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The pain of Gongadze’s unsolved murder

A review of The murder of Gongadze: 20 years of searching for the truth. A documentary film produced by the Public Interest Journalism Lab

November 30, 2021 - Clémence Lavialle Iwona Reichardt - Books and Reviewsissue 6 2021Magazine

The murder of Gongadze: 20 years of searching for the truth is a 50-minute documentary created by the Ukrainian journalists Nataliya Gumenyuk, Maxim Kamenev and Anna Tsyhyma. It was released in English for World Press Freedom Day on May 2nd 2021, while the Ukrainian-language premiere took place in September 2020. This release marked the 20th anniversary of the gruesome murder of Georgian-born Ukrainian journalist Georgiy Gongadze. This event shocked Ukrainian society at the time and is the main topic of the film. The documentary is the work of a Ukrainian NGO called the Public Interest Journalism Lab. The work’s English translation was supported by European Union funds and is now available on the organisation’s YouTube channel.   

Household name

The film discusses the essential facts surrounding Georgiy Gongadze’s murder on September 16th 2000, as well as the subsequent investigation. To put it bluntly, two months after his disappearance in September, Gongadze’s headless corpse was discovered near the provincial town of Tarashcha in Kyiv Oblast. At the time of his death, the talented reporter and co-founder of Ukrainska Pravda was only 31 years old. Prior to this, he had worked for many years in the world of Ukrainian television, where he became known for his uncompromising frankness. 

It is no wonder that his reporting and uncomfortable questions bothered the authorities. “Look at that bastard, that fucking Georgian, that Georgian”, then-President Leonid Kuchma allegedly said about Gongadze in audio recordings made public after the murder and heard during the documentary. We also hear Kuchma say that “Someone must be sponsoring him.” Until today, the role of Ukraine’s former president in the journalist’s murder remains unexplained.

Despite his young age, Gongadze was a household name in Ukraine. Outrage was immediate and widespread once the news about his brutal murder reached the public. Protests were organised in Kyiv and lasted for months. Calling for the resignation of Kuchma and the key members of his cabinet, this movement became known as “Ukraine without Kuchma”. This development is widely regarded as one of the main factors that contributed to the outbreak of the 2004 Orange Revolution.

 Twenty years on, however, the investigation into Gongadze’s case has brought no concrete results. Instead, it has been plagued by intrigue, suicide and blackmail. Even more disturbingly, the film and other sources have made it clear that Gongadze was neither the first nor the last journalist in Ukraine to fall victim to corrupt politicians, businessmen and criminal organisations. His fate was shared by Oles Buzina (2015), Pavel Sheremet (2016), and Katerina Handziuk (2018). They all sought truth and asked uncomfortable questions. At the same time the country’s oligarchic system has continued to reward those with personal connections to the world of business and politics.

 That is why we should praise those behind the film. By returning to Gongadze’s murder, they have not only helped draw Ukrainian and international attention to the unsolved case. Indeed, they have also managed to ask questions regarding the consequences of this tragic event for Ukrainian politics and media. These topics are discussed in various stories told to the camera by Gongadze’s friends, fellow journalists and family members. Put together, they make a very poignant picture. 

Evidently, as we can gather from the voices in the film, Gongadze’s murder has left a deep mark on his fellow journalists. It took place at a moment when freedom of speech was gaining greater importance within a more politically emancipated Ukrainian society. New media outlets were constantly being set up and a whole generation of journalists was experiencing the most formative years of their professional development. Yulia Mostova, the editor-in-chief of the now defunct Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, talked about this situation in the film: “Gia Gangadze’s death was our generation’s burden. It’s our pain. We’ve remembered about him for a long time. We did not manage to end this case. I think merely because we bumped into a wall made of adhesions between law enforcers and special forces in Ukraine and Russia and where the denominator was. The SBU, the FSB, the interior ministry, the bandits, the common denominator was the Soviet KGB.”

An examination of freedom of speech

This and other testimonies that you can hear in the film hint at questions about whether or not Ukraine has even built a proper democracy. This is especially true with regards to freedom of speech. For those who knew Gongadze, it is quite clear that attempts to reform the country’s politics have come at a high price, with his murder marking a substantial step back on the path to democratisation. This is also true regarding the killings of other journalists, who like Gongadze, asked difficult and uncomfortable questions of the authorities. 

We wrote the review of this film not only because of the release of its English version this year. Certainly, it is also important to remember that October 7th 2021 marks the 15th anniversary of the brutal murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent journalist at the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. The Norwegian Nobel Committee decided to award this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to two journalists – Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov. The committee explained that both Muratov and Ressa were chosen as representatives of all journalists who stand up for freedom of expression in a world in which democracy and press freedom are increasingly under pressure. In our view, the late Georgiy Gongadze was truly one of these journalists.

Clémence Lavialle is a student at Sciences Po Paris, at the Dijon campus specialising in Central and Eastern Europe.

Iwona Reichardt is the deputy editor in chief of New Eastern Europe and an assistant professor of post-Soviet studies at the Jagiellonian University.

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