Live by the Pen, Die by the Sword
The war against journalists in Ukraine is getting bloody.
On the morning of July 20, the idyllic calm of Kiev’s leafy center was shattered. A bomb planted beneath award-winning journalist Pavel Sheremet’s red Subaru exploded, killing him instantly and raining down fiery debris on the quiet boulevard. Triggered by remote control, the assassination was intentionally visible, loud, and meant to send a message. What made the loss so hard for Kiev’s journalist community was that the 44-year-old Sheremet had survived the intimidation and censorship that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, moving from his native Belarus to Russia and finally to Ukraine, fleeing authoritarian presidents who aimed to control the press to secure their own political stability. Sheremet’s death has made many in the media fear that Ukraine has returned to its darker days of journalism.
Whether or not Sheremet’s killing was meant to send a message, the authorities’ response has sent its own. Knowing Ukraine’s miserable record for investigating violence against journalists, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko quickly announced that U.S. investigators from the FBI would also be joining the case. But in the months since Poroshenko’s announcement, the investigation has stalled or never started in the first place — to date, there have been no arrests, and no suspects have been identified. Even a statement by the prosecutor-general noting that the first deputy head of the national police had Sheremet under surveillance before the killing was not enough to impel the official to return early from his vacation to answer questions.
Sheremet’s murder is an unpleasant reminder that Ukraine is fighting another war beyond the ongoing conflict with pro-Russian separatists, one where journalism has become a new and dangerous front. The fight against institutionalized corruption that drove the Maidan protests in the winter of 2014 rages on — and journalists have become a major target. The Institute of Mass Information (IMI), a Kiev-based nongovernmental organization, has recorded 113 criminal offenses against reporters so far in 2016.
This new violence, as well as the government’s lack of response, is reminiscent of the intimidation and censorship that the media faced under the regimes of former Presidents Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych. The most infamous murder in Ukraine’s media history came in 2000, when Georgiy Gongadze, the founder of the country’s premiere investigative publication Ukrayinska Pravda, was abducted and later decapitated. At a time of increasing media repression under then-President Kuchma, Gongadze was investigating the leader’s links to corrupt businesses and, prior to his abduction, had said he was being harassed by the country’s security services. Recordings of Kuchma, publicly released in November 2000 by opposition politician Oleksandr Moroz, which were passed on from one of the president’s bodyguards, caught Kuchma ordering the killing of Gongadze in coded language. In the years that followed, successive investigations have failed to prove in court who ordered the murder, despite the recordings. Every year on Sept. 16, the day Gongadze was abducted, Ukrainian journalists march down Kiev’s main boulevard holding aloft the images of killed journalists. This year, Sheremet will be added to the list.
The recent backsliding on press freedom has been fueled in large part by the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine, where reporting on the conflict has brushed up against rising nationalism in the country. In May, Myrotvorets, or “Peacemaker,” a Ukrainian website that claims to reveal information about the “enemies of Ukraine” and is strongly suspected of having government links, published the names, employers, email addresses, and phone numbers of more than 4,000 local and international journalists who had obtained press credentials from separatists to cover the war in the east. Myrotvorets labeled thousands of journalists, the majority of them Ukrainian or from Western countries, accomplices to terrorism, making their contact information freely available to the public and open for harassment. Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, promoted the list of names on social media. Amid international criticism, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov defended his department’s actions on Facebook, saying that Myrotvorets was an ally and more important to him than complaining “liberal separatists.”
The leak and official response were a major step backward for Ukraine and its government, still struggling to live up to the lofty popular expectations of reform following the Maidan protests that ousted Yanukovych. After weeks of outcry from journalists and mounting international pressure on Kiev, Poroshenko finally condemned the Myrotvorets leak. But even in that brief moment of hope, there were signs that Ukrainian leaders failed to understand what journalism is and why it’s necessary. In the same statement, Poroshenko called on journalists not to write negative articles about Ukraine.
