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Ukraine: Journalist's Case Highlights Lack Of Transparency

  • Askold Krushelnycky

A reluctance by Ukrainian officials to give information about the investigation into the disappearance of outspoken journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, who went missing more than two months ago, again demonstrates the Soviet-style lack of transparency in Ukraine. Correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports.

Prague, 8 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The mysterious disappearance of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze in Ukraine in September and the discovery of a headless corpse last month that may or may not be his, has sparked off many theories about his fate.

Allegations by a prominent Ukrainian politician, Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz, generated more interest last month when he said President Leonid Kuchma was involved in the disappearance of the journalist, who frequently attacked the administration on the internet newspaper "Ukrayinska Pravda" that he set up earlier this year.

On Wednesday, Kuchma went on television to deny the allegations and to accuse unnamed opponents of trying to plunge the country into crisis.

Since the discovery of the corpse, which some of Gongadze's friends who saw it are convinced is his, the authorities have done little to clarify the situation.

Officials do say experts are working to identify the body, but they have not asked Gongadze's wife to view it or jewelry found on the body that Gongadze's friends say belonged to him. The authorities say they are carrying out DNA tests, but they have not asked Gongadze's mother or child for samples to make a comparison.

In the absence of full information and updates by the authorities, Ukrainians have speculated wildly about what happened to Gongadze. Parliament has set up a commission to investigate.

The Gongadze case is the latest in a long series of events -- many involving sudden deaths -- where the authorities have once again demonstrated their reluctance to share information with the public they are supposedly serving.

Investigations into killings, mysterious accidents and assassination attempts are marked the unwillingness of the authorities to say what they have discovered -- eventually most investigations peter out inconclusively without trials or convictions.

In recent years such cases include the disappearance of a prominent pro-democracy activist, Mychailo Boychishin in 1992, the assassination of a former head of Ukraine's national bank, Vadim Hetman in 1998, the death in a traffic accident of independence movement leader Vyacheslav Chronovil in 1999, and a grenade attack, also last year, on presidential candidate Natalia Vitrenko.

Even the parliamentary commission has admitted that it has no power to order the security authorities to hand over information about the Gongadze case, or any other case for that matter.

American lawyer Petro Matiazsek who has advised the Ukrainian government on legal reforms and transparency, believes most Ukrainian officials retain the culture of secrecy that pervaded the former Soviet Union.

He says that although Ukrainian citizens have a right to ask for information from government bodies, in practice only non-controversial information is made available.

"Whenever it is something which is perceived as potentially embarrassing or sensitive or relating to national security in even the slightest way, then that's always something that is not made available to the public in any way, shape or form. And I think regarding the incidents when people have been killed or disappeared, there's a knee-jerk reaction to throw the blanket of secrecy over that and that of course leads to a host of rumors and other problems."

That blanket of secrecy is usually interpreted by ordinary people as proof that the authorities -- the police or security services -- have something to hide. It breeds conspiracy theories and leads to the reinforcement of the popular view that the entire justice and security system is dishonest and is used by those in power or with money to conceal their misdeeds.

Matiaszek says that in the six years he has worked with officials in Ukraine, he has seen little evidence that the official culture of secrecy is changing.

"The Western community here, the various international-assistance programs here, try to foster a sense of responsibility in the Ukrainian government to provide information to its citizens. But I don't really sense that there's any special campaign on the part of the Ukrainian government to reform its practices and habits as regards providing regular, up-to-date, useful information to its citizens."

Another American lawyer, Mary Mycio, who has lived in Ukraine for 10 years and works closely with Ukrainian journalists at a US-funded training project called the Legal Defense and Education Program, agrees that government officials are reluctant to share information. But she says that applies to officials in every government around the world, not just the Ukrainian, albeit to different degrees of secrecy.

"Information is power and the more information a government keeps to itself, the more power it has."

But she says Ukrainian journalists do not do enough to get information from officials and do not often use their right as citizens to elicit information.

"Well, we can help them draft a written kind of 'freedom of information' act type request, to which it takes a month as a general rule to get an answer. We can help them do that, but generally they don't want to do that because they want information the easy way - for basically someone just to tell them."

Mycio has been involved with journalists delving into the Gongadze case but says that Ukrainian journalists have still to master the ability to track down facts and write objectively. She says that much that has been written about the Gongadze case consists of emotive speculation and rumors.

Mycio says the government can exploit a press working in such a way to further confuse the situation and keep people in ignorance.

"You don't have journalists doing their own investigation, they just wait for the authorities to tell them something so they never have any evidence that can contradict what they're being told because they're not even looking for it."

Matiaszek says Ukrainians, like most peoples of the former Soviet Union, are accustomed to an absence of accurate and honest information, and there is still little popular organized demand for more information.

"Slowly, as Ukrainian society has become more and more open to Western media and the Internet etc., there's more and more of a demand (for information). But Ukraine has not reached the stage where its government really feels it's required, it's obligated -- has a responsibility -- to keep its citizens fully informed all of the time." That time could still be far away, he said, unless there is a dramatic upsurge in demands for more information among millions of ordinary Ukrainians.