After renowned journalist Pavel Sheremet was killed in a car bombing in central Kyiv last year, Ukraine’s president promised all-out efforts to solve the case. But as of Thursday’s anniversary of his death, there has been no visible progress.
Instead, say Ukrainian journalists, the case is mired in either incompetence or deliberate inaction. In a country where violence against journalists is frequent, reporters feel more in danger than ever.
The killing of 44-year-old Sheremet, who was driving in central Kyiv to appear on a morning radio show on July 20, 2016, was a shock that resonated far beyond Ukraine. The Belarusian native had received international awards and was widely lauded for bold reporting at home, where he was jailed for three months and then given a two-year prison suspended sentence in 1997. He later moved to Russia, where he worked for a TV station controlled by Putin critic Boris Berezovsky, then went to Ukraine to work at respected internet publication Ukrainska Pravda.
Ukrainska Pravda was long a thorn in the side of Ukraine’s corruption-ridden elite. Its first editor, Heorhiy Gongadze, was found decapitated in 2000 and audio recordings later emerged that implicated then-president Leonid Kuchma in his killing.
The failure to find Sheremet’s killer leaves Ukraine’s journalists feeling imperiled.
“Lack of progress in the Sheremet case is better than any declaration to show how authorities really care about the safety of journalists,” National Union of Journalists head Serhiy Tomilenko said.
Sheremet’s friends, colleagues and activists gathered Thursday morning around the time that Sheremet was killed. About 200 people laid flowers and left candles at the intersection where his car blew up before setting off to march to the presidential administration to express their frustration with the investigation. Some of the mourners spray-painted “Who killed Pavel?” on the sidewalk outside the presidential administration and plastered a poster with Sheremet’s portrait at the entrance to National Police headquarters.
Police say the killing was committed carefully, making identifying suspects harder.
“Unfortunately, the criminal offense was committed with good quality, so the investigation has not yet found the person who can be reasonably suspected of involvement in the murder,” Interior Ministry spokesman Artem Shevchenko said.
‘Impunity has become the norm’
Tomilenko’s group told an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe freedom-of-speech conference last month that more than 800 journalists have faced violence or threats in Ukraine since 2014. Although about half the incidents were connected to the 2014 mass protests that drove a Moscow-friendly president into exile or with the conflicts in Crimea and eastern Ukraine that followed, about 400 cases have happened in the rest of the country.
Most recently, reporter Volodymyr Volovodyuk, who had investigated black-market trading in the central Vinnytsia region, was beaten to death June 12.
None of these cases have been prosecuted.
“Impunity has become the norm,” Tomilenko said. “The daily life of journalists is more like reports from the front.”
After the 2014 uprising, Ukraine has increased its drive to become more integrated with Western Europe and to move out of Russia’s sphere of influence. But Europe is often uneasy with Ukraine’s disorder and corruption, and the Sheremet case adds to nervousness.
“Authorities say Russia is the prime suspect, but the lack of progress in the case, coupled with evidence pointing to possible Ukrainian involvement, weaken Kyiv’s credibility and suggest the need for an independent probe,” the Committee to Protect Journalists international watchdog said in a recent report.
The evidence referred to by CPJ centers on a report put together by Sheremet’s colleagues and other journalists, assisted by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
That investigation identified two people observed by security cameras as lurking near Sheremet’s car the night before the blast, and identified one of them as a former agent of the national security service, the SBU. The SBU decline comment.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met with Sheremet’s family last week and acknowledged that the probe had brought no results, but confirmed that he was “interested in a transparent investigation.”