Friday, July 22, 2016

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Pavel Sheremet, Belarussian Journalist

London based writer Simon Pirani mourns the loss of a friend and journalist colleague who was killed in a bomb attack in Ukraine. 

Ukraine’s political life has been shaken by the car-bomb killing of Pavel Sheremet, the Belarussian journalist, in Kyiv on Wednesday – a brazen, brutal murder in broad daylight in the city centre.

Pavel Sheremet. Photo: Ukrainska Pravda


Sheremet was an extraordinarily talented and honest reporter, which is why many people with power and money hated him. He was jailed, beaten and harassed by the authorities in Belarus; worked on Russian state television and then quit in protest at its one-sided coverage of Ukraine; and moved to Ukraine where he worked on television and on Ukrainska Pravda, the largest news web site.

Sheremet graduated from a prestigious university of international economic relations, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. “My classmates became oligarchs, ministers, diplomats – and, true, some of them ended up in jail. When I moved from a bank job to work on TV, everyone said I was mad, but I never regretted it”, Sheremet said in an article, published by his colleagues this morning, entitled Every Day As If It’s the Last: Rules for Living.

The early 1990s was a golden era for journalism in the former Soviet Union. Sheremet hosted a popular news analysis programme on Belarussian state TV that was banned by president Aleksandr Lukashenko in 1995. Sheremet switched to Russia’s main state channel, ORT, as the head of its bureau in Minsk.

As Lukashenko’s regime descended into authoritarianism, Sheremet became a prominent dissident and spokesman for the Charter 97 human rights organisation. In 1997 his classic reportage on smuggling across the Belarussian-Lithuanian border earned him a two-year prison sentence. After serving three months he moved to Moscow. 

The spirit of media freedom was still alive and kicking in Russia. Sheremet investigated the disappearances of Belarussian dissidents, some of them his close friends, and made cutting-edge documentaries, including one about the Chechen war. He set up Belaruspartizan.org, the most effective Belarus-focused dissident web resource. He won the International Press Freedom Award in 1998, the first of a string of such prizes.

“Pavel was a really rare bird among post-Soviet journalists”, wrote the Russian journalist Konstantin Eggert in one of a host of tributes. “He very well understood Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and maybe because of that he was a European – and not a Russian, Ukrainian or Belarussian – journalist.” 

From 2010, Sheremet began to spend more time in Ukraine, and then moved to Kyiv, continuing to work for the main Russian state TV channel (ORT, later renamed Channel One). But in July 2014, four months after the overthrow of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich by the Maidan movement, Sheremet resigned from the station, complaining that those who contradict Kremlin propaganda were “hounded”. 

“The TV still gives the impression that nothing has happened. That irritates people”, Sheremet wrote in the article published today. “The life people actually live is one thing, and then they turn on the TV and see a completely different picture. I quit [Channel One] because it became impossible to work there and preserve my reputation and good name.”

The news web site Ukrainska Pravda, where Sheremet worked for the last couple of years, along with broadcasting commitments, was his natural home. The site was set up in 2000 by Gyorgy Gongadze, another fearless child of the post-Soviet boom in free speech. 

In September 2000, Gongadze was kidnapped and murdered by three police officers, who were many years later jailed for their part in the crime. The killers were clearly acting on the orders of elements in Ukraine’s political elite – although the connections beyond the internal affairs minister of the time, Yuri Kravchenko, who also died violently, were never completely clear.

The Gongadze case became a watchword for democratic rights in Ukraine. Rising to the challenge of censorship by thuggery, Gongadze’s colleagues turned Ukrainska Pravda from a penniless blog into the country’s prime web-based news resource, a position it enjoys to this day. Its news output is underpinned by comprehensive reporting on Ukraine’s oligarchs and the corruption that surrounds them. After the Maidan events two Ukrainska Pravda journalists, Sergei Leshchenko and Mustafa Nayyem, entered parliament on an anti-corruption platform.

Sheremet fitted in well in this company. The car he was driving when killed belonged to Aliona Prytula, Ukrainska Pravda’s co-founder and owner. The police at first suspected she may have been the intended victim, although on Thursday it was reported that investigating officers now thought the attack was most likely targeted at Sheremet himself.

There is no guarantee that we will ever know who killed Pavel Sheremet, and who ordered the killing. In the cases of many of the journalists murdered in former Soviet countries in the past 25 years, the trail of infamy that led to their deaths has been successfully covered up, often with the help of law enforcement agencies.

All we can be sure of is that the military conflict unleashed in eastern Ukraine over the past two years makes murders such as Sheremet’s more likely. 

The complex clashes in eastern Ukraine that followed from Yanukovich’s removal were turned into war by the influx of huge quantities of military hardware and volunteer fighters from Russia, an influx for which the Russian state bears the main responsibility. Human life has been cheapened; more than 9400 people have died; human rights organisations now routinely issue reports (the most recent from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on 21 July) of torture, disappearances and arbitrary detentions. 

All this has ratcheted up the danger to people like Pavel Sheremet, who so well understand the dynamics of such conflicts, and could explain them with frankness and good humour to their fellow citizens who don’t believe most of what the media tells them. (Pavel’s recent blog posts ladled sarcasm and wit on Russian war propagandists, Ukrainian business oligarchs and Ukrainian “volunteers”-turned-criminals alike, leaving us none the wiser about which of his enemies might have been involved in his killing.)

I have been travelling to Russia and Ukraine for the past 25 years as a journalist and a researcher. It’s easy for me: I have a British passport in my pocket and can leave at any time. For many like Sheremet, who in recent years I counted not just as a colleague but as a good friend, there is no such protection.


Flowers at the place in the centre of Kyiv where Pavel Sheremet was killed. Photo: Belaruspartizan.org

1 comments :

AM said...

Simon,

it is terrible for you to lose your friend and colleague. It is something the wider journalistic community needs to highlight. This blog will always be open to people who wish to raise these issues and protest the killings of journalists.