Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Murder of journalists as acid test

Why do Slovaks manage to achieve justice and Ukrainians do not so far?
26 March, 2018 - 17:31

On March 22, President of Slovakia Andrej Kiska appointed a new government with Social Democrat Peter Pellegrini at the head after his predecessor Robert Fico had resigned, the portal Aktuality reports. Kiska also announced that he and the new Interior Minister Tomas Drucker (the previous one, Robert Kalinak also resigned) decided to replace top police officers.

What caused political perturbations in the neighboring country? The murder of a journalist. Investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his girlfriend were shot dead on February 26 in Slovakia. Law-enforcers believe that the journalist’s professional activity was the most likely motive for the killer. A colleague of Kuciak said he had investigated into the embezzlement of EU structural funds and alleged ties between top Slovakia politicians and Italy’s ’Ndrangheta mafia. His material also touched upon people close to Premier Fico’s ruling party.

The heinous murder of the journalist triggered mass protests of Slovaks who demanded an open investigation into the killing and the appointment of a new trustworthy government in which there will be no people suspected of corruption or links with the mafia.

“Civil society in Slovakia has shown how active citizens should respond to this kind of tragic events. In this case, it is the murder of a journalist and his girlfriend. The ongoing investigation is looking into details,” Grigorij MESEZNIKOV, a Slovak political scientist, president of the Institute for Public Affairs, comments to The Day. “The behavior of some politicians, particularly of the previous government, cannot, of course, be an example to follow. Those of them who raised the biggest questions on the part of society were trying to remain in power in the first two weeks. But public pressure – with due observance of the law – forced them to go. Even such politicians as Robert Fico and Robert Kalinak, who consider power to be the greatest value, had to surrender. Slovakia has given an example of being able to correct political processes, when there are some deviations from democracy in the conditions of a relatively consolidated democratic system. Just a month ago many considered it a work of fantasy that the Fico government might resign, but today society believes that it is insufficient progress and they should make more insistent demands. But, under the constitution, the president can do nothing but appoint a new government. At the same time, owing to public pressure and the president’s position, the politicians who shake the population’s confidence were not appointed. It should also be noted that neither the organizers nor the perpetrators of this crime have been found so far. Of course, we want them to be found.”

December 22 marked precisely two years after the burial in Kyiv of the Ukrainian journalist Georgy Gongadze killed in 2000. The notorious case has been dragging on for almost 18 years. If we compare the situation with that in Slovakia, taking into account the time difference, we can recall that the murder of Gongadze also sparked mass protests – the “Ukraine without Kuchma” campaign – in the early 2000s. But it never resulted in any governmental changes. On the contrary, the most active participants were punished by imprisonment. As years went by, all kinds of events occurred in Ukraine, but those who ordered the crimes against Gongadze and the public activist Oleksii Podolsky are still at large. Only the perpetrators are serving prison terms. This is the main problem which testifies to the condition of politics, society, and journalism.


What does the situation look like from the outside? “The conditions for expressing one’s position in Ukraine at that time differed, of course, from those in today’s Slovak society,” Meseznikov says. “The Ukrainians had fewer opportunities then. Ukrainian society was not yet prepared to bring about radical changes. But further events, particularly the Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan, demonstrated the evolution of civil society’s maturity. Today, you are clearly different from what you were 18 years ago. Therefore, you have more conditions to bring the Gongadze case to the end. The Ukrainian political nation has become more mature, which I think is an essential achievement.”

What do Ukrainian experts think? “Of course, Ukraine in 2000 cannot be compared with Slovakia in 2018,” journalist and media expert Otar DOVZHENKO comments to The Day. “The difference is that the ongoing process in Slovakia is not being coordinated by the opposition in order to achieve some political goals except for removing the prime minister who is accused of having links with the mafia. ‘Ukraine without Kuchma’ was a political campaign of political forces. There were no chances in Ukraine at the time to derive support from society and the media. In other words, ‘Ukraine without Kuchma’ was a campaign of the minority, whereas what is going on in Slovakia today is the action of the discontented majority. It is a different question that the Ukrainian leadership still has not given a final answer about the Gongadze case. Likewise, we can say that the murder of Pavel Sheremet in 2016 in fact caused a stir in professional circles only. Investigation into this case is also being conducted rather sluggishly. All this shows that, in spite of all the stormy events after 2000, our country is still unprepared to respond to these high-profile murders.”

However, this does not mean that we should lose heart. We have in fact never done so. Den/The Day has been constantly spotlighting this high-profile crime.


At the invitation of the French Embassy and the French Institute in Ukraine, this writer represented Den the other day at a roundtable that discussed freedom of the media in Ukraine. The event was organized on occasion of the visit of Mr. Harlem Desir, the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media, and as part of Francophonie Day measures. What in fact interested the OSCE representative was first-hand information about the freedom of speech in Ukraine from Ukrainian journalists.

