Ukraine’s im­per­iled press free­dom

The Baltic Times - - COMMENTARY - Nina Og­ni­anova

On July 20, 2016, Pavel Sheremet, a prom­i­nent Be­laru­sian-born jour­nal­ist, was head­ing to work at the stu­dios of Ra­dio Vesti in Kyiv, when the Subaru he was driv­ing blew up at a busy in­ter­sec­tion. Nearby win­dows shook, and birds scat­tered into the air. Sheremet, 44, died al­most in­stantly, and the Ukraine Pros­e­cu­tor’s Of­fice quickly con­firmed that a bomb had caused the ex­plo­sion. But one year later, Sheremet’s mur­der re­mains un­solved.

Had this been a ran­dom car bomb­ing, my or­ga­ni­za­tion, the Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists (CPJ), would not have spent the last year in­ves­ti­gat­ing it or push­ing the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment for a full in­quiry. But Sheremet was a tire­less ad­vo­cate for trans­parency and democ­racy, work­ing as a jour­nal­ist first in his na­tive Be­larus, then in Rus­sia, and most re­cently, in Ukraine. Un­til his mur­der is solved, the truth that he sought in life will elude his coun­try­men in his death.

Mur­der is the ul­ti­mate form of me­dia cen­sor­ship. When jour­nal­ists are slain, self-cen­sor­ship seeps into the work of oth­ers. And when a coun­try – es­pe­cially a coun­try like Ukraine, which as­pires to Euro­pean Union mem­ber­ship – fails to bring the killers to jus­tice, its stated com­mit­ment to democ­racy and the rule of law rings hol­low.

That is where things stand with Sheremet’s case. Over the last year, Ukrainian of­fi­cials have made many pledges, but have made no ar­rests, iden­ti­fied no sus­pects, and pre­sented no con­vinc­ing mo­tive for the killing. As CPJ found dur­ing a re­cent week­long ad­vo­cacy mis­sion to Kyiv, the lin­ger­ing im­punity has hurt the me­dia’s abil­ity to cover sen­si­tive is­sues, including cor­rup­tion, abuse of power, and the on­go­ing con­flict in East­ern Ukraine.

In­deed, press free­dom in Ukraine has come un­der in­creas­ing at­tack in the year Sheremet was mur­dered. In­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism is branded un­pa­tri­otic, and re­porters who chal­lenge of­fi­cial poli­cies, as Sheremet did ev­ery day, are threat­ened, ha­rassed, or placed un­der sur­veil­lance.

Ukrainian of­fi­cials in­sist they are still work­ing Sheremet’s case. Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko, who met with a CPJ fact-find­ing del­e­ga­tion on July 11, said he re­mains com­mit­ted to bring­ing the killer(s) to jus­tice. Poroshenko even pro­posed adding an in­ter­na­tional part­ner to his gov­ern­ment’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which could in­vig­o­rate the probe. But while this is a wel­come move, it comes very late, and af­ter months of mis­steps that have shaken the pub­lic’s trust.

Fac­tu­ally in­cor­rect state­ments from top of­fi­cials, including Ukraine’s in­te­rior min­is­ter, Arsen Avakov, have un­der­mined the cred­i­bil­ity of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Avakov has al­leged Rus­sian in­volve­ment in Sheremet’s mur­der and sug­gested that the case is un­likely to be solved. But in meet­ings with in­ves­ti­gat­ing agen­cies, the CPJ was told that Avakov has limited ac­cess to in­ves­ti­ga­tion files, and that his state­ments are un­sup­ported by ev­i­dence. Our del­e­ga­tion was also told that the au­thor­i­ties are ex­am­in­ing sev­eral mo­tives, but have not ruled out – or pin­pointed – any sin­gle one. Why, then, does Avakov con­tinue to make con­tra­dic­tory state­ments and in­dulge in poorly sourced con­jec­ture?

