Prague, 21 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- With a few exceptions, Ukraine's media is controlled by the government or too intimidated to criticize the country's leadership.
The best-known exception is the Internet news site "Ukrayinska pravda" (http://www2.pravda.com.ua/), whose editor, Heorhiy Gongadze, an outspoken critic of government corruption and the administration of President Leonid Kuchma, was found beheaded four years ago.
Now the website is complaining that the presidential administration is behind a libel case brought by two plaintiffs seeking to stop the site's operations.
"Ukrayinska pravda" continued its work after Gongadze's death, and continues to publish almost daily articles that make damaging allegations about the conduct of government officials. Perhaps most notably, the site has published evidence linking Gongadze's murder -- and the subsequent cover-up -- to President Kuchma and some of his closest allies. Kuchma and his associates deny involvement in the murder or obstructing the investigation.
The reporter believes the case is intended to disrupt the site's work in the months ahead of presidential elections this autumn, and to intimidate other independent news media.
Now, two plaintiffs are bringing a libel suit against "Ukrayinska pravda" and are seeking not only cash damages but the seizure of the site's equipment and bank accounts -- something that would undoubtedly bring the site's operations to a halt, at least temporarily.
The two plaintiffs are Valeriy Vorotnyk and Maria Sambur. Vorotnyk is an adviser to the deputy head of Ukraine's Social Democratic Party-united. The party's head, Viktor Medvechuk, is the powerful chief of Kuchma's presidential administration.
Sambur is a lawyer who once worked for the independent Institute for Mass Information, which closely followed the Gongadze case, and last year published a posthumous letter from an important witness in the investigation who implicated President Kuchma in the killing. The witness, Ihor Honcharov, died in police custody and his body was cremated without an autopsy.
"Ukrayinska pravda" accused Sambur of tampering with Honcharov's letter in order to protect Kuchma. Specifically, the site has alleged she removed several lines from the letter that directly implicated Kuchma in the crime. The site also alleges that Sambur works for presidential-administration chief Medvechuk, and that she and Vorotnyk acted as administration intermediaries in threatening the owner of Ukrainian radio station broadcasting Western programming from the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and RFE/RL.
The owner, Serhiy Sholokh, refused to cancel the programming. His station was later subjected to a police raid and his broadcasting equipment was confiscated. Sholokh has since fled the country, saying he fears for his life.
Maria Sambur told RFE/RL the articles in "Ukrayinska pravda" are riddled with inaccuracies. She said neither she nor Vorotnyk were given the chance to offer their point of view to the site before the articles were published -- something "Ukrayinska pravda" disputes.
Moreover, Sambur denies tampering with the Honcharov letter, and said Ukraine's human rights ombudsman and a parliamentary committee saw the letter and can testify to its content. "None of them asserts that in those letters that I submitted there is something that has been left out," she said.
"Ukrayinska pravda" has suggested it is strange that a person like Sambur, who previously worked to defend the rights of independent media, should resort to a lawsuit rather than trying to settle the matter privately.
But Sambur has defended her position. "The thing is this: the constitution gives people rights, and if they are violated a person turns to the courts. 'Ukrayinska pravda' considers that I worked for an organization that defended the rights of the press. Well, I am a lawyer and I always defend the rights of a person whose rights have been violated. And I am doing that now, insofar as this is my profession," she said.
A reporter for "Ukrayinska pravda," Serhiy Leshchenko, said the website has not been told exactly what aspects of its reporting are accused of being libelous. "In my opinion we are facing a process with many facets," he said. "Firstly, it's to whitewash, or to clean up the image, of certain political forces and certain individuals from the scandalous situations which were caused by the departure abroad of Serhiy Sholokh, when he in fact fled Ukraine."
He said the alacrity with which the case has been brought suggests that senior figures like Medvechuk are involved. The libel complaints were only lodged on 23 April but the case is scheduled to begin on 27 May, an unusually quick turnaround.
Leshchenko believes the case is intended to disrupt the site's work in the months ahead of presidential elections this autumn, and to intimidate other independent news media. "The other aim is to cause problems and obstacles for 'Ukrayinska pravda' in the form of demanding financial compensation to the extent of 20,000 hryvnas [$3,800] and there is also a demand for the confiscation of our accounts and property," he said. "That speaks for itself. And if the court agrees to this demand, then for a time -- probably quite a long time -- there would be obstacles to the publication of 'Ukrayinska pravda.'"
Sambur jokingly dismissed the idea she was working for Medvchuk saying, if so, she had not been paid. "If the court finds that I have been working for Mr. Medvechuk, then I will turn to the courts to demand that Mr. Medvechuk pays me for working for him," she said. "At the moment I haven't got the grounds to complain about Mr. Medvechuk, as there is no evidence that I work for him."
Leshchenko is confident that, come what may, "Ukrayinska pravda" will continue to publish, but admitted it will cause problems if their computers and other equipment is confiscated. "It's practically impossible to close down an Internet site in today's world of communication. But it would be obstructive if we were forced to organize alternative technological capabilities. It would distract us from gathering material for our journalistic work," he said.