Twenty years have gone by since the killing of investigative journalist Heorhiy Gongadze in 2000. His death is commemorated in Ukraine annually on September 16.
The shock of his death, by torture and beheading, left a lasting legacy for Ukrainian journalists and human rights activists, as described by Roman Tymotsko on the front page of this issue of The Ukrainian Weekly, who “demand security for journalists and that those who ordered the murders of Ukrainian journalists be brought to justice.”
This year, a memorial plaque was installed at the National Union of Journalists building in Kyiv. The newly released film, “Gongadze’s Murder: 20 Years in Search of the Truth,” aims to raise awareness and to stoke public demand for justice for Gongadze and other journalists killed for doing their work to expose corruption, crimes and lies. Other journalists commemorated in Ukraine during this year’s ceremonies included Igor Alexandrov, Borys Derevyanko, Vasyl Serhiyenko, Pavlo Sheremet and Vadym Komarov.
However, justice remains elusive in Ukraine, as many perpetrators and organizers of attacks on journalists and civil society activists, having been identified as suspects, escape prosecution due to a lack of independence in the judiciary, compromised police investigations and corrupt prosecutors. Many buy their freedom.
Even former President Leonid Kuchma was suspected of ordering the assassination of Gongadze, with evidence presented through the recordings made by Mykola Melnychenko, known as the “Melnychenko tapes.” Mr. Kuchma denied the recordings and claimed that they were doctored, but an independent U.S.-based audio lab, Bek Tek, confirmed that the audio recordings were not tampered with and were authentic. Despite this, there has been no real attempt to prosecute Mr. Kuchma.
Notably, a witness, Internal Affairs Minister Yuriy Kravchenko, was found dead with two gunshot wounds to the head in 2005, just hours prior to when he was to provide testimony in the case. The death was officially ruled a suicide, but that ruling was called into question by media reports.
Witnesses in the Gongadze case were, understandably, reluctant to come forward. That same intimidation of witnesses continues in Ukraine, although, more often, today the pressure comes from oligarchs attempting to protect their business interests rather than from the government.
The lack of prosecutions of killers of journalists and civil society activists does not discourage a new generation to take up the cause to defend human rights, to expose corruption, to name bad actors and to simply tell the truth. The killings and assassination attempts continue, but the orders now are generally believed to be coming from Moscow, not Kyiv.
We can see how Moscow operates on Ukrainian territory, including in Russia-annexed Crimea and the Russia-occupied Donbas, where dissenters are quickly arrested, discredited and imprisoned, or abducted, tortured and killed.
Since the killing of Gongadze, Ukrainian journalism as a whole has undergone a transformation from the days of “temnyky” (government directives on how to report the news), to one of myriad investigative outlets working on exposing corruption in various spheres that impede Ukraine’s European integration. The newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda, which was co-founded by Gongadze and Olena Prytula in 2000, continues its service in informing the public about the hot issues facing Ukraine.
We hope that the killers who planned and executed Gongadze are brought to justice, once and for all, and we pray that all others silenced for their work as journalists also receive justice. This can only happen if we all remain vigilant in the face of forces that attempt to destroy democracy and impede progress toward creating an open and free society.
On the 20th anniversary of Heorhiy Gongadze’s killing, The Ukrainian Weekly sends its sincere condolences to the family. Vichnaya pamiat – may his memory be eternal.