On 20 July 2016, shocking news about killing the prominent journalist Pavel Sheremet shook Ukraine. The incident happened not in the war zone, but in the center of Kyiv, at the time when it seemed that the media environment in the rest of the country had improved. The explosive device detonated in the car belonging to Olena Prytula, the head of the Ukrainska Pravda online newspaper and civil wife of the killed journalist, making it unclear whom the attackers aimed for. President Petro Poroshenko and Head of Polilce Khatia Dekanoidze have already stated that investigating the case is a mater of honor for them.
The Belarusian-born journalist started working in Ukraine since 2012. He collaborated with Channel 24, Tvi, Radio Vesti and Ukrainska Pravda. At the last one he had his own blog, the latest article on which is dated June 17. While his primary topic corruption in Ukraine, he also paid attention to Russian propaganda and interviewed important persons from different fields, among them American historian Timothy Snyder on Brexit, Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Alekseevich, and Head of Ukrainian Police Khatiya Dekanoidze.
Here are summaries of his last 3 publications at Ukrainska Pravda.
In this article Pavel Sheremet raises a sore topic for Ukraine’s war-weary society by criticising how members of volunteer battalions, namely Azov, which is now a regiment in the Ukrainian army, place themselves above the law using their high authority gained in battle. He mentions two cases involving Azov members. In the first one, Azov members blocked court hearings about corrupt officials with hyped-up protests and populist rhetoric, which in practice led to the stalling of justice. In the second, it turned out that members of Azov were participants of gang which robbed banks in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Sheremet not only condemned such lawlessness, but also paid attention to the constructive actions of head of the battalion and MP Andriy Biletskiy, which promptly organized access of Security Service units to the Azov base and ensured an honest investigation of the matter, insisting that nobody is above the law, and avoiding a bloody conflict that could have sparked between law enforcement and the battalion.
“If only Biletsky issued a rallying cry, a crowd of young people ready to tear apart ‘enemies of Ukraine, the Russian FSB, and agents of the oligarchs’ would gather in Kyiv. There would be lots of noise about betrayal, a third Maidan, and security forces which cover up crime in the Donbas and oppress true patriots. But he acted like a responsible person and a commander,” wrote Sheremet about the Azov commander who could have distinguish criminals from real patriots in his battalion.
As participants of the Donbas war are regarded in society as true “patriots,” as opposed to corrupt officials, it is all too easy to let lawlessness slip into practice under the cover of patriotism, as demonize all volunteer battalion members based on a few delinquents. Here, and always, Pavel Sheremet appealed to reason, rule of law, and responsibility being required for all Ukrainians, with no exceptions, and no speculations.
Here