Murder threatens Kuchma regime
By Sean Ransom Posted Apr 1 2001
Investigative journalist Georgy Gongadze’s murder has become a political firestorm in Ukraine. Allegations surrounding the journalist’s death have whipsawed to become perhaps the most dire threat to President Leonid Kuchma, a man whose war on independent press may yet claim another victim—himself. Or, it could bring complete totalitarianism over Ukraine’s 50 million people. Kuchma has been named one of the world’s worst press enemies. Press repression has become a daily occurrence.
The scandal began smoldering on Sept. 16, when Gongadze, editor of the muckraking Internet journal Ukrainska Pravda, disappeared while returning home from work. Long an annoyance to the Kuchma government, Gongadze’s reports revealed close ties between officials, corrupt oligarchs and organized crime.
On Nov. 2, 2000, farmer Volodymyr Shushko discovered a decapitated corpse in a shallow grave off a forest path near the town of Tarashcha, 150 kilometers south of Kiev. Local officials found Gongadze’s jewelry on and near the body, and local coroner Ihor Vorotyntsev found shrapnel in a wrist. Gongadze suffered a similar wound while reporting on a war in the Georgian separatist region of Abkhazia.
What happened next was an obvious and bizarre government cover-up. The discovered body lay ignored in Tarashcha’s unrefrigerated morgue—a padlocked, unstaffed building—for 13 days before Gongadze’s colleagues, informed of the unidentified body by a brief newspaper article, arrived at the village. They identified Gongadze’s personal effects and told Vorotyntsev about the shrapnel. Vorotyntsev responded by issuing a death certificate in Gongadze’s name and giving permission for the journalist’s associates to remove the corpse from the morgue. But when Gongadze’s colleagues arrived with a coffin, the body was gone.
Three days later, officials in Kiev announced they had moved the body to the capital for identification and forensic tests. In the weeks that followed, the national government revoked the original death certificate, speciously claimed that the body had been dead more than two years, and muzzled Vorotyntsev by making him a witness in the case—a move that gagged him under Ukrainian law. Vorotyntsev was charged with illegally issuing a death certificate, and his office and home were searched by security agents.
Meanwhile, Gongadze’s family was barred from identifying the corpse until Dec. 10. Gongadze’s wife, Myroslava, says she recognized the body as her husband’s even though it was badly decomposed. The government ignored the claim.
Those who knew Gongadze have been deeply stung by his death and lingering questions about the body. Gongadze worked for Ukraine’s Radio Continent before launching Ukrainska Pravda in April 2000. In 1999, he made a tour of news organizations in the United States and organized press conferences there to decry press oppression in his country. The U.S. Embassy has funded the Ukrainska Pravda and assisted it in getting a grant to continue running for another year.
“He was young, energetic; he was just so full of life,” said Hanya Krill, editor of the New Jersey-based Brama.com’s UkraiNEWStand, who met Gongadze during his United States visit. “He had a sincere desire to see a free, thriving Ukraine. My heart, it just broke when I heard about him.”
International journalists as well as human rights and political organizations quickly took note of the brutality of the murder and the government’s subsequent evasions. The Council of Europe has been particularly outspoken. Andrzej Urbanchyk, a deputy in the council’s committee on the media says the Gongadze situation is “the tip of the iceberg” of press repression in Ukraine.
Jean-Christophe Menet, head of the European desk, went to Ukraine with a team from Reporters sans Frontières. He said that unless the Ukrainian government begins an independent investigation from scratch, his group would recommend Ukraine’s expulsion from the Council of Europe.
“Unbelievable,” Menet called it. “The investigation was not normal. In Europe, we have not seen as barbarous an act against a journalist for a long time.”
The murder twisted into a stranger-than-fiction political crisis on Nov. 28, when opposition parliamentary leader Oleksandr Moroz announced that a State Security Service officer, Maj. Mykola Melnychenko, had secretly taped more than 300 hours of conversations in Kuchma’s office, some of which indicate that Kuchma may have been responsible for the journalist’s disappearance.
Melnychenko told Radio Liberty that he hid a digital tape recorder under a sofa in Kuchma’s office, gave the recordings to Moroz, then fled the country. Portions of the tapes, which detail extensive criminal activity by Kuchma and other top officials, were later published in the few remaining independent newspapers in Kiev,including the English-language Kyiv Post.
In one of the tape’s chilling moments, a voice thought to be that of Kuchma orders Gongadze’s kidnapping. Earlier in the quote he apparently refers to Gongadze as “this Georgian.” Later he mentions him by name.
“I’m telling you, drive him out, throw out,” the voice says. “Give him to the Chechens. (undecipherable) and then a ransom.”
“We’ll think it over. We’ll do it in such a way, so that …”
“Meaning drive him out, undress him, fuck, leave him without his pants, let him sit there.”
Kuchma and his administration have angrily denounced both Moroz and Melnychenko, who is in hiding somewhere in Europe. Kuchma has insisted that the tapes are fraudulent and has demanded that Interpol find Melnychenko and return him to Ukraine for arrest on defamation and forgery charges. Moroz has also been threatened with prosecution. Meanwhile, at least one politician heard on a tape segment has come forward to say the recording of his September conversation with Kuchma was accurate.
