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Ukraine: Analysis From Washington -- When Journalists Become Targets

Washington, 20 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF), a Paris-based media defense group, has called on Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma to take action against a rising tide of violence directed against journalists, a development that threatens prospects for democracy there.

In an open letter released on 19 July, RSF said that "not only violence against the press but also the general impunity of those who commit such actions is the awful day-to-day reality of modern Ukraine." The organization issued the letter because of three attacks on journalists since the beginning of July.

On 3 July, TOR television director Ihor Aleksandrov was killed in Slaviansk by bat-wielding assailants who have not been identified or arrested. On that same day, Oleh Breus, the founder of the Luhansk newspaper "XX Vek" was shot and killed while entering his office. Again no one has been charged in the case. And on 11 July, Oleh Velychko, the head of the Aversk media group in Lutsk, was badly beaten. He survived but remains hospitalized.

These attacks come on the heels of the much publicized killing in September 2000 of Heorhiy Gongadze, an Internet journalist who reported on corruption in the Ukrainian government. That case has attracted international attention and led many media groups and governments to condemn the Ukrainian government for its failure to move expeditiously to investigate and bring those responsible to justice.

The open letter of RSF is only the latest criticism of Ukraine and other post-Soviet states for attacks against journalist and even more for the failure of the governments involved to find and bring charges against those responsible.

Both the attacks and even more the failure to punish those responsible have created a climate of intimidation in which journalists are constantly looking over their shoulders to determine whether and how they should report a particular story.

Poorly paid and with relatively low social status, journalists in these countries appear increasingly reluctant to look into stories involving official corruption or other issues that may invite reprisals. Such a climate feeds on itself: as journalists report less out of fear, their readers and listeners decide that the media are ever less useful, the status of journalists falls still further, and so on in an often vicious circle.

But the events that RSF have called attention to have a significance far beyond the lives of journalists and their work. Such attacks, coupled with widespread efforts by governments in Ukraine, Russia, and elsewhere to take control of the media, are reducing the ability of the media to play a major role in a democratic society.

And that in turn means that the attacks on journalists that RSF have chronicled represent in fact attacks on democracy itself. In Western democracies, attacks on journalists typically quickly generate popular outrage, but in countries like Ukraine, these attacks have not had that effect, sometimes because the state-controlled media do not report them and sometimes because the audiences does not fully understand what is at stake.

Consequently, international groups like RSF or its sister organizations like the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists have a special role in post-communist countries, not only in helping to spark public outrage in these states but also in bringing to the attention of the wider world the unpunished crimes against journalists and others, crimes that are preventing these societies from making the transitions to democracy.

A decade ago, many in these countries and in the West assumed that journalists would be able to play their positive role in promoting democracy in these countries with freedom. But the murders and attacks on journalists across this region have shown that the need for a free press and for watchdog groups that seek to protect it has not gone away and is unlikely to do so anytime soon.