Ukraine’s imperiled press freedom
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