December 29, 2013

Violence, Impunity Take No Holiday for Ukraine Journalists

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Some of the journalists in Ukraine assaulted in the last month for doing their jobs. © Courtesy

While most of the Christian West woke up on Christmas morning to messages of peace on earth and goodwill to mankind, events in Ukraine continued down a bloody and almost heathen, medieval path.

The physical assaults in the last month on journalists, activists, and EuroMaidan demonstrators (protesters demanding Ukraine lean towards the EU, not Russia) are too numerous to keep track of without a scorecard and a timeline.

But the trend is so clear that even the most witless criminal investigator can see the pattern.

People who support President Viktor Yanukovych and his allies are out to silence and intimidate his critics — sometimes one-by-one, sometimes in groups and sometimes indiscriminately. They appear to be starting with the most vocal, the most effective or the easiest to reach.

I do not know whether the orgy of violence is being orchestrated by the administration and its law enforcement agencies or security services, as the political opposition claims. I would hope not because, if true, these criminal cases will never get solved with this regime in power — or they will be closed with lower-level fall guys taking the rap, not the people who ordered the violence.

The start of the investigation into the Dec. 25 beating of journalist and opposition activist Tetyana Chornovol got off to its usual farcical start. When ruling Party of Regions lawmakers were pelted with snowballs last winter, police called it an attempt on their lives. When a gang of thugs smashed Chornovol’s face to a pulp, causing a concussion, the police initially qualified it as an act of hooliganism and possibly a result of a traffic accident that she caused.

The fact that so many people think that the attacks are being directed from within the administration shows how little faith and support remains for the president. Yet the president still has his backers, among some leading oligarchs with their fortunes on the line, within his dependent ruling party and among a smaller — though still sizable — share of the public.

It strains the imagination to think that street thugs are targeting journalists and civic activists on their own. It’s the EuroMaidan activists who are being attacked, smeared and having their property destroyed. And journalists who cover what is happening are inconveniently in the administration’s way.

Either way, where does someone find such cold-blooded thugs? What kind of men exist who would — either for pay or for hatred — stop a woman on the roadside and start beating her repeatedly, leaving her unconscious and left to die in a ditch? How many such “men” exist in Ukraine and what more are they capable of doing? The prospects are truly alarming.

The violence will not end until the impunity ends.

The list of unpunished crimes with political connections goes back years and decades in Ukraine, from journalist Georgiy Gongadze in 2000, to pre-EuroMaidan acts of violence involving the beatings of FEMEN activists, force against imprisoned ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and numerous other, heinous, unpunished crimes that received no proper investigation. At a minimum, the state’s impotence in the face of barbarism cultivates the idea that such acts are permitted — even desired — as long as the violence is directed against enemies of the regime. These are merely the some of the cases of impunity involving violence. The list of financial crimes and high-level corruption is even longer.

Aside from the violent campaign under way, a non-violent one is taking aim at foreigners who support the anti-government EuroMaidan protests. Unlike the violent counterpart, the government’s involvement in banning foreigners from entering Ukraine is certain.

The Security Service of Ukraine issued a Dec. 25 statement confirming that an unspecified number of foreigners are banned for national security reasons. The vagueness and timing, however, suggest that the actions are being taken for merely exercising free speech rights in sympathy or support of the EuroMaidan movement.

Still, the government’s message — and accompanying blacklist of 36 or 200 or whatever the number — is well understood by all foreigners in Ukraine: You are a guest in this country and if you want to continue visiting, working or living here, don’t join the civil uprising (or revolution) under way.

I don’t think this threat will keep most expats I know from speaking their minds. But many will certainly be more careful about what they say and do, which is the whole idea behind the threats: to kill freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.

The civil conflict in Ukraine is certainly not yet to the point where people or investors or foreigners need to flee, nor do I ever imagine it sinking to such depths. But such an atmosphere will hardly lead to more tourists and investors in 2014.

Those perpetrating the recurring violence certainly are doing their best to keep civil unrest alive with their poorly timed actions.

The EuroMaidan protests would likely have fizzled out on Nov. 30, until riot police came in to smash heads. That set off weeks of anger, outrage and street demonstrations that may have drawn up to 1 million people at theirs peaks on Sunday.

Then people were hoping to take a brief respite during Christmas and New Year’s holidays, only to be filled with moral outrage at the Christmas Day beating of Chornovol on a roadside in Kyiv Oblast.

Chornovol’s case refocused attention — and adrenaline — on all the other cases of violence in the last month: the police beatings of dozens of demonstrators on Nov. 30; the assaults on more than 40 journalists covering the rallies on Dec. 1; the coordinated physical and other attacks on members of Road Control, the civic group that effectively exposes corruption among the road police; and the Dec. 24 attack on a EuroMaidan co-organizer in Kharkiv. This is not a complete list, but it is the bloodiest time in Ukraine in many years, mercifully stopping short at loss of life.

When will the violence end?

My answer is that, even if no one in the government has anything to do with the violence under way, government officials — from the president to the parliament to the prosecutor and the law enforcement agencies — have the power to stop it all by aggressively exposing and punishing those responsible for the bloodshed.

So far, though, there is no sign they are interested in doing so.

Brian BonnerBrian Bonner has served as chief editor of the Kyiv Post since 2008. He is a veteran American journalist who spent most of his professional life with the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota. This story was reprinted with permission from the Kyiv Post

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