Gongadze murder, 16 years later – civil society and media environment in Ukraine
“I had two options: to stay silent or to do somethig,” said Myroslava Gongadze, recalling the aftermath of the brutal murder of her hunband, Georgiy Gongadze, during her visit to the Ukrainian Institute in London on Monday, 19 September, 2016.
The murder of her husband Georgiy Gongadze turned out to be one of the most fateful and long-running cases in Ukrainian journalism. His kidnapping and death in 2000 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 then Ukraine’s president Leonid Kuchma talking about the silencing of the murdered journalist. Miscarriage of the case also triggered the first big protests in independent Ukraine, and, as Myroslava Gongadze said, marked the start of the growth of civil society in the country. (Read more about the case)
Although the officials responsible for the involvement in the act of the murder of her husband 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 said 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 ill democracy and rampant corruption.
Although Gongadze says that current evidence is enough to make 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, people of suspicious behaviour, and enough evidence that in a rightly functioning judicial system would have already been used to punish those who are responsible.”
Myroslava Gongadze has been doomed to live fighting for justice for over 15 years now. Nevertheless, 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 – remain silent and hide or take action into her own hands. “Silence will not save me,” she said, 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 Maidan, back in the early 2000s. Seeing the example of her and other journalists fighting for their rights to work and their rights to know the truth, Ukrainians started transforming their passive soviet mentality and obedience to become more like western civil society through active involvement in the decision making process in the country. “Journalists started talking louder about the existing censorship. Not just from the government and owners of the press, but also within themselves. Self-censorship was raised as an issue,” she said.
Gongadze said that even working in the West, any journalist writing about such controversial topics as Ukraine cannot 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 it eventually leads to bigger problems in society. But we, journalists, have to be very careful when we silence ourselves or when we choose to close our eyes regarding some topics or issues,” she said.
She went on to examine the current state of Ukrainian journalism, criticising the state of the media in her homeland. “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.”
As the age of information is flooded with news in various formats, languages and angles, journalists no longer can call themselves those gatekeepers that filter that flow and provide just ‘correct’ and ‘right’ information to their audiences. Gongadze also said that people must feel 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 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 said 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.
“It is not seen as competitive business but rather as a tool of oligarchs that create media outlets to serve their interests. It is very concerning. I cannot name even one outlet that you can follow to get a full picture of events or at least basic information of what is happening,” she said. She pointed that out 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.
When the 2013 Maidan Revolution 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, Gongadze said. Their audience today is quite marginal and they expect Hromadske to be as it was originally, which is nowhere near to what a public broadcaster should aim to be.
During her visit to London, the journalist also commented on the recent elections in Russia, 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 said.
Text by Agne Dovydaityte