Publish and be decapitated


In the West we talk metaphorically about ‘losing our heads;’ in Ukraine, it has been a state-ordained punishment. How have Ukrainians been denied the free journalism that the end of Soviet imperialism was meant to bring about?

Denis MacShane
10 December 2013

Thirteen years ago a brave journalist, Georgy Gongadze, who had dared to publish criticisms of the then President Kuchma, was strangled and then decapitated, apparently on the orders of the president. The murder was carried out by General Oleksiy Pukach, with his own hands. Earlier this year he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. His trial was held behind closed doors with no journalists present. The man who allegedly ordered the murder of the journalist, former president Leonid Kuchma, is still free.

It was the most gruesome of the many murders and violent attacks on journalists working in Council of Europe member states. Conservatives everywhere increasingly dislike the Council of Europe and its European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), but, as the struggle for democracy and respect for core Council of Europe conventions has moved to the mass protests in Maidan (Independence Square) in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, an important spur to protest is a sense that Ukrainians have been denied the free journalism that the end of Soviet imperialism was meant to bring about.


A memorial to Georgy Gongadze, former editor of Ukrainska Pravda. Gongadze, a critical voice of the then government, was strangled and decapitated, many suspect on the orders of former President Kuchma. Photo RIA Novosti

Lenin’s statue may have been toppled but a Leninist desire to control and manipulate the media infects all power-holders in Ukraine, including the oligarchs denouncing ‘Yukashenko.’ The story of media repression in Ukraine is not new, and Open Democracy has carried reports.

In the difficult times ahead, if Ukrainian journalists and the media cannot find a way to break out of the existing ways of doing business in the country, the hopes of the hundreds of thousands braving the cold in one of Europe’s biggest displays of human resistance to oppression may yet be disappointed.

Ukrainian Truth

Georgy Gongadze was publisher and editor of the web journal, Ukrainska Pravda (‘Ukraine Truth’), which can still be read online (link, in Ukrainian); in Google translation it seems very lively, a match for Slate or the Huffington Post. Its coverage of the pro-European demonstrations against President Viktor Yanukovych (who still uses Kuchma as an adviser) in Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine has been a very important window into the desire of Ukrainians to get closer to Europe, even if their rulers prefer subordination to Moscow.


Gongadze’s Ukrainska Pravda may still be a vigorous online and independent journal, but now it has been cloned by a web paper, Ukrainska Kryvda, (link, in Ukrainian), which means ‘Ukraine Falsehood.’ It looks like Ukrainska Pravda, uses the same layout and typeface but its stories are all attacks on journalists and on anyone who criticises the ruling powers.

Other, more direct means are used to sap journalists’ morale.

Other, more direct means are used to sap journalists’ morale: media outlets change owners, journalists are fired; there is crude intimidation. According to Natalya Perevalova, an editor at ATV – the most popular television station in the Black Sea region around Odessa – ‘Journalists are just frightened. They don’t know what might happen to them so they are just cautious and conformist.’

Increasingly, the press in Ukraine is less able to perform its role as a watchdog of government and political actions; and handicapped from delivering reliable information to the public on the situation in the country. The instrument of ‘mass-media’ has become institutionalised as a public relations and propaganda tool to serve political and commercial objectives without regard to factual reporting or analysis.

Ukraine’s Institute of Mass Information is a media oversight institute. According to its data, 2012 saw a peak in clampdowns on media critical of the government: 324 cases, the highest number in the last 10 years. This trend is regarded as linked to the impunity of the police, officials and politicians, and has continued to rise in 2013.

The national lexicon even sports a special term, ‘jeans’, to describe news coverage paid for by oligarchs.

Those close to President Yanukovych are known as ‘The Family’. They are very keen to ensure there is no media examination of how state assets or contracts are handed out on the basis of political loyalty and pay-offs. The national lexicon even sports a special term, ‘jeans’, to describe news coverage paid for by business.

‘On Freedom of Speech…’

In October 2013, five of the best journalists at the country’s main news agency, the Ukraine National News Agency (UNIAN), were suddenly banned from access to their computers, and relegated to a new TV-news monitoring service. They had all been involved in August 2012 protests at UNIAN against the agency’s fake stories and censorship of reporting.

Another example of media manipulation is the hacking into journalists’ computers, and subsequent publication of personal files to discredit the victim. Oksana Romaniuk, director of the Institute of Mass Information, has seen material from her computer appear in a spoof newspaper, thus casting severe doubts on the reliability and credibility of her organisation.

These tactics and techniques are less murderous than the decapitation of Gongadze but, whereas his brutal murder sparked a sense of outrage and a major international campaign, the updated methods used to damage and demoralise free journalism, today get little attention outside Ukraine.


