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KIEV, May 30 2011 (IPS) - Accused of being unfriendly towards journalists, Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich has surprised the world by starting an investigation for abuse of power against former president Leonid Kuchma over the murder of an opposition journalist in 2000.
There is disagreement on whether media freedom, which has always been relative, is seriously endangered by the practices of the Yanukovich-led cabinet, considered more authoritarian than that of its liberal predecessor Viktor Yushchenko.
There is no evidence of direct censorship in the country but there have been instances of pressure from owners against their staff and a few cases of physical harassment of journalists.
Ever since the financial crisis hit Ukraine hard, many television channels and newspapers have suffered from reduced advertisement, making them more dependent on their owners, who in their turn privilege good relations with the government in times of crisis.
But in the midst of accusations of disrespecting media freedom, Yanukovich has surprisingly reopened an investigation into the murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze, killed under the rule of his political mentor, former president Kuchma.
The headless body of Gongadze was found in a forest outside Kiev in 2000. He was known for his outspoken criticism of the Kuchma administration, which lasted from 1994 to 2005, and what he considered its corrupt practices.
While Yushchenko’s pro-Western presidency, which lasted from 2005 to 2010, is credited for increasing media freedom, the former president was also Kuchma’s prime minister at the time of the Gongadze murder in 2000, leading many to believe he had reasons to fear the investigation.
Kuchma has been the most high-profile suspect ever since his former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko revealed the content of secret recordings in which the former president is heard complaining about Gongadze during a meeting with other state officials.
In the tapes, a voice that many recognise as Kuchma’s is heard asking for the journalist to be kidnapped by Chechens, and ordering his subordinates to “take care of him.”
Kuchma has consistently denied the accusations, claiming the tapes are forgeries aimed at discrediting him, and pointing first at Russia, and then at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency as the conspirators.
The case became more convoluted after the former bodyguard Melnychenko declared he believed Kuchma was indeed the victim of intrigues.
The former president, who is also suspected of playing a big role in stifling the murder investigation over the years, has taken the accusations seriously, and hired U.S. lawyer Alen Dershowitz, noted for his role in the O.J. Simpson case, to defend him.
While the hundreds of hours of tapes have not yet been fully authenticated, first deputy prosecutor general Renat Kuzmin has confirmed that the voices heard are those of senior officials, including the former president.
The authentication of the tapes may open a Pandora’s box: the tapes include discussions on a variety of corrupt deals involving former and present high-level officials, and there already are voices calling for the opening of new investigations.
Relatives of Gongadze want the former president to be indicted for murder, but Kuchma has so far only been accused of abuse of power.
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Victor Pshonka, who last week announced his office had completed its investigation, justified the abuse of power charge by arguing Kuchma had “no intent on the final tragic outcome.”
Adding to the difficulty of the case, there is no witness to confirm a chain of orders coming from the presidential office. So far three police officers have been jailed in the murder case, while a former police general awaits trial.
The one person who could have confirmed the link between high-level officials and the police officers was former interior minister Yuriy Kravchenko, who died in 2005 under suspicious circumstances.
Kravchenko allegedly shot himself twice in the head shortly before he was to testify in the case, leaving a note in which he claimed to be the victim of Kuchma’s intrigues. Investigators concluded he had committed suicide, but many in Ukraine believe he was murdered.
Conspiracy theories are ripe at this stage: many believe the trial is a farce created to clear Kuchma of any suspicions while others see a war between political clans – Yanukovich’s and Kuchma’s – with different financial backers.
“The resurrection of this case, its public humiliation of Kuchma and the renewed spotlight on crimes that occurred during his reign is raising demands that a transparent and fair process occur,” Adrian Karatnycky, senior scholar at the Atlantic Council of the United States told IPS. “Any hint of a cover-up will only undermine Yanukovich’s image.”
Surely, the case will help Yanukovich fend off accusations of selective prosecution aimed against political opponents, an accusation he has faced ever since ordering an investigation into the financial activities of the main opposition leader and former prime minister Yuliya Timoshenko.
Timoshenko has been accused of diverting funds raised under the Kyoto Protocol to place them in a pension fund, and is currently under house arrest.
Yanukovich is also working on improving his image with the press. Karatnycky credits his government for supporting the passing of Ukraine’s first “comprehensive freedom of information legislation” and notes Yanukovich appointed the respected journalist Darka Chepak, founder of the Stop Censorship movement, as the President’s press spokesman.
Chepak used to work with Georgiy Geongadze and his news portal Ukrayinska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth).
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