Warn­ing signs

Kyiv Post - - Opinion -

When a democ­racy is de­gen­er­at­ing into tyranny, it is the free press that is the first to be at­tacked. Vladimir Lenin went from sup­port­ing a free press in op­po­si­tion to smoth­er­ing it once in power. The Nazis branded the free press of the Weimar Re­pub­lic the “Lue­gen­presse” (ly­ing press) to un­der­mine it, and then de­stroyed it un­der Adolf Hitler. When Vladimir Putin came to power in Rus­sia in 2000, one of his first de­crees was on the In­for­ma­tion Se­cu­rity Doc­trine of Rus­sia, which made in­for­ma­tion an is­sue of na­tional se­cu­rity. Putin’s first at­tack on the free me­dia came just a year later in 2001, when NTV, one of Rus­sia’s big­gest in­de­pen­dent chan­nels, which had been crit­i­cal of him and the Sec­ond Chechen War, was taken over by the state-con­trolled Gazprom Me­dia. NTV’s crit­i­cism of Putin was quickly sti­fled.

So it is dis­turb­ing when free jour­nal­ists are at­tacked, ed­i­to­ri­ally and es­pe­cially phys­i­cally — it is a sign that democ­racy it­self is threat­ened.

At­tacks on jour­nal­ists are be­com­ing more fre­quent in Ukraine. The lat­est in­ci­dent hap­pened on Nov. 7, when jour­nal­ists work­ing for Ra­dio Free Europe/Ra­dio Lib­erty's "Schemes" in­ves­tiga­tive pro­gram were as­saulted by body­guards of Ukrainian mul­ti­mil­lion­aire and Putin friend Vik­tor Medved­chuk, a can­cer on Ukrainian so­ci­ety for many years, as they tried to film him ar­riv­ing in Kyiv in his pri­vate plane, which had made a di­rect flight from Moscow.

The same team was as­saulted and il­le­gally de­tained by Se­cu­rity Ser­vice of Ukraine, or SBU, of­fi­cers in Septem­ber 2015 when film­ing the lux­ury cars of SBU of­fi­cers at their head­quar­ters — cars that SBU of­fi­cers could not af­ford on their of­fi­cial salar­ies. Two years later, no ac­tion has been taken against the of­fi­cers; the le­gal case is con­tin­u­ally stalled.

Other jour­nal­ists, from the Slid­stvo.info in­ves­tiga­tive pro­gram, were shot at in April when film­ing at the es­tate near Kyiv where a vast man­sion is be­ing built by bil­lion­aire oli­garch Ri­nat Akhme­tov. The jour­nal­ists re­ported five shots fired at them from within the es­tate. Po­lice opened an in­ves­ti­ga­tion. There has been no progress.

In July 2016, Ukrainian-Be­laru­sian jour­nal­ist Pavel Sheremet was mur­dered in a car bomb at­tack in Kyiv. An in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion found that a man con­nected to the SBU was loi­ter­ing near Sheremet’s car be­fore the bomb was planted, yet there has been no progress in the of­fi­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the mur­der.

There is a long his­tory of at­tacks with im­punity against jour­nal­ists, go­ing back even be­fore the Sept. 16, 2000 kid­nap­ping and be­head­ing of jour­nal­ist Ge­orgiy Gon­gadze, the co-founder of Ukrain­ska Pravda. Ex-Pres­i­dent Leonid Kuchma and his top co­horts re­main the top sus­pects in or­der­ing the crime de­spite their de­nials. Yet Yuriy Lut­senko, the pros­e­cu­tor gen­eral, is ab­di­cat­ing his pub­lic re­spon­si­bil­ity to bring the case to an end.

Th­ese cases are all warn­ing signs. They must not be tol­er­ated. All those who threaten, as­sault or kill jour­nal­ists must be pun­ished for their crimes. Noth­ing less than democ­racy is at stake.

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