Ukraine's First Casualties

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Ukraine, by far the biggest of the former Soviet satellites, continues to be rocked by a scandal over the murder of a journalist.

As in Russia, the government has encouraged brutal repression of the media - since 1991, 22 journalists have died in Ukraine because of their work.

The key case is that of Georgy Gongadze, an outspoken journalist who disappeared in Kiev four years ago in September. A few weeks later his headless corpse was found in a ditch. However, it soon emerged that a security guard had bugged the president's office. When the tapes were aired they revealed that the president, Leonid Kuchma, and his ministers had discussed 'crushing' Gongadze and getting rid of him.

Since then the government's crude cover-up has been repeatedly exposed as a farce. At first, in the face of obvious facts, it declared Gongadze was alive. Eventually DNA tests on the corpse proved it was Gongadze's. Then ministers announced the case had been solved - the journalist had been killed by two drug addicts who had subsequently died. A few months later the 'dead drug addicts' were discovered fit and well, and with a watertight alibi.

Last year evidence emerged of a death squad, known as the 'Werewolves', operating within the police force and responsible for a dozen murders. Police confessions linked the Werewolves to Gongadze's killing. As soon as the investigators began to take this evidence seriously, President Kuchma stepped in and sacked them all.

The story took another dramatic turn this summer when documents from the investigation were leaked to the Independent. They proved that the secret tapes were true - the order had come from the government to shut Gongadze up. A key witness in the case was murdered in jail. With Ukraine voting for a new president later this month, these latest revelations could be decisive.

But whatever the outcome, journalists in Ukraine are starting to get organised. The Kiev Independent Media Trade Union (KIMTU) was established by grassroots activists in 2002. Since then it has scored some genuine successes in organising journalists to fight censorship, and defend wages and conditions. KIMTU's activists are young, energetic and determined. They have emerged from the upheaval of the 1990s with a vision of change from below.


The National Union of Journalists is campaigning on the Gongadze case: www.londonfreelance.org/.