The torch of liberty has grown dimmer in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine – as it has across most of the territory of the old USSR – with the government’s silencing of the last independent media outlet and the continuing controversy surrounding the murder of a popular outspoken journalist.
Ukraine is of particular interest to the West due to its physical size – second only in size to Russia – its geographic position on Russia’s western border and its highly trained population. Moscow also has a great interest in its neighbor, seeking firmer links to Ukraine with talk in some political circles of Ukraine joining the Russian-Belarus Union.
According to a report from Deutsche Welle, Germany’s official – but independent – broadcasting service, the Ukrainian government of President Leonid Kuchma has ordered the destruction of Ukraine’s “last free voice,” Radio Continent, because it effectively countered the state-owned radio and television outlets.
The National Radio and Television Council of Ukraine formally revoked Radio Continent’s right to broadcast, although legal challenges to the move were still in process.
The termination of what Deutsche Welle describes as “the last remaining independent commercial station” in Ukraine occurred during the Christmas holidays. The Deutsche Welle report speculated that the revocation was timed to lessen the impact among Western political leaders and free-speech advocates, many of whom are already suspicious of the Kuchma government and its authoritarian tendencies.
Radio Continent was unique among Ukrainian media for its independence from the Kuchma government, as well as its relay of broadcasts from influential Western media, including the British Broadcasting Corporation, Deutsche Welle and Voice of America.
The Ukrainian population, according to the Deutsche Welle report, will be forced “to listen to foreign voice” broadcasting from outside the country to hear an alternative to the official media line.
Radio Continent also had close connections to a murdered Ukrainian journalist, whose death has shaken the Kuchma government and caused an international scandal.
According to the Deutsche Welle report, Radio Continent worked closely with Georgiy Gongadze, an extremely popular and well-respected Ukrainian journalist and influential critic of the Kuchma government.
Gongadze was one of the first Ukrainian journalists to publish on the Internet, establishing an independent website in April 2000.
In an environment where many journalists practice “self-censorship,” Gongadze had vigorously attacked Kuchma and other leading figures in the Ukrainian government for corruption and abuse of power, earning himself many powerful enemies.
On Sept. 16, 2000, Gongadze disappeared, and what is believed by many to be his headless corpse was found the following November near Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. Official declarations that the body is not that of Gongadze have met with distrust and suspicion.
Gongadze’s wife, Myroslava, has denounced the investigation – or more properly, the lack of an investigation – into the death of her husband in an open letter to Kuchma.
Myroslava condemned Kuchma as responsible for “the existence of corruption, fear and the manipulation of the government in Ukraine” and stated that her husband was “under surveillance and psychological threats” before his disappearance.
Kuchma, Myroslava stated, promised to assume personal direction of the investigation.
Myroslava also raised questions about a number of other high-profile deaths and disappearances of Kuchma opponents – all of which remain unsolved.
A former Kuchma bodyguard, Mykola Melnichenko, released to the Western news media what he claimed was an audiotape linking Kuchma to Gongadze’s murder. Melnichenko has been in hiding ever since the publicizing of the tape.
Myroslava, her two daughters and Melnichenko have all been granted asylum in the U.S.
An organization supporting freedom of the press around the world – Reporters sans fronti?res, or Reporters Without Borders – has called upon the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to assist in establishing a commission to investigate the Gongadze incident.