Thousands of Ukrainians attended the funeral yesterday (9 July) of television journalist Ihor Aleksandrov, who died after being beaten by unknown assailants. His death has once again focused attention on the dangers that journalists face in Ukraine. One international organization says the country has the worst record in Europe on violence against journalists. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports.
Prague, 10 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The murder of television journalist Igor Aleksandrov has again underscored Ukraine's sinister record of violence against journalists.
Aleksandrov was the director of the TOR television company in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk and a well-known anti-corruption journalist. He was attacked as he entered the television building last Tuesday (3 July).
Colleagues found Aleksandrov lying in a pool of blood in the stairwell of the building. He had been savagely beaten with baseball bats. There were no witnesses to the assault, but two bloodstained bats were found at the scene and police believe he was attacked by two or three assailants. Aleksandrov fell into a coma and died last Saturday (7 July).
Aleksandrov's colleagues and friends have little doubt that his death was connected to his work, particularly his campaigns against corruption in the eastern Ukrainian Donetsk region where he lived. Both they and the regional police chief, Volodymyr Malosov, say that the killing shows all the signs of a revenge attack.
Aleksandrov was well known for his critical attitude toward the local administration, and for accusations against government officials and politicians of corruption and involvement in organized crime. He had investigated the murders of local businessmen and had organized press conferences in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, which made him known beyond his television station's broadcasting region.
In the run-up to the 1999 presidential elections, Aleksandrov's television station was one of the few in the country that provided ample time for opponents of President Leonid Kuchma to voice their views. Aleksandrov opposed recent negotiations to sell a controlling share of the television station to a company he believed would limit TOR's editorial independence.
That has led to suggestions by parliament member Oleksiy Shekhtsov that there could be a political motive for the killing. Shekhtsov also thinks that the murderers may have links with those who are supposed to investigate the killing, and he doubts the authorities will conduct a proper inquiry. He says he intends to set up a parliamentary committee to track the way the government handles the investigation.
"A few things are absolutely clear. It was a contract killing, not a random thing -- and I haven't heard anything to the contrary from the law-enforcement authorities. It was revenge. In the same fashion, you can almost categorically say that it was political revenge. The only questions are who ordered the killing, who did it and why they chose this moment. And I have no doubts that on the territory of the Donetsk region this is normal practice. The government is readying itself for next year's parliamentary elections, and wants to eliminate any organizations that hold out hope for an independent voice during the election campaign."
In 1998 Aleksandrov was tried and convicted for maligning the honor of a Ukrainian member of parliament. Aleksandrov's punishment has no equivalent in Western countries. He was ordered to stop working as a journalist for five years. His colleagues say that Aleksandrov appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg against the Ukrainian court order and continued with his investigative work.
Aleksandrov's murder brought to 11 the number of journalists killed in Ukraine in the last five years. Some 40 journalists have died violently or under suspicious circumstances in the decade since Ukraine's independence. Many more have been assaulted or have been the victims of intimidation.
An international organization that works to protect journalists' rights, Reporters sans Frontieres, says that violence against journalists in Ukraine is now worse than in any other European country. Reporters sans Frontieres has asked Ukrainian Prime Minister Anatoliy Kinakh to personally supervise the investigation into Aleksandrov's death.
Ukraine's police also have a very poor record for bringing to justice those responsible for attacks against journalists. Only one person has been convicted of the murder of a journalist. Most Ukrainians have little confidence in their police, who are often accused of corruption, incompetence, and idleness.
Confidence in the authorities was badly shaken by their investigation into the murder of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, who was killed last year.
Gongadze was known for his reports about corruption in Ukraine's highest political circles, including accusations against the country's president, Leonid Kuchma. Secret recordings of Kuchma led to accusations that the president himself was involved in Gongadze's death -- something Kuchma strenuously denies. But the investigation into Gongadze's death was characterized by obstruction on the part of the authorities and a series of blunders that led to condemnation by Western governments and international bodies such as the Council of Europe.
Today, President Kuchma ordered the police and Prosecutor-General's Office to make every effort to solve Aleksandrov's murder.
But Oleh Yaltsov, a journalist and the director of the Internet news site Criminal Ukraine, says that the Gongadze case has demonstrated how the authorities are prone to cover-ups. He says few expect that Aleksandrov's killers will be brought to justice.
"The Gongadze case is the one that is freshest in people's memories. After the press paid great attention to the behavior of the Prosecutor -General's Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the SBU intelligence services -- all the law enforcement agencies -- it was seen that they simply don't know how to work. There's also the question of whether they could not work properly because they were not allowed to. That's the reason why such cases are not solved."
Another member of parliament, Ivan Bokyj, himself a former journalist, told RFE/RL that although Aleksandrov's murder may not have an overt political motive, it was made possible because criminal organizations have increased their power since 1999, when Kuchma was re-elected.
"In Ukraine, there is no democracy. In 1999, those who won were not a democratic force. They said that they were, but the initiative was very swiftly snatched by those who are today called 'the third force,' completely corrupt criminal elements."
Bokyj says that Aleksandrov was not known as an opponent of the government, and Kuchma had probably never even heard of him. But he thinks that anyone who speaks the truth is in danger because the Ukrainian government is under the thumb of ruthless people who do not hesitate to intimidate or destroy their opponents. He says Aleksandrov's death was symptomatic of the way such a regime behaves.
"The characteristics of today's government are oligarchic and criminal. The things that happen to our fellow journalists -- and not only to journalists, but in general to honest people -- are not surprising. Today that is the way the regime deals with such people and will continue to do so as long as it remains in power."
Ukraine in general -- and President Kuchma in particular -- lost a great deal of prestige because of the Gongadze case, which showed the country sliding away from democracy and from a respect for human rights. The last thing Ukraine, and Kuchma, need is to be accused of the cover-up of another journalist's murder. Kuchma knows that not only members of his own parliament but the international community will keep a close watch on how his government handles the investigation into Aleksandrov's murder.