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Protecting Eastern European Journalists, Before It’s Too Late

More than half a year after the death of journalist Pavel Sheremet, his colleagues are frustrated about the apparent lack of progress in finding his killers. From Hromadske. 

16 February 2017

This January, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has voiced concerns about the lack of progress in investigating the death of prominent journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was murdered in Kyiv last summer. Some considered him as one of the founders of modern Belarusian journalism, and believe his death must have been connected with yet another attempt to probe into affairs that someone wanted to remain hidden. In addition to being an advocate for human rights and press freedom, the acclaimed media professional had been particularly critical of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s harsh suppression of political dissent.


PACE has adopted a resolution on free media in Europe that calls on the authorities to investigate past murders of journalists. The parliamentarians opened their session with tributes to these dead journalists, with Sheremet the first on the list.


At a recent press conference in Kyiv a while ago, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, Anton Gerashchenko, claimed to have been a target of a failed assassination attempt. He believed it was organized by the same people who had killed Pavel Sheremet. Later, Sevgil Musaieva-Borovyk, the editor in chief of the newspaper Ukrainskaya Pravda, where Pavel Sheremet worked, sent a request to the head of the Ministry of Interior to provide an official report on the probe into the case. She was unhappy about the lack of transparency of the investigation, while members of the Ukrainian parliament seemed to have access to the case.


Hromadske TV recently talked to Musaieva-Borovik about the Sheremet case. 


Hromadske: Why do you think the case was classified? 


Musaieva-Borovik: I believe that in six months the investigation has not achieved any progress. In this situation, the best way forward was to hide the work and to classify the information. I could justify such a reaction immediately after the murder. In the first months, investigators were after fresh leads and might have been sensitive to disclosing information – for example, the images of the suspects and so on. However, after six months it does not hold ground. Facts or photos are not new. They could disclose them now and admit that they have not achieved what they had hoped to achieve.


The investigators must report on their work. How many people have they questioned, what versions have they considered? They have not disclosed that. This situation makes journalists feel very vulnerable. We still do not know what were the assassins’ goals. I believe one of their objectives could have been to create an atmosphere of uncertainty. Almost daily, my colleagues from around the world ask me about this case. They are very concerned. When such killings take place and never get investigated, it creates an air of impunity that allows perpetrators to continue. It also means that journalists are not safe in this country. If this could happen to Pavel, this can happen to anyone.


Hromadske: A while ago some information about detained suspects was released. Do you know anything about it? Journalists from the portal are carrying out their own investigation. Is any progress there?


Musaieva-Borovik: Unfortunately, we still have a lot of versions. The investigation looks into five versions of the murder: professional activity, human error (the assassins were after the owner of Ukrainskaya Pravda, Olena Prytula), a Russian connection, and personal reasons. Six months after the tragedy, I think about them every day and I try to understand whether these versions are true or false. There are times when I think that versions connecting the murder with Sheremet’s professional activity and pressure on Ukrainskaya Pravda, or the Russian connection are true. However, I cannot say that I stick to one of them.


Pavel Sheremet is seen here speaking at a debate in St Petersburg, Russia, in September 2014. Image via Okras/Wikimedia Commons.


I believe the investigators find themselves in a similar situation. However, let’s wait for the official news conference of the head of the Ministry of Interior, Arsen Avakov.


Why I have decided to address him? On 20 January, six months had passed since the murder. We requested a progress report from the security services, the investigators, and the Ministry of Interior. They told us that the case was classified and they could not disclose information. And then I hear that a member of parliament, Anton Gerashchenko, holds a news conference. He belongs to a close circle of the minister’s confidants.


Hromadske: And Avakov claims that only the investigators have access to information.


Musaieva-Borovik: Well, he said it later. At first, Anton Gerashchenko came out and started talking about it. He’s claimed that his [Sheremet’s] assassination had been planned. There was a quote from him.


Hromadske: He was “99 percent certain that it had been a terrorist attack from a group operating in Russia.” Do you trust Gerashchenko? Can we trust him? Where is this information from? 


Musaieva-Borovik: It is my personal opinion, but I will not trust Anton Gerashchenko. When we first spotted that someone had been following Olena and Pavel, back in November 2015, we called Gerashchenko. We met with him and Sergey Leshchenko, a member of parliament. We asked them to look into the case and to find out why a strange car had been parked next to their house for a week. We called the police. Gerashchenko assured me that the journalist and the leadership of Ukrainskaya Pravda were protected. Hence, I will no longer trust his words.


I also want to make a comment about the whole process. It seems wrong to me that a member of parliament comes and says that he was a target of an attempted assassination and refers to the case under investigation. I’d prefer to hear this information either from the minister or from the official investigators! I do not want to learn about it from a member of parliament who has no responsibilities in this regard. Or, perhaps, he has? This is exactly why we sent our request to the minister. We asked him whether Gerashchenko was authorized to make such statements. A day after our request was sent, we saw comments from the ministry. Arsen Avakov said that he was planning a news conference. He mentioned that no one had authorized Gerashchenko to make such statements. Then the investigators said that they saw no connection between Gerashchenko’s attempted assassination and the death of Sheremet. How can we trust our law enforcement bodies after this? Perhaps, this is a rhetorical question.


Hromadske: Imagine that Avakov holds a news conference where he talks about the investigation. What if he says that there’s been no progress, no possible versions, he has no idea why this has happened, and he admits failure. How should we react? A man died, criminals are out there. How will things develop further? 


Musaieva-Borovik: First of all, this means admitting your own unprofessionalism. This investigation is the best way to test the work of the law enforcement authorities and the changes in the system. If you are not able to conduct an investigation and in six months have no progress, it means you have been only collecting data …Then at least report on the work, admit your failure, and pass the case to another law enforcement body.


Hromadske: Might this case have been classified because its results do not suit the Ministry of Interior? 


Musaieva-Borovik: I do not want to make any statements about a version that didn’t suit the authorities. I am only concerned that in six months there was no progress. When we have leaks from the investigation two days after the murder and nothing else over the period of six months, it looks rather strange. I do not know what it means. Are we supposed to believe everything and let them close the case?


Hromadske: Let’s blame Russia. Let’s look for suspects there. This is convenient.


Musaieva-Borovik: Still, I believe the president when he claims that this investigation is a matter of honor for him, that he will put his best efforts into it, and progress will be achieved. So far there is no progress. Let’s wait and hear what the minister says.


UPDATE: Last week, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov held a press conference discussing the results of the investigation into Sheremet’s death. “Investigators do not rule out that the order for the killing came from the Russian Federation," he said, also acknowledging, “this crime was carefully prepared by a group of people."


The deputy chief of Ukraine's National Police and head of its main investigative unit, Oleksandr Vakulenko, confirmed that Sheremet’s investigative work in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia was considered the main reason why he was murdered.

The original version of this article, in Russian, was published on Hromadske, an internet TV and multimedia organization created in 2013. TOL has done some editing to fit our style. Reprinted with permission. 
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