Watchdog warns of official hostility towards journalists amid loss of TV station licences and mystery over fate of investigative reporter
It was 8.55am when the investigative journalist Vasyl Klymentyev set off from his home in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city. As editor-in-chief of Kharkiv’s Novy Stil (New Style) newspaper – a small publication known for unearthing juicy scandals about corrupt local officials – Klymentyev had many enemies and was rather cautious. He set the burglar alarm.
What happened next on that morning in early August is a matter of speculation. The one fact everyone agrees on is that Klymentyev vanished. His family reported him missing the next day and Kharkiv police opened a murder inquiry. His friends are convinced he is dead, though so far there is no body. On 17 August a boy discovered his mobile phone and keys in a small rubber boat floating in a rural reservoir.
For journalists, Klymentyev is a chilling symbol of how press freedoms are being curtailed in Ukraine seven months after the election of Viktor Yanukovych, the country’s new pro-Russian president. Yanukovych, his critics say, has set about reversing the gains of the 2004-10 Orange Revolution, in which newspapers and TV flourished. Reporters talk of a new era of fear and censorship.
Last week Kiev’s district court stripped two independent opposition television stations, TVi and 5 Kanal, of their licences. TVi has fallen off the main airwaves, while 5 Kanal – which came to prominence with its coverage of the 2004 pro-democracy demonstrations – has had its audience severely reduced. The winner is Valeriy Khoroshkovsky, owner of the pro-Yanukovych Inter Media television empire – and head of Ukraine’s SBU security service.
In a report last week the watchdog Reporters Without Borders (PDF) said broadcast media pluralism in Ukraine was being “seriously eroded”, warning of a “disturbing level of hostility towards journalists on the part of the authorities”, including “physical attacks”.
Ukraine’s apparent lurch towards authoritarianism has alarmed EU leaders and MPs. Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, expressed her concerns during a visit to Kiev last week.
“We are going back to the USSR,” Petro Matvienko, the deputy editor of Novy Stil, said last week. “In the USSR the [Communist] party was in charge. Now we are in the hands of a criminal totalitarian gang. It’s worse.”
Matvienko said he was certain Klymentyev was dead, killed by someone whose interests he had crossed. Shortly before his disappearance, Klymentyev had been preparing a story about the mansions of four top officials, one from Ukraine’s security service.