Ukraine18 April 2002
State prosecutor jails journalist who was his fierce critic
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) protested vigorously today against the jailing of journalist Oleg Liachko for allegedly libelling a "senior official of the chief state prosecutor’s office" and called for his immediate release.
"The chief state prosecutor, Mihailo Potebenko, is clearly behind the legal pursuit and arrest of Liachko, one of his harshest critics," RSF secretary-general Robert Ménard said in a letter to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, accusing Potebenko of being "the main obstacle to Ukrainian respect for its commitments to human rights."
He charged that he was "directly responsible for the obstruction in the past two years of investigations into the murders of journalists and serious physical attacks on them." Ménard appealed to Kuchma to see that the journalist was freed at once "so he can escape the arbitrary behaviour" of Potebenko’s office and noted that imprisoning journalists for expressing opinions was "contrary to all European standards." He said RSF would be "at Liachko’s side" in the weeks to come.
RSF learns that the journalist, who is editor-in-chief of the privately-owned weekly Svoboda, was arrested on 15 April by police in Cherkassy when he went to the local state prosecutor’s office to answer allegations of libel against a "senior official" of the chief prosecutor’s office. He was charged with "abuse of authority," "violating the right to privacy" and "resisting the police."
The driver of the vehicle delivering the paper was attacked on 24 March and most of the copies destroyed. Liachko was given a two-year suspended prison sentence on 7 June last year by a court in the Minsky district of Kiev and banned from editing the paper because of articles he wrote in 1997. On 18 October, the Kiev appeals court quashed his conviction on grounds that new clauses of the penal code had come into effect the previous month making libel no longer a criminal offence. Earlier, on 31 March 2000, Liachko had been attacked by two strangers in the stairwell of his apartment building in Kiev and was hospitalised with head injuries.
RSF recalls that violence and threats against the media in Ukraine increased last year, despite pressure from the Council of Europe. The chief state prosecutor’s office and the interior ministry are both blocking any serious enquiry into the murder in 2000 of journalist Georgy Gongadze, who had accused them of threatening him. Despite the decriminalisation of libel, the state prosecutor’s office is still quick to demand heavy sanctions against media criticism of powerful figures in politics, the judiciary and business.