Emboldened by the lack of official response, another leak soon followed that contained journalists’ correspondences with an official from separatist-held Donetsk who was responsible for evaluating requests for accreditation and scans of their passports. Since the original leak of information in May, media freedom in Ukraine has continued to erode. Poroshenko’s statement was doubtlessly an attempt to hedge international criticism and growing domestic sentiment that journalists were somehow working against Ukraine. But, in practice, the compromise meant that in the months after no legal action followed the condemnation of the list and attacks against reporters have become more frequent.
This capped off what had already been a troubling summer for journalists in Ukraine. A day before Sheremet was murdered, Maria Rydvan, who works for Forbes’s Ukrainian outlet, was stabbed multiple times, and days later journalist Sergey Golovnev was followed on the street and beaten. In July, Hromadske TV was the victim of a pro-government troll attack seeking to tar the independent television station as a traitor for its critical coverage of nationalist groups. Foreign journalists who have criticized the deterioration of the media environment have also come under fire, like Russian journalist Anna Nemtsova, who received threats after writing a series of articles for the Daily Beast in July and August. On September 4 the studio of Inter TV, owned by Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash and considered by many Ukrainians to provide pro-Russian coverage, caught fire in a potential arson incident during a protest against the channel. Though it is unclear whether these events represent an organized campaign, they are a threat to governmental reform and transparency in Ukraine.
In recent months, a common topic of conversation with journalists in Kiev has been the failure of police investigations to stop menacing intimidation. As always, it is the local journalists who face the most harassment and are the most vulnerable. After Ukrainian journalist Kristina Berdynskykh published an article on the business interests of a member of parliament from Yanukovych’s former party, she began receiving death threats. Berdynskykh went public with the threats on Facebook and spent hours in police stations providing evidence and filling out forms, but months later the investigations have failed to yield any results. Russian-born journalist Katerina Sergatskova received a phone call threatening the life of her infant after her name — and phone number — were included on the first list released by Myrotverets. She also received threats over Facebook against her life, but after informing a police officer investigating the Myrotvorets leak, she says no action has been taken.
Despite the innate danger of working in this tense environment, the journalist community in Ukraine was initially divided on how to react. To be a journalist is to deal with a certain amount of harassment, especially if you write about politically charged topics while the country remains on a war footing. Some felt that though they may receive threats, the likelihood of anyone following through was slim. But the murder of Sheremet has changed this calculus.
What has become clear is that government officials can’t — or won’t — protect journalists. Tetiana Popova, Ukraine’s deputy minister of information policy, resigned on Aug. 3, over what she said was the government’s failure to take threats against journalists seriously. “I personally went to [the] national police and gave some information to [the] investigator from [the] national police, but nothing happened,” she said in an interview with Hromadske TV, referring to the information she gave police after receiving threats for defending journalists publicly following the Myrotvorets leak. According to Popova, almost all the cases involving threats against journalists and their defenders aren’t being investigated properly, including her own.
Beyond the inadequate response from authorities, there is also increasing evidence that forces in the Ukrainian government are working to intimidate the media. The International Federation of Journalists has said state security services are believed to have “close links” with the elements responsible for the Myrotvorets leak. Oksana Romanyuk, the director of IMI and the Ukrainian representative for the press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders, sees Myrotvorets as an outgrowth of an earlier pro-government “internet army” project, which was composed of volunteers originally organized by the Ministry of Information in 2015 to counter Russian propaganda online. There is currently not enough evidence to prove that Myrotvorets or those behind the troll attack on Hromadske TV are directly linked to Kiev, but there is growing concern among journalists and watchdog organizations that government forces could be using such outsourced operations to try to silence critics while dodging culpability.
If the media climate continues to decline, it will sabotage Ukraine’s ability to emerge as a modern and transparent country. For now, there are still levers of international pressure to influence Ukrainian leaders during this rocky transition stage. The perpetrators of Pavel Sheremet’s murder need to be brought to justice, threats to journalists must be taken seriously, and there needs to be accountability for coordinated online attacks on journalists and their reputations. Any less is to leave Ukraine to drift back into a country where a silenced press hides the egregious actions of its leaders and where corruption flourishes amid willful opacity — just like Belarus and Russia, the countries Sheremet left behind.
Photo Credit: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images