Ukraine’s parliament is investigating the accusations and has interviewed Melnychenko at his hiding place. The International Press Institute and Freedom House independently tried to determine the authenticity of the tapes by having independent experts analyze them. Although they decided it was highly unlikely to manipulate 300 minutes of tape, they were unable to completely affirm their authenticity.
IPI Director Johann P. Fritz said, “The analysis of the audio tapes represent only one aspect of this case. We urge the police authorities to carry out a full and proper investigation into the disappearance of Gongadze. This means that any person connected to the case, however remotely, should be interviewed by the police authorities. We would remind the police that the seriousness of the case warrants a transparent and professional investigation and that the perpetrators of this crime should be swiftly brought to justice.”
Some have called Melnychenko’s tapes Ukraine’s Watergate, and demonstrations have been held in opposition to Kuchma’s administration. In response, Kyiv Post reporter Olga Kryzhanovska says the government is forcing students, government employees and others receiving government stipends to attend pro-Kuchma demonstrations. Most Ukrainians, however, are poorly informed about the political battles. Local media, who are mostly in Kuchma’s pocket, have reported the pro-Kuchma demonstrations as being “inspired by love for the current president,” Kryzhanovska says.
Ukrainian officials first revealed that DNA testing on the corpse showed a 99.6 percent chance of the body being that of Gongadze. They have recently determined it is in fact Gongadze’s. Gongadze’s family was pressured by General Prosecutor Mykhailo Potobenko to accept the body and bury it, but they have waited because if the body were buried without official identification, any murder investigation would effectively cease. Lesya Gongadze, the journalist’s mother, and his wife, Myroslava, refused to receive the body until its identification was official and were demanding that the government return the body’s head.
Despite Kuchma and his circle’s attempt to sweep the crime aside, Kryzhanovska says the threat to Kuchma is genuine.
“If these tapes were proven real, that would lead to the impeachment of the president and real changes in Ukrainian politics,” Kryzhanovska says. “There would either be a change in the government or dictatorship. He would either have to resign or be a dictator.”
Kuchma has had experience in dictatorial tactics in the past, especially in dealing with the press. In 1999, Kuchma was named the world’s sixth worst enemy of the press by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Gongadze’s murder was one of more than 20 attacks or threats against journalists in the Ukraine in 2000, says Reporters sans Frontières.
Kryzhanovska says violence against journalists is relatively rare because the government can more effectively shut down dissent with libel suits. Ukraine has no limit on libel damages, and a U.S. State Department report characterizes Ukraine’s court system as corrupt, a volatile mix.
Despite the international outrage and domestic turmoil surrounding Gongadze’s death, the murder may be a harbinger of an even more difficult time for Ukraine’s journalists. Kryzhanovska says that the scandal surrounding Kuchma is so large that even state-owned television stations have been forced to cover it, which has resulted in even more threats toward journalists by those trying to quash the story.
In a Jan. 22 report, Reporters sans Frontières documented more than a half-dozen incidents where newspapers were intimidated or forced to curtail their coverage of the scandal.
Documented intimidations over Gongadze coverage
Nov. 26, 2000 – Government-funded printing house cancels contract with newspaper Grani after it publishes front-page stories on Melnychenko recordings. Grani’s editor in chief, Yuri Lutsenko, receives a faxed document resembling a Ukraine Security Service report documenting his daily activities. In January, Lutsenko reports being followed a day after he claims to know the identities of those who had shadowed Gongadze before his death.
Nov. 27, 2000 – Ukrainian security agents attempt to pressure a printer in the town of Tchernenko from printing newspaper Rubige’s lead story on the Gongadze scandal. The printer refuses to comply with the agents’ demands. The next day, three militia members confiscate a load of newspapers from a vehicle distributing them.
Nov. 29, 2000 – In the eastern town of Poltava, Socialist party newspaper Trudova Poltavshchina receives a bomb scare as it was about to publish a statement by Oleksandr Moroz about the scandal. Newspaper employees divide the copies of the newspaper and hide them until the next day’s distribution.
Nov. 29, 2000 – Printing press Pressa Ukrainy refuses to print an edition of the socialist party newspaper Tovarish that features an article linking the government to the Gongadze disappearance.
Dec. 6, 2000 – Following a visit from local security agents, Dnepropetrovsk printer Knizhnaya Tipographis refuses to print an edition of the newspaper Litsa that features transcripts of the Melnychenko recordings. The newspaper is later printed elsewhere.
Dec. 7, 2000 – A full page of the newspaper Slovo Vetezana is removed by the printing house as the paper goes to press in the town of Povlograd from local security officers. The page, entitled “Scandal of the Year,” features coverage of Gongadze.
Dec. 13, 2000 – Matlid Publications, publisher of Eastern Economist magazine, is raided by tax police and its employees interrogated a week after publishing a scathing editorial on the Gongadze scandal. The magazine’s Kiev bank account was seized the previous day.
Jan. 12, 2001 – Thomas A. Dine, president of Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, says “people claiming to be Ukrainian intelligence officers approached members of our Ukrainian Service and threatened reprisals against them if the service does not modify its coverage of Ukrainian political developments” concerning Gongadze. The station has broadcast numerous exclusive interviews with individuals key to the Gongadze situation, including Melnychenko.
Feb. 7, 2001 – A government-owned printing house refuses to run an edition of the Kiev newspaper Kommersant, which features a story on anti-Kuchma demonstrations.