Equally wor­ry­ing are re­ports that the in­ves­ti­ga­tion has been plagued by shoddy po­lice work, including a fail­ure to ques­tion key wit­nesses, check sur­veil­lance cam­era footage, or ad­e­quately ex­plain the pres­ence of a for­mer in­ter­nal se­cu­rity of­fi­cer at the scene the night be­fore the mur­der. The ed­i­tor-in-chief of Ukraine’s lead­ing in­de­pen­dent news web­site, Ukrain­ska Pravda, told CPJ that in the months be­fore his death, Sheremet and his part­ner, Olena Pry­tula, the site’s co­founder, had been un­der sur­veil­lance. More­over, the staff had re­ceived threats clearly meant to stop them from re­port­ing on spe­cific, sen­si­tive sto­ries. Yet Ukrainian au­thor­i­ties have not ad­e­quately re­sponded to CPJ’S ques­tions about their in­ves­ti­ga­tion of these al­le­ga­tions.

Taken to­gether, these omis­sions and un­ex­plained events raise se­ri­ous ques­tions about the in­tegrity and le­git­i­macy of the Ukraini­an­led in­ves­ti­ga­tion. If Poroshenko is se­ri­ous about solv­ing Sheremet’s mur­der, changes are needed. Ukrainian of­fi­cials must es­tab­lish a clear hi­er­ar­chy and as­sign some­one to be re­spon­si­ble for re­solv­ing the case. More­over, Poroshenko should pub­licly com­mit more re­sources to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and force­fully con­demn any at­tack on jour­nal­ists. And, most chal­leng­ing of all, a new in­ves­tiga­tive ethos is needed to re­duce the risk of de­part­men­tal bias, es­pe­cially if ev­i­dence points to­ward of­fi­cial or gov­ern­ment en­ti­ties, as some sug­gest it might.

De­spite the pres­i­dent’s re­newed en­gage­ment, we are not yet con­vinced that the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment will pur­sue this case with the vigor it de­mands. That is why ex­ter­nal pres­sure is also needed. The Euro­pean Union is in a unique po­si­tion to ap­ply it. The EU, in declar­ing Ukraine a pri­or­ity part­ner for deeper po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic ties, has the lever­age to hold the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment to ac­count. In 2014, the bloc pledged 12.8 bil­lion ($15 bil­lion) to Ukraine to bol­ster sev­eral key sec­tors, including law and civil so­ci­ety. Progress in both fields would be set back sig­nif­i­cantly by a fail­ure to reach a con­clu­sion in the Sheremet case.

Sheremet spent more than two decades re­port­ing in three post-soviet coun­tries, and was re­lent­less in un­cov­er­ing cor­rup­tion wher­ever he re­ported. For his tenac­ity, CPJ awarded him our In­ter­na­tional Press Free­dom Award in 1998. But he was also threat­ened, im­pris­oned, at­tacked, and stripped of his cit­i­zen­ship in Be­larus. In­deed, while Sheremet had many friends, who adored his charis­matic per­son­al­ity, wit, and con­ta­gious op­ti­mism, he also had his share of en­e­mies, who de­tested his un­com­pro­mis­ing jour­nal­ism.

Five years ago, Sheremet moved to Ukraine be­cause he thought he would find a freer, safer en­vi­ron­ment in which to work. To­day, as at­tacks on the me­dia con­tinue in his adopted home­land, and with his own mur­der un­solved, the faith he placed in Ukraine is not be­ing re­paid.

Nina Og­ni­anova is Co­or­di­na­tor of the Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists’ Europe and Cen­tral Asia Pro­gram. She trav­eled to Kyiv in July to launch CPJ’S special re­port, Jus­tice De­nied, which doc­u­ments the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment’s han­dling of the Pavel Sheremet mur­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

This com­men­tary orig­i­nally ap­peared on http://ed­net. project-syn­di­cate.org

Nina Og­ni­anova

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