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Ukraine: New Regulation Allows Journalists To Carry Non-Lethal Handguns

A number of journalists have been murdered over the past decade in Ukraine, and hundreds have been attacked and beaten. But all that may change with the recent passing of new regulations allowing members of the press to carry weapons in self-defense. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky was in the capital Kyiv and talked to journalists there about the new guidelines.

Kyiv, 29 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The pen may be thought to be mightier than the sword, but in Ukraine the government and some journalists believe that a pistol makes a more powerful point.

In a country still struggling to develop a free press, Ukrainian journalists have long been a target of politically and financially motivated violence. Now, some of them say they are planning to take advantage of a government regulation passed earlier this month allowing them to carry a gun for protection.

According to official statistics, at least seven journalists have been murdered since Ukraine gained independence 10 years ago. But journalists say the actual figure is much larger and that additionally, hundreds of news workers have been shot or severely beaten in connection with their work.

Last year, mass demonstrations were held in Ukraine against President Leonid Kuchma for his alleged involvement in the September 2000 death of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, who was well-known for his work investigating government corruption and organized crime. And last July, television journalist Ihor Aleksandrov was beaten to death by assailants wielding baseball bats in the eastern city of Slavyansk.

Such incidents prompted the Ukrainian Interior Ministry to pass a new regulation last month allowing journalists to carry handguns. The weapon recommended by the ministry is a modified version of the Makarov nine-millimeter pistol widely used by the Soviet army. The new pistol fires rubber bullets that are intended to deliver an attacker a disabling but non-lethal blow. Guns that fire a cloud of tear gas are also allowed under the new regulation.

One journalist to take advantage of the new rule is Andriy, a radio station employee in the capital Kyiv who said he did not want his full name to be used. Andriy told RFE/RL that many of his fellow journalists have been threatened and beaten, and that one friend in particular had been abducted several years ago and never seen again.

"I'm not sure that a gun is going to help me against a person or a group really determined to kill me," Andriy says. "But at least this way I feel I have a chance of defending myself. My weapon can't kill someone attacking me, but it might cause enough surprise and chaos to allow me to escape."

Guns shooting rubber bullets and tear gas are no competition for the weapons being used by Ukraine's criminal groups, who have everything from machine guns to rocket-propelled grenades at their disposal. The short-term solution, Andriy says, is to allow all Ukrainians to carry weapons in self-defense.

But other Ukrainian journalists, like television reporter Pavlo Khristopyan from the western Ukrainian city of Ivanofrankivsk, are skeptical about the new regulations.

"I think it is wrong to make a distinction between journalists and other civilians as a separate social group. For instance, I was attacked by thugs several months ago, but it had nothing to do with my work. The crime situation is such in Ukraine that all sections of society are at risk, not just journalists."

Khristopyan said that many Ukrainian journalists would not be able to afford a weapon, which at around $100, is for many reporters more than a month's pay.

In addition to the cost, journalists must also apply for gun permits and get certificates showing they have no major mental problems or drug additions. According to Interior Ministry guidelines, their editors must also submit information illustrating why the employee is at particular risk of attack. The ministry declined to say how many journalists have applied for permits so far.

American lawyer and journalist Mary Mycio heads the legal defense and education program of the U.S.-funded IREX ProMedia group, which seeks to raise the professional standards of Ukrainian journalism. She says she has doubts about the government's motivation in passing the new regulation.

"I treat the Ministry of Interior statement largely as a public relations move. I think this is an unfortunate admission on the part of law enforcement officials that they are either unwilling or unable to protect journalists who are fulfilling their professional duties."

Furthermore, Mycio says she believes that unless journalists are trained to use their weapons, they may end up injuring more innocent civilians than armed assailants. Western journalism organizations denounce the use of weapons in their profession. They say such a move makes news workers -- even in war zones like Afghanistan, where eight journalists have been killed -- more vulnerable to being attacked as "legitimate" targets.