Ukrainian society.
A couple of months ago, Gongadze received the first proof that some highly important people in the current Ukrainian political scene had become unsatisfied with his activities and tone of publications. Policemen visited friends of the journalist trying to collect information about him. Georgy himself noticed that he was under surveillance. Those activities were stopped after the open letter of Gongadze to the national General Prosecutor and the statement put him in all national media concerning the fact of surveillance.
As is apparent now, those who were interested in Gongadze's silence did not give up with their ideas; they just changed methods and strategy. At 22:30 on the 16 September, when Georgy had to meet his wife and two daughters, he disappeared. His friends who aware of the journalist's situation, as well as his reputation as the most critical opposition reporter have reacted almost immediately. Unfortunately, it has not brought any positive results until now.
At the same time, the impact, which this disappearance has produced on the journalists' community in the country, is worthy of special attention.
Not the first
Georgy is not the first opposition journalist who has been "dismissed" from fulfillment of his professional job in such a way. More often, the country faces a string of strange occurences, including, journalists' suicides, auto crashes, etc. Additionally, many journalists in Kyiv as well as in the provinces get warnings and threats by phone or mail advising them to give up their activities. The last parliamentary and presidential campaigns in the country have also demonstrated the success of the financial and tax pressure on the oppositional media.
Earlier this year Ukrainian journalists organised several actions of protest against freedom of speech restriction. The accident, which happened to Georgy, has become the last drop for many of them. Feeling that practically everyone can one day become the next victim of the powerful tyranny, Ukrainian journalists have united their forces in hope to find Georgy. They also express their serious disagreement and disappointment with the methods that are used by the State and influential politicians to stop freedom of speech in the country.
Development of events during the week
Saturday, September 16: Georgy Gongadze disappeared.
Sunday, September 17: Ukrainska Pravda informs of his disappearance, police starts investigation.
Monday, September 18: President Kuchma orders police officials to take the case of Gongadze under special control.
The Crimean Association of Independent Journalists publishes a statement, stressing the fact that a country cannot be called democratic if journalists are afraid to walk freely in the streets. National deputies Zinchenko and Holovatyj make first statements about possible connections between the disappearance of the journalist, as well as his politics and his profession.
Tuesday, September 19: press conference of the leading Ukrainian journalists.
80 journalists sign the open letter addressed to the President and national parliament.
Journalists demand personal responsibility of the General Prosecutor and Minister of Internal Relations in the investigation of the circumstances of Gongadze's disappearance. Parliamentary members support the journalists' demand.
Boldly, 232 national deputies ask for the immediate reaction and investigation of the case by police forces.
As a result of the open letter of the journalists to the president, Kuchma orders police to present him detailed information about all cases of crime against journalists in the country.
Wednesday, September 20: reaction of the international organisations. Paris-based international organisation Reporters Without Borders expresses its worries about the disappearance of the journalists and sends its statement to Ukrainian officials.
US Embassy in Ukraine is disturbed by Gongadze disappearance and follows the developments of the situation.
Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko gives the order to inform him regularly about the development of the investigation. Amnesty International announcesits protest in connection with Gongadze's disappearance.
National Deputy Volkov and his party Revival of the Regions promise to assist in the investigation. Volkov, who is known as one of the most powerful and richest oligarchs, has been heavily criticised by Gongadze in his publications. Just recently, Ukrainska Pravda reprinted a very critical and compromising article against Volkov from the Russian online publication.
Several days later, Gongadze was one of few journalists who were not allowed to enter a press conference of Volkov's party. That is why it seems to be quite logical for many journalists that Volkov can be connected with his disappearance. However, Volkov thinks that his political opponents can use the disappearance of the journalist in their war against him, accusing him in this crime.
Thursday, September 21: Mykola Dzyga, the head of the department, which deals with organised crime, leads a group investigation. He denies political motives in the Gongadze disappearance on the basis that Gongadze is not a political or public figure. Dzyga prefers to think that the journalist either has had an accident or has "voluntary" disappeared.
Saturday, September 23: at 12:00 am national journalists organise picket within the frame of the media action, "Find journalist, Georgy Gongadze!" Journalists invite all citizens to join them in this action and later the same day, at 20:00, to take part in the torchlight procession under the slogan "Who will be next?"
Natalya Krasnoboka, 23 September 2000
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Den', daily national newspaper
Kyiv Post, weekly national newspaper
Facty, daily national newspaper
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
UA Today, on-line information agency
Ukrainska Pravda, on-line independent