Leonid Kuchma   Letter 03   08-Sep-2000   Is this your work?
"Miroslava Mayorchuk, editor of the privately owned television channel STB, who is better known by her pen-name of Mariana Chernaya, was found hanged at her home in the capital, Kiev, on 25 June." Reporters sans frontières           

Igor Bondar

      September 8, 2000

Leonid Kuchma, President
vul. Bankova, 7
Kyiv, 252005
Telephone: 291-5274

Leonid Kuchma:

Since these murders, arrests, attacks, threats, and obstructions appear to be of your critics, or of critics of your allies, the world naturally supposes that it is you who orders them.

Lubomyr Prytulak

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At the start of 1999, Ukraine was facing suspension from the Council of Europe for «clearly failing to respect its commitments» made when the country became a member in 1995. «The Ukrainian authorities are responsible to a large degree for failure to respect the commitments made by Ukraine when it joined», said a report by the commission responsible for following up member countries’ undertakings, which pointed to numerous shortcomings in the area of human rights and press freedom.

In addition, there were many violations of the freedom to inform during campaigning for the presidential election in November 1999, which was won by President Leonid Kuchma. Opposition candidates had only very limited access to the state media. According to a survey, the public television channel UT1 openly supported the outgoing president. Since October, sessions of parliament, where the opposition has a majority, were not broadcast by the state media a contravention of the information law. On the other hand, the same media did not hesitate to organise real denigration campaigns against opposition candidates.

About 25 media were subjected to pressure during the election campaign and many journalists were victims of threats, and even attempted blackmail, from government representatives. The authorities pulled out all the stops, stepping up tax checks and «hygiene inspections», freezing bank accounts, asking the fire brigade to inspect offices and even organising power cuts to obstruct journalists in their work.

Journalists killed

A journalist was killed in Ukraine in 1999, although on 1 January 2000 it was impossible to state with certainty that he had died because of his work.

Two other journalists died in circumstances that have not yet been clarified.

Igor Bondar, 32, head of the television channel AMT, was shot dead in a residential district of Odessa, southern Ukraine, on 16 May. He was in a car with the chairman of the local court, Boris Vikhrov, who was also killed in the attack. Men in another car fired at their vehicle using automatic weapons. An inquiry has been opened by the public prosecutor’s office, under the supervision of the parliamentary committee responsible for combating organised crime. Journalists from the Odessa television channel said Boris Vikhrov was the chief target of the attack.

Miroslava Mayorchuk, editor of the privately owned television channel STB, who is better known by her pen-name of Mariana Chernaya, was found hanged at her home in the capital, Kiev, on 25 June. An interior ministry spokesman said the cause of death was «suicide by hanging». The journalist had specialised in crime reporting for newspapers before joining STB, where she was about to launch a series of programmes on the November 1999 presidential election. On 1 July the newspaper Kievskie Vedomosti published a letter she had written to the chairman of STB, Mikola Kniajitsky, accusing him of driving her to suicide. On the day of the funeral, Kniajitsky said the letter was a forgery and that Mayorchuk had been «under pressure from individuals who wanted to buy her services ahead of the presidential election».

Vassil Chudik, head of the radio station Nezavisimost (Independence), was found dead in the stairwell of the building where he lived in Lviv, western Ukraine, on 18 July. Police claimed he had «accidentally fallen onto a window», severing his carotid artery, but his colleagues said they were not convinced by this explanation.

New information about journalists killed before 1999

On 19 March Alexander Glek was found guilty of murdering journalist Boris Derevyanko in August 1997 and was sentenced to death by firing squad. (see 1998 and 1999 Reports). The court decided he had carried out the killing in exchange for payment. On 19 July the supreme court confirmed the verdict. The decision may put an end to hopes of finding those who gave orders for the killing. Both Glek’s lawyer and the prosecution said they would appeal. Boris Derevyanko, editor of the daily Vechernaya Odessa, was shot dead in the city on 11 August 1997. Investigators found in the newspaper’s archives several unpublished articles he had written about connections between the underworld and the corridors of power, leading them to focus on the possibility of hired killers from the beginning. On 5 November 1998 Vladimir Melnikov, the deputy interior minister, said the journalist’s death was «connected with his profession and his political standpoint».

Journalists arrested

Vladimir Efremov, editor of the daily Sobor, was arrested and taken to Dniepropetrovsk prison, in eastern Ukraine, on 13 January. The next day he started a hunger strike in protest at his detention. He was released on 15 January, without being given any further explanation. The authorities claimed to have found irregularities concerning a loan taken out by the newspaper in 1995. The journalist said the loan had been repaid in full, including interest, by 1996 and the bank was not behind the complaint. He thought he had been arrested after the channel TV 11, of which he is a director, broadcast a new year’s eve message to the nation by Pavlo Lazarenko, President Kuchma’s chief opponent. All the other channels broadcast the president’s official speech.

