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Kyiv Notebook: Fear Of 'Dark Times' After Journalist's Killing

A Ukrainian police officer examines the charred automobile of journalist Pavel Sheremet after he was killed by a car bomb in Kyiv on July 20.
A Ukrainian police officer examines the charred automobile of journalist Pavel Sheremet after he was killed by a car bomb in Kyiv on July 20.

KYIV -- The death of a passionate investigative reporter in a car bombing in the Ukrainian capital has sent shock waves through Kyiv and its journalist community.

Pavel Sheremet had won prestigious international awards for exposing political abuses in his native Belarus, quit Russian TV over "Kremlin propaganda" at the height of Russian patriotic fervor as Moscow was carving Crimea from the rest of Ukraine, and ultimately warned loudly of a creeping nationalist threat to authorities in his adopted home, Kyiv.

So when a "remote-controlled or delayed-action" bomb blew up the car Sheremet was driving to work for his regular morning show, the blast dashed more than the life of the 44-year-old crusader for rights and democracy.

"The dark times are back in Ukraine," was how Ukrainian journalist Katya Gorchinskaya summed up what many were feeling after the July 20 assassination.

Svitlana Zalishchuk, a ruling party lawmaker and anticorruption campaigner, called Sheremet's killing "an attack on every Ukrainian and a pronouncement of war against the peace we used to believe exists outside the war zone in Donbas," a reference to the eastern area where Russia-backed separatists continue to hold swaths of Ukraine.

"My brain refuses to believe it," said Mustafa Nayyem, another lawmaker and a former investigative journalist himself, who was a close friend of Sheremet's. "I want to wake up and go on living without this terrible news."

At the scene of the explosion, which authorities said appeared to have been "skillfully" prepared, elderly bystanders stood in shock and nodded at what to them resembled something from Ukraine's turbulent past.

"Well, it's like the mafia," one man said in a reference to killings carried out by organized crime groups that flourished after the collapse of the Soviet Union. "It's very scary."

Litmus Test For The 'New Ukraine'

Within hours of the bombing, a thunderstorm enveloped Kyiv and unleashed a downpour that washed away the black soot and ash from the scene. Its black clouds loomed over the capital as fear set in, prompting President Petro Poroshenko to warn that the likely aim of the attack was destabilization "possibly ahead of further events."

But Sheremet was not the first journalist to have been killed in Ukraine; he wasn't even the first who worked for Ukrayinska Pravda. Georgian-born Heorhiy Gongadze, one of the website's founders, was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered in 2000. His headless body was found only months later, in the woods outside Kyiv, and was not buried until March of this year.

Since 1992, at least six journalists have been killed in Ukraine for their work, four with impunity, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). More have gone missing, been beaten, or been threatened with violence. In most cases, Ukrainian authorities have failed to bring any or all of the suspected perpetrators to justice.

Orthodox priests stand next to a coffin containing the body of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, who was killed in 2000 but not laid to rest until earlier this year.
Orthodox priests stand next to a coffin containing the body of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, who was killed in 2000 but not laid to rest until earlier this year.

Sheremet's case will therefore provide a litmus test for Ukraine's pro-Western government, which has struggled to carry out crucial reforms or try criminal cases against senior members of the former or current regime.

The Ukrainian president has ordered that all of the government's resources be put at the disposal of law enforcement, and U.S. officials say the FBI will work with them on the probe. "We are deeply interested in a transparent investigation," Poroshenko said.

But journalists who have seen colleagues murdered and their killers never prosecuted are skeptical.

"Remember that I had expected [authorities] to complete the murder investigation of Heorhiy," Gongadze's widow, Myroslava, wrote on Facebook. She added bitterly that there were "too many parallels" between her husband's case and that of Sheremet.

Part Of A Pattern?

Some observers say the manner in which Sheremet was killed hark back to the early post-Soviet period, when three journalists were murdered -- one shot point-black in the face, one bludgeoned, and another blown up by a bomb -- and others were routinely harassed.

"I see a pattern that in the past year or more has unfolded against journalists," said Gorchinskaya, the chief executive officer of Kyiv-based independent Hromadske TV who tweeted that "the dark times are back," told RFE/RL.

She cited the recent leak of journalists' personal data and their publication by a shady website run by anonymous hackers called Myrotvorets. The site called the journalists "terrorist collaborators" for their work in the separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine. The leak was openly cheered by Ukraine's interior minister, Arsen Avakov, as well as other prominent officials.

There was also an attack on Mykhaylo Tkach, who reports for the Skhemy investigative program, a joint production of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and UA: First TV Channel. His case has not been investigated, and his assailants remain unpunished, even though the attack was well-documented and caught on video.

Kristina Berdynskykh, a senior reporter for the Kyiv-based independent New Time magazine who often writes about the country's powerful oligarchs, said she has received multiple death threats in recent months.

"Your monument will stand beside the monument for Gongadze," read one such warning, sent via SMS.

She was contacted by Ukrainian police and security officers, but no charges have not been brought against any suspects.

After Sheremet's killing, Berdynskykh penned an op-ed that she titled Do Not Rely On Law Enforcement.

"I realized that journalists' best protection is maximum publicity, information support from colleagues from other media in covering the case, rather than law enforcement," she wrote.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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