Press freedoms under Yanukovych have rolled up. Critical journalists under his Presidency have had their computers hacked into and the government has made attempts to discredit them publicly. Photo RIA Novosti

Ukraine has passed a number of laws about press freedom (Access to Public Information, 2011), including a wonderfully titled decree signed by Yanukovych on 1 July 2013,  ‘On Ensuring Observance of Legislation On Freedom of Speech and Preventing Interference in Professional Activity of Journalists.’ These are ‘Potemkin villages’, just for show and designed to persuade international bodies like the OSCE that the government is committed to media freedom. The regular attacks on journalists and independent media operations tell the real truth.

A recent pilot project studying press freedom in the six Eastern Partnership countries (Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia) ranked Ukraine above only Azerbaijan and Belarus. This is a long way from the European status Ukraine claims for itself.

Press freedom is not a given, when a country moves from totalitarianism, as at the end of the communist era, or some other regime change. In Western Europe, after 1945, there was a deliberate effort to create a nucleus of independent, rigorous newspapers and a conservative broadcasting network where news selection was anti-sensationalist to the point of being almost boring.

This did not stop the excesses of tabloid journalism illustrated in Heinrich Böll’s 1975 novel The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum or the right-wing excesses of the Hersant Group in France in the second half of the twentieth century; or what we see today in the trials of Rupert Murdoch’s editors for illegal phone hacking.


Yet there was always a silver thread of high-quality journalism with a clear journalistic deontology that set higher standards. Speaking at the European Book of the Year award in Brussels earlier this month, Eugenio Scalferi, the founder of L’Espresso, and then first editor of Repubblica after he set it up in 1976, joined with Poland’s Adam Michnik, founder-editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, to highlight the need for a nucleus of honest journalists in any country laying claim to European values.

The post-Soviet countries in the EU do have plenty of vivid, often strident, tabloid journalism in papers, on television, and on websites

The post-Soviet countries in the EU do have plenty of vivid, often strident, tabloid journalism in papers, on television, and on websites, but, other than Gazeta in Poland, where is there a nucleus of reliable, balanced, fair journalism, which owes no favour to a political party, a business group or an ideology? 

When I worked for the BBC World Service in the 1970s, we were not allowed to include a fact unless it came from three sources – Reuters, AP, BBC Monitoring etc.  At one level this made for agonizingly slow journalism, but it also raised the BBC’s careful unbiased truth telling to heights that few other news disseminators could match. 

Yet how does one create that unbiased journalism in cultures like Ukraine, where journalists are often political activists with iPads, and see their task as putting their case, not reporting facts? As yet, the liberal professions still require qualifications before embarking on a career as, for example, an architect or doctor, but today anyone who can write, photograph or video, every blogger and facebooker is a self-styled journalist.

The wall between business and journalism has become porous.

The wall between business and journalism has become porous, and business journalism is overtaking political and social journalism. The highest paid practitioners of public relations are now to be found in the world of business and finance as they try to steer good news about their clients into the papers, and keep out or minimise bad news.  In this context, hoping that Ukraine would conform to standards that are rapidly being eroded in the West of Europe and the wider democratic world may well have been a hope too far.

Ukraine’s best chance of securing greater media freedom could only have been based on closer relations with the EU, even though membership would have been some way away. Now, Russian threats of denial to market access, and cheaper gas have tipped the scales, and Yanukovych chose the other option. The ‘Family,’ moreover, prefers doing business à la Russe.

The ‘Family,’ moreover, prefers doing business à la Russe.

Maidan and the Grand Place

John Lloyd, Director of Journalism at Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, has written recently of Samuel Huntingdon’s 1993 warning in the context of his much discussed thesis on a clash of civilisations: ‘The principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilisations.’ Lloyd points out that Huntingdon said the ‘Slavic-Orthodox culture’, to which Ukraine belongs, was a civilisational group headed by Russia; and distinct from the rest of Europe.

The people on the streets of Kyiv seem determined to prove Huntingdon’s determinism wrong, but there is a wider, deeper Ukraine, beyond the capital, which has never known much media freedom, and does not know what it is missing. The appeal from Maidan to the Grand Place comes at a bad time: the EU has never been so inward looking, resulting in the worst populist and nationalist politics seen since the 1930s. If all that Brussels can offer is austerity, mass unemployment for young people, ever-growing inequality, and nervous conservative leadership in most EU member states, the chances of Europe making a generous offer that corresponds to what Maidan Square wants is not high.

The chances of Europe making a generous offer that corresponds to what Maidan Square wants is not high.

If David Cameron can write an op-ed in the Financial Times, rejecting a few thousand Romanians coming to work in Britain, what has Britain to say to 46 million Ukrainians who want the freedom and democracy the EU claims to profess; and which David Cameron says he defends? 

The Ukrainian political-business elite that controls Ukraine has got the measure of our double standards; Kuchma’s brutal tactic of decapitation has been replaced by a broader set of measures that deliberately avoid concerted international condemnation..The longer Ukraine stays distant from the EU, the stronger those forces - and the weaker Ukraine’s media – will become. The people in Maidan Square want a different Ukraine and a decent media, but who can help them achieve this aim?

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