Violence and Corruption in the Media: Not Just a Russian Problem

Back to Ukraine again with this student’s report on media freedom issues in Ukraine.

In September of 2000, the headless body of reporter Georgiy Gongadze was found in a forest near Kiev. Gongadze had been beaten and strangled, decapitated, soaked in gasoline, and burned after exposing high-level corruption surrounding then-President Leonid Kuchma. Secret recordings made by one of Kuchma’s bodyguards captured Kuchma and his Interior Minister, Yuri Kravchenko, discussing means of silencing Gongadze[1]. The Gongadze case and the publication of the tapes helped spark massive protests against Kuchma, which eventually culminated in the Orange Revolution. But the case is by no means isolated. Journalists who expose corruption and unethical behavior by the country’s political and business elite are often subject to violence and intimidation. The most recent case of serious violence against a journalist, reported by Reporters Without Borders, came in the middle of October, 2012, when Konstantin Kovalenko was forced into a car, beaten, and subjected to simulated drowning and threats of execution. Kovalenko had been investigating reports of vote-buying in one of Ukraine’s legislative districts[2].

In addition to outright violence against critical voices in the media, Ukraine has what a report sponsored by the World Association of Newspapers and Freedom House calls a “culture of corruption” in media and news production. “Political influence and business control are inextricable from one another,” the report states. There is a “systematic and entrenched practice” of political or business authorities paying news outlets for what is essentially advertising disguised as independent editorial or factual news content. This means that Ukrainians have a very difficult time distinguishing between factual news and blatant propaganda. Since the Ukrainian media outlets themselves are often owned by powerful economic interests, and heavily subject to state regulation, “editors and publishers alike are loath to allow critical reporting that could undermine either their business interests or incur repercussions from the state.”[3] Unfortunately, the practice of payment for content, known as “jeans”, is vital for the continued operation of media outlets in a country where points of sale for newspapers and magazines are 8 times less numerous than in Poland and 15 times less than Germany and France.[4]

There have been some positive signs for media freedom in Ukraine. In a surprise victory for media advocates, the Rada rejected a bill that would have re-criminalized defamation, allowing business and political elites to send reporters to jail for publishing critical content[5]. The Rada also rejected a similar law, which would have established an unelected “National Expert Commission on Public Morality” with the power to summarily shut down media outlets, in April 2011[6] Nevertheless, Ukraine is still ranked 126th out of 179 on Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 press freedom index. There is still a long way to go towards a truly free media in Ukraine.[7]


[1] “Ukraine finds ‘reporter’s skull’”, The BBC, July 28, 2009. Accessed 3-28-2013.

[2] “Moment of truth for freedom of information, concern on eve of elections”, Reporters Without Borders, October 24, 2012. Accessed 3-28-2013.,43575.html

[3] “Ukraine Press Freedom Report July 2012”, World Association of Newspapers & Freedom House. April 1-3, 2012. Accessed 3-27-2013,

[4] Ibid.

[5] “In victory for journalists, recriminalization of defamation rejected” Reporters Without Borders, October 2, 2012. Accessed 3-27-2013.,43153.html

[6] “Ukraine Press Freedom Report July 2012”, World Association of Newspapers & Freedom House

[7] “2013 Press Freedom Indes: Dashed Hopes After Spring” Reporters Without Borders. Accessed 3-27-2013.,1054.html


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