Before switching to the object of discussion at the meeting, let us note that Desir has inherited a lot of Ukraine-related problems from the previous OSCE representative Dunja Mijatovic who chaired the OSCE media office in 2010-17. Let us recall two problems in this connection. One of them is no end in the Gongadze-Podolsky case. Mijatovic had also in fact inherited it. She more than once called on the Ukrainian leadership to bring this high-profile case to the end. For example, when Kyiv’s Pecherskyi District Court convicted the main perpetrator Oleksii Pukach in January 2013, she stated: “Finally, after twelve long years of suffering and uncertainty for Gongadze’s family, friends, and colleagues, justice has been done. But those who ordered this crime remain at large.” (osce.org)

But this raises a question: did Ms. Mijatovic meet at least once “the living Gongadze” – Oleksii Podolsky, the aggrieved party in this case? “No, she didn’t,” Podolsky told The Day. “In reality, her office does not bind her to do so, by contrast with PACE representatives who must control this case because it is their duty. But, in addition to making right statements, the OSCE representative might have, of course, met me in order to know better about the course of investigation. She would have thus learned the true reason why all the leaderships of Ukraine do not wish to finish the solution of this crime.”

The other problem is “fresher.” It concerns complaints about the performance of the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media under the chairpersonship of Dunja Mijatovic. Den wrote about this a year ago (No. 46-47, March 17, 2017). Our contributor, journalist Natalia ISHCHENKO, emphasized: “First of all, it is the policy of top-priority cooperation with Russia and unwillingness to recognize hybrid threats from Russia against European countries and to struggle against the destructive activity of Russian propaganda resources disguised as the media – even though the European Parliament resolved in November 2016 that disinformation and propaganda on the part of Russia is one of the main dangers to the European Union and called for resolutely counteracting information wars.”

“It is noteworthy that in her latest report Dunja Mijatovic noted, among her main achievements, the establishment of a ‘continuous dialog’ with ‘Russian and Ukrainian journalists who spotlight the conflict inside and around Ukraine,’” Ishchenko writes. “The fact that a considerable part of Ukraine’s media community came out against this Russian-Ukrainian ‘fraternization’ called ‘Two Countries – One Profession’ did not much upset the OSCE representative. Mijatovic told Detector Media on December 30, 2016, that only ‘some representatives of the Ukrainian media community’ opposed her project, whereas about 200 media people signed the Address, in which Den roundtable participants urged Ukrainian journalists ‘to take a principled stand and support the European Parliament’s resolution, which unequivocally called Russian journalists ‘the instrument of as hybrid war’ against Europe, and to refuse to participate in the projects that promote the spreading of Russian propaganda.’ Among them are such well-known journalists and media persons as Vitalii Portnikov, Yurii Makarov, Olha Herasymiuk, Hlib Holovchenko, Oleksandr Kramarenko, Vasyl Riabchuk, Yehor Checherynda, Andrii Tychyna, Ostap Drozdov, Andrii Klymenko, Valerii Horobets, Ihor Chaika, Tetiana Kotiuzhynska, and Stepan Kurpil.”

Harlem Desir emphasized in his introductory speech that Ukraine should at last establish community television because many media, which belong to certain big owners, are biased. He recalled the case of journalist Mykola Semena in Crimea, at whom the Russian authorities are leveling unfounded charges, and the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet, which Ukrainian law-enforcers must solve.

As a matter of fact, the mentioning of the Sheremet case prompted me to remind the OSCE representative in my speech of another well-known case – the murder of Gongadze and the beating-up of Podolsky, – of which this organization has made more than one statement. This case has been for many years an acid test to gauge the freedom of speech in Ukraine and the condition of law-enforcement bodies and courts. There is more than enough evidence to pass a judgment on those who ordered the crimes, society is also aware of this, but the leadership does not want to put an end to this case even after all the tragic events in Ukraine.

The freedom of speech is measured not only by the possibility to express your thought (there seem to be no problems with this in Ukraine), but also by the reaction of the authorities to journalistic work, when media investigations or reports find a proper assessment in law-enforcement bodies. Here, unfortunately, there are big problems. Society in fact receives a great deal of information about crimes, corruption, and injustice. So what? What is the final result? Where is the punishment of the guilty?

Then I went on to broach one of the key issues – the work of Ukrainian journalists in the conditions of Russian aggression. First of all, one must say in no uncertain terms that the vast majority of Russian journalists are not journalists but a part of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. Not only Ukraine but entire Europe must know this because the Russian megaphone is aimed at the whole Western world. As far back as December 2016 Den condemned a joint project of the Ukrainian National League of Journalists and the Russian League of Journalists called “Two Countries – One Profession.”

Therefore, the new OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Desir, is facing serious challenges.

A special problem of Ukrainian journalism is absence of unity. The proof of this is attitude both to the abovementioned Gongadze-Podolsky case and to the coverage of Russia’s war against Ukraine. There is too much servility, venality, flouting, and failure to take an active stand. The conclusion is that the journalistic milieu needs a new platform which would bring together true journalists and set the tone for professionalism, position, and patriotism.


By Ivan KAPSAMUN, The Day