- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2001

As the 3 1/2 year-old Ukrainian twins bounced around the offices of the editorial pages here, watching cartoons on Fox cable and giving the potted plants more water then they may have had in years, the chatty blue-eyed, little girls did not look traumatized. "How are they coping?" we asked their mother, Myroslava Gongadze, who has just arrived from Ukraine to seek asylum in the United States. "Judge for yourselves," she said, "they talk all the time, about everything."
Appearances notwithstanding, the familys fate has been a traumatic one. Today, Mrs. Gongadze can only show the girls pictures of their father, internet reporter Georgi Gongadze, who last year became one of the best known victims of the war on the free media in the former Soviet Union. Today, Mrs. Gongadze, a lawyer who worked for the coalition of opposition parties in Ukraine, is in Washington seeking international help to obtain justice for her husband who may have been murdered on the orders of the president of Ukraine and seeking to build a new life for herself and her girls.
"This is all very difficult for us," she says. "We went through a lot in Ukraine, but I am proud of my Ukrainian heritage, and I did not want to leave my life and my work. But I had to do it for the sake of the children. No one is giving anything to us on a silver platter."
Mr. Gongadze, the 31-year-old editor of an online newspaper, disappeared on Sept. 16. He had no doubt that his efforts to root out government corruption were dangerous. "I kept telling him, 'Georgi please be careful. Dont write so sharply, " says Mrs. Gongadze. Her husband was not one to listen, however. Mr. Gongadze had been through three wars. He had looked death in the face and been badly wounded in the secessionist war of the republic of Abkhadzia against the government of Georgia. "He was not afraid of anything," she says. "He said, 'I have already died once. "
Mr. Gongadze was found on Nov. 2, six weeks after his disappearance, the body beheaded and disfigured with acid. DNA tests have indicated, however, that the body almost certainly is his. The FBI last week took saliva for DNA tests from his wife and girls to aid in the identification.
For a journalist to be killed in the former Soviet Union is nothing new. Two Russians and one Georgian reporter lost their lives last year covering the war in Chechnya. The case of Georgi Gongadze, however, attracted international attention and erupted into a major scandal in Ukraine itself when it turned out that President Leonid Kuchma may be implicated. This was according to a tape recording which was made public in November, featuring Mr. Kuchmas voice or one very much like it discussing how to eliminate this muckraking journalist.
Mr. Gongadze was among the 26 journalists killed last year doing their job, according to Freedom Forum, which last week added Mr. Gongadzes name to the Newseums journalist memorial in Arlington. Thats a drop from the record high of 40 killed in 1999, but is certainly still enough to give you pause to stop and think if you are in the news business. Americans may take a dim view of reporters and often with good reason, it might be added but we all owe support and just plain admiration to those who risk their lives to inform the public about government corruption, war crimes and violence on our streets. Without a free press, there can be no honest government.
The experience of the Ukrainian media in many ways exemplifies what is going on in the media across the former Soviet Union, according to Adrian Karatnicky, president of the human rights advocacy group Freedom House.
Ten years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the situation is getting both better and worse. On the one hand, cases like that of Georgi Gongadze provoke public outrage and mass demonstrations. People cannot be kept in the dark the way they could before. On the other hand, rulers are more cynical about the media today. They have sized up the public and the power of public opinion and have found ways to exert control.
The situation of the media in Ukraine may not be quite as dark as that of Russia, but, as the Gongadze case suggests, it is deteriorating. "The mask has been lifted," says Mr. Karatnicky. "We now see what is going on in the inner circles of the government." The case has exposed corruption and cover ups and lack of independence among the investigative and judicial authorities in Ukraine. It should be a wake up-call.
Given that Ukraine is one of the four largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, along with Israel, Egypt and Russia, with a 2001 appropriation of $170 million (set to grow to $176 million in 2002), the United States ought to have some influence on the course of events. Beyond the FBI involvement in the Gongadze case, we can and should increase funding for the building of civic institutions and independent media in Ukraine, a country of tremendous strategic importance. Currently, a mere $750,000 of U.S. aid is earmarked for this purpose.
Throughout the countries of the former Soviet Union, the development of free media has been difficult, dangerous and uneven. Those who risk their lives in that cause deserve our unstinting support in this long haul.
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