The daily Sobor, which is close to former prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko, is also known for its critical stands against the president and his cronies. Since August 1998, it has had several visits from tax inspectors and many of its journalists have been summoned for questioning by the police. Eight subsequently resigned due to pressure from the authorities. On 20 January Vladimir Efremov wrote to the president officially renouncing the title of «journalist emeritus» which he had been given in 1997. On 17 March the Dniepropetrovsk authorities seized TV 11’s transmitters and ordered the journalists to leave their offices. The channel had been closed down since 9 March, officially for «technical reasons». TV 11 has a valid broadcasting licence that runs until 2001. On 5 May Vladimir Efremov’s apartment was searched by the police.

Journalists attacked

Sergei Gorojankin, head of the channel TV 7, in the eastern city of Mariupol, was violently beaten with a baseball bat in the stairwell of his building on 26 January. He suffered serious injuries and was taken to hospital for emergency surgery. The next day an inquiry was opened to determine whether the attack was connected with his work as a journalist.

On 26 February Sergeï Korenev, a cameraman with the privately owned television channel STB, was set upon by a group of strangers at the railway station in Lviv, western Ukraine. His camera and tapes were stolen. The channel management said he was a victim of reprisals by financial groups close to the government. STB, which has not declared its support for any particular presidential candidate, is known for its reporting on corruption and embezzlement. On 1 March a fire was started at the apartment of Mikola Kniajitsky, the chairman of STB. He said that he and members of his staff were being followed and that their telephones had been tapped. Two days later, hooded men burst into the home of the commercial manager, Dmitro Dahno, and threatened to stab him and his wife, who was eight months pregnant. The two attackers forced the couple to lie on the floor while they searched the apartment, but did not take any money or valuables.

Igor Grinshtein, a journalist working for a television channel in Odessa and for the news magazine Oko (The Eye), was violently attacked by a stranger in the stairwell of his building on 4 May. He was struck on the face, then kicked as he lay on the ground. Colleagues said the assault might be connected with his work. Grinshtein has done some highly critical reporting on the city’s new mayor, Ruslan Bodelan.

Natalia Dovhaya, a journalist with the television channel Prostir Plus, was hit in the face several times on 16 August by a stranger who attacked her in the southern city of Vinitsa. She had made some critical programmes about the mayor, Dmytro Dvorkis.

On 13 November Yevgen Marchik, Krivoy Rog correspondent of the daily Sobytie, was summoned by the city police. He was beaten up by three officials who objected to the way his newspaper had covered the presidential election. The journalist later obtained a medical certificate and complained to the relevant authorities.

Nina Savon, editor of the weekly Bila Chaklunka in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, was set upon by armed, hooded men in the stairwell of her building on 4 December. She was taken to hospital for emergency treatment. In a statement put out by the local media, her colleagues asked the authorities to find and punish the attackers.

Journalists threatened

Olexandre Rodniansky, head of the privately owned Ukrainian television channel 1+1, said on 13 July that nine of his journalists had been threatened over the last few months. He claimed the threats were connected with the forthcoming presidential election in November. At least four other journalists were threatened as a result of critical reports during the election campaign. Zurab Aslania, a journalist with TV Simon in the eastern city of Kharkov, said he had received several death threats. «They told me I would be killed after the election», he said on 10 October. The police also threatened to throw his family out of the country. Originally from Georgia, they had been naturalised as Ukrainians in 1993. His father’s passport was seized and his sister threatened with imprisonment. Zurab Aslania had been investigating allegations of corruption involving people close to President Kuchma. Olexandre Davtian, the chairman of TV Simon, said he too had received phone calls threatening to kill him.

Leonid Zverev, a journalist with the daily Chornomorskye noviny (The Black Sea News), and his family started receiving threats on 4 October. His daughter was assaulted by strangers. According to the journalist’s colleagues, the pressure was connected with his reporting. He said the secret service had offered him «protection» on condition that he was less critical of the local authorities.

Orest Drul, editor of the daily Postup (Progress), said that three people tried to break into his apartment on 5 October after the newspaper published a series of critical reports about the local authorities in the Lviv region.

Pressure and obstruction

Ivan Tchige, the chairman of the parliamentary press committee, said 2,257 complaints had been made against the media in 1999, mostly for «insulting honour and dignity». The total damages demanded came to more than 90 billion hryvna (14.7 billion euros) equivalent to three times the country’s annual budget.

