NUJ public meeting 16 September 2003

Remembering Gyorgy

The chandeliered Music Room at the Foreign Press Association building in London's elegant Carlton House Terrace was full for the meeting commemorating our murdered colleague Gyorgi Gongadze on 16 September.

Photo © Guy Smallman

Myroslava Gongadze (right) speaking at the meeting with Alla Lazareva at left

Jeremy Dear, General Secretary of the NUJ, noted in opening the meeting that a key witness in the Gongadze investigation, Ihor Goncharov, died in police custody on 1 July. Goncharov was due to testify about death squads in the Ukraine, including that suspected of killing Gongadze. So "We have not only this journalist being killed with the apparent encouragement of senior politicians, but a main witness being killed."

Around 5000 people took part in a candelit protest in Kyiv that night. NUJ members in Ireland are approaching senior politicians there. NUJ members in the Netherlands have handed a letter to their Ukrainian embassy, and members of the Italian journalists' union FNSI have done the same.

Other messages of support came from journalists' unions in Greece and Iceland. The Hungarian journalists' union is calling for solidarity commemorations in workplaces.

John Barsby, the immediate past NUJ President, described his fact-finding trip to Kyiv with Aidan White, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists. There they saw the Minister of Justice, who admitted that mistakes had been made and evidence had been lost. "We informed them that we were not satisfied and we would return again and again until we were sure that everything had been done."

Robert Shaw, safety officer of the IFJ, quoted Aidan White: governments must "crack down hard on censorship by violence". The IFJ is calling for a thorough review of the investigations so far, of evidence that has been just left by the wayside and of the hugely disappointing report from the Council of Europe.

Alla Lazareva, of the Institute of Mass Information in Kyiv, noted how the restrictions of the Soviet era had been followed by a concentration of media ownership that led to the same lack of freedom. The only independent source of information in the Ukraine now, paradoxically, are internet sites - like the one that Gyorgi worked on - and Western media.

Lazareva noted the cases of three other journalists who have died in the Ukraine since Gyorgi's murder. In the case of Ihor Alexandrov, his family accepted the official conclusion that he had committed suicide; but the facts of what happened to his press agency after he died point to more than that. Another journalist, Volodymyr Yefremov, died in a car crash. This happened in a remote area, so how did it happen that there two videos of the crash?

Dennis McShane, Minister for Europe in the UK government and a sometime President of the NUJ, had sent apologies on the grounds that he was in the Ukraine, and promised to raise the case with officials. He was in fact recalled to London on the evening of the meeting for a parliamentary debate on Europe.

Simon Butt had accompanied McShane to Kyiv as head of the Foreign Office Eastern Section. He spoke for the FCO in McShane's absence. He read a message from the EU remembering Gyorgi and deploring the lack of press freedom in the Ukraine. He quoted a speech by McShane to students, including journalism students, the previous day: "Your prosecutor-general is reported as saying that the clear-up rate of murders in Ukraine is 97.1 per cent. So we would have expected more progress in Gongadze's case, and that of Alexandrov"

In meetings with the Foreign Minister and others in Kyiv, McShane had linked progress in these cases with Ukraine's ambitions to join the EU and NATO. There were "no great revelations" in the responses.

Then McShane arrived - "we're going to hear the same speech again!" as someone resembling a General Secretary noted.

"The assault on journalists in the Ukraine is simply unacceptable," he said. "When I met the Deputy PM and the Foreign Minister I reminded them that these are cases to which the UK government attches high importance. Membership of the EU is clearly important to Ukraine: and the government has to understand that this means joining a community of shared values... and those include a free press."

Myroslava Gongadze, Gyorgy's widow, wished that the case was as much a priority for the Ukrainian government as it for people in London. The first days of his disappearance had been the hardest, not knowing what had happened - though she and their two children had their suspicions, knowing what he had been working on.

She named President Kuchma and other officials as the plotters responsible for her husband's murder. The problem is that the prosecutor's office is looking for the people who killed him, not for those who ordered this. She is afraid that the "nice manners" of politicians meeting Westerners will merely delay naming those actually responsible. (Her prepared statement is here.)

Questioners asked McShane whether lack of progress would block Ukraine's entry into the EU. He repeated the list of officials to whom he had stressed the importance of the European Declaration of Human Rights - and its guarantee of press freedom - "short of giving sermons in all the cathedrals of Kyiv I don't know how much clearer I could make it."

LFB committe member Simon Pirani took the opportunity to ask McShane to take an interest in the case of our member Besim Gerguri. He wished Besim well.

After McShane had left, Myroslava noted that he'd referred to the need for an investigation by the prosecutor-general. But as Pirani observed, this official had already announced how he was dealing with the investigation - "with the dead body of the main witness".

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