Gongadze Murder: 16 Years Later, Civil Society and Media Environment in Ukraine

September 21, 2016 • Articles • Views: 794

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Text by Agne Dovydaityte

Edited by Darya Malyutina

Photos by Diana Mess from Still Miracle Photography

“Ukrainian media is very messy,” Myroslava Gongadze, a prominent Ukrainian journalist working for the Voice of America in the US, said during her visit to the Ukrainian Institute in London on Monday, 19 September. She is the widow of Georgiy Gondagze, a Ukrainian journalist and film director who was kidnapped and murdered in 2000.

The brutal murder of Gongadze turned out to be one of the most influential and long-running cases in the history of Ukrainian journalism. His kidnapping and death triggered a series of long and misleading investigations that are now known as the ‘Cassette Scandal’ or ‘Tapegate’, in reference to the release of secret records allegedly capturing Ukraine’s then-president Leonid Kuchma talking about the silencing of the murdered journalist. Mishandling of the case also triggered the first big protests in independent Ukraine, and, as Myroslava Gongadze asserts, marked the start of the civil society growth in the country. (Read more about the case)

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Although the officials responsible for the involvement in the act of her husband’s murder were charged, the roots of the crime and people who ordered it remain unnamed. “I can call [charges] a success in some way but it is not fully satisfying. It became one of the biggest cases of journalist murder in Ukraine and a symbol of the struggle for justice and free media, free people,” she said. Gongadze stressed that it is important to finally solve and close this case in order to give people hope that justice is possible, even in a country with a notoriously problematic democracy and rampant corruption.

People solving the crime are afraid to reveal what they have because they do not have much. Myroslava Gongadze

While Gongadze claims that current evidence is enough to press new charges, the case remains in an investigation process that seems to be rather vague. “People solving the crime are afraid to reveal what they have because they do not have much, and most evidence after those 16 years is already lost. People are not talking; there are loads of lies around the case and persons of suspicious behaviour. There is enough evidence, though, that in a rightly functioning judicial system would have already been used to punish those who are responsible.”

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Myroslava Gongadze has been bound to live fighting for justice for over 15 years now. At the same time, she continues her journalistic career in America, observing and closely following the state of media and politics in her homeland. After her husband was murdered, she saw two options – to remain silent and hide, or to take action in her own hands.

Silence would not save me, Myroslava explained, thinking back to that time. My only option appeared to be to appeal to society.

Her speculations were right. “You woke me up,” a man said to her in one of the meetings in the Maidan, back in the early 2000s. Seeing the example of her and other journalists fighting for their rights to work and to know the truth, Ukrainians started transforming their passive Soviet mentality and obedience, striving to become more like the Western civil society through active involvement in the decision-making process in the country. “Journalists started talking louder about the existing censorship, not just the one coming from the government and media owners, but also among themselves. Self-censorship was raised as an issue,” she recalled.

The speaker noted that even for journalists working in the West and writing about such controversial topics as Ukraine, it is hardly possible to avoid “hate mail” and disagreements with their readers. “Civil society in the country is growing but it is not flourishing yet. Not all Ukrainians are willing to be open to all opinions, and eventually it leads to bigger problems in society. But we, as journalists, have to be very careful when we silence ourselves or when we choose to close our eyes on some topics or issues,” she underlined.

Gongadze went on to examine the current state of Ukrainian journalism, criticising the state of the media in the country. She spoke explicitly about the journalists’ role:

The society has to be educated by someone and we are that ‘someone’. We are responsible for telling the truth that will bring up the generations to come.”

In the information age that is flooded with news in various formats and languages and from all possible angles, journalists no longer can call themselves gatekeepers that filter that flow and provide the ‘correct’ and ‘right’ information to their audiences. Gongadze claimed that people must assume full responsibility for filtering the news themselves, which happens to be a very difficult task in a country such as Ukraine. Now, she said, Ukrainian media is packed with marginal news websites, outlets and TV stations, but there is no dominant media leader that sets the journalistic standards in the country, as, for example, the BBC does in the UK. While observing Ukrainian media from the outside, and still having friends and colleagues in the country, she pointed out that the majority of journalists in Ukraine are not professional enough to handle the pressure of constantly changing political environment, and hence the media landscape is messy.

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“It is not seen as a competitive business but rather as a tool of oligarchs who create media outlets to serve their interests. It is very concerning. I cannot name a single outlet that you can follow to get a full picture of events or at least basic information of what is happening,” she said. She stated this as one of the reasons why many younger people in Ukraine are forced to rely on foreign reporters to get news about their own country.

Gongadze observed: when the 2013 Maidan protests started, Hromadske TV were the ones to give hope for journalism in Ukraine, but “on the other hand they were created during the Revolution of Dignity, because of the revolution, and they were openly supporting the revolution.” The revolution as it was known before is over, now the slow reform process has started, and Hromadske struggles to set the journalistic standards that everyone should look up to, the speaker said. She added that the online TV station’s audience today is quite marginal, consisting of those who expect Hromadske to be as it was originally, which is nowhere near to what a public broadcaster should aim to be.

Fight propaganda with truth, not with propaganda. Myroslava Gongadze

During her visit to London, the journalist also commented on the recent elections in Russia, the upcoming ones in the US, and the future of justice in Ukraine that largely depends on the civil society that still has considerable room for growth. Professionalism, truthfulness and learning from their colleagues abroad – that was her advice to journalists in Ukraine. “Fight propaganda with truth, not with propaganda,” she concluded.

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