Kievskie Vedomosti, one of the most influential private dailies in the country, suspended publication on 22 February. The newspaper’s accounts had been frozen for several months after a series of fines were imposed on members of the editorial staff. The daily’s journalists, who were thrown out of their offices by the authorities, had not been paid since November 1996. The newspaper resumed publication on 23 April after selling off some of its capital to pay the fines, but now only comes out four times a week.

On 6 June the privately owned television channel STB was warned that its licence might be withdrawn after it broadcast live debates from parliament despite a formal ban. Two days earlier the National Frequency Monitoring Council had said that it could not extend the right to use its satellite any longer and asked STB to suspend its broadcasts for 24 hours. On 27 August all the channel’s bank accounts were frozen and director Dmitro Prikordoni said: «If we cannot pay our bills, we will be forced to close down in two or three weeks.» Tax officials estimate that STB owes the state about 740,000 hryvna (167,700 euros). The channel must also pay a fine of 757,000 hryvna (173,105 euros) for «illegal broadcasting». On 15 September President Kuchma accused STB of «tax evasion».

The Kiev appeal court confirmed the publishing ban on the weekly Politika, which was accused of «revealing state secrets» on 24 June. The ruling followed the publication in June 1997 of three news stories about spying in the navy. Editor Oleg Liachko has appealed to the supreme court. At least three other complaints have been made against the newspaper. At the end of 1998 Liachko was charged with «libel» and «misuse of authority» (articles 125 and 165 of the penal code) after Politika published reports making allegations against three top police officials, and the public prosecutor threatened to arrest him. Politika stopped appearing regularly in May 1998 and was suspended by a Kiev court in October 1998. Its bank accounts were frozen on the orders of the public prosecutor’s department following a series of reports about people close to the president. The newspaper appealed and in December 1998 the Kiev supreme court ruled that the move was illegal. On 17 February 1999 Politika was given permission to resume publication, but none of the city’s printing works, including the biggest state-run companies, would agree to handle it.

In a case brought against Politika by former deputy prime minister Vassil Dourdinets and former Odessa police chief Ivan Grigorienko, the state prosecutor called on 1 December for a three-year jail sentence against Oleg Liachko and a two-year ban on his being allowed to work as a journalist. In a report published in 1997, the weekly had accused the three men of «corruption and ties with the mafia». On 10 December Liachko called for a counter-investigation and condemned several irregularities in the case. He was acquitted by the Pecherski district court in Kiev on 23 December.

On 19 July the television channel Chernomorskaya Teleradiokampanya in southern Ukraine was ordered to stop broadcasting. State officials said it did not have a licence which the management denied.

The National Broadcasting Council accused the government on 4 August of gagging the press in the run-up to presidential elections in November, following the closure of five television channels in the southern region of Crimea and a sixth in the western Lviv region over the previous three weeks. Sergei Aksionienko, a member of the council, said: «These television channels are no longer allowed to broadcast because they do not serve the interests of President Kuchma». The channels had been officially accused of not having valid broadcasting licences.

Yuri Nesterenko of the public television channel UT 1 resigned on 15 September because one of his reports had been altered without his knowledge. He said libellous elements had been inserted with the aim of compromising an opposition candidate.

Many Ukrainian journalists have been obstructed in the course of their work. The interference ranges from refusals of accreditation to dismissal during the presidential election campaign. About 25 media were victims of various forms of pressure from the authorities, including the television channels TV Simon, 1+1, STB and TV 11. The privately owned TV Simon said it had been subjected to about 200 inspections of various kinds since April. Another private channel, STB, had a certain Sergei Kutsyi, who turned out to be a close adviser to President Kuchma, appointed to its board of directors. The Independent Broadcasters’ Association said about 20 radio stations were being prosecuted on the pretext that their licences had run out.

On 14 October three opposition dailies in the eastern Lugansk region, Rakurs, Nashe Zavtra and 21 Vek, were missing from the newsstands. Their respective printing works had refused to handle the latest editions because of reports giving an overview of Leonid Kuchma’s presidency. The dailies Chas in Chernivisti, south-west Ukraine, Dialog in the Kharkov region, Novina in the Donetsk region and Dnepropetrovskaya Pravda in the east were turned away by their printing works for similar reasons.

Viktor Borissov, who presented the programme «Pidsumky» on the private television channel Vikka, was forced to resign on 18 October after a live interview with opposition candidat Alexander Moroz. On the same day another channel, 1+1, suspended the programme «Epicentre-debaty», which was to have featured several presidential candidates, officially because the presenter was «unwell».

On 31 December the opposition daily Chas was banned from printing by the regional press and information committee on the grounds of «registration irregularities». Editor Petro Kobevko said the true reasons were political.

In mid-October correspondents of the Russian channel NTV, which is known for its critical tone, were banned from sending their reports on the presidential election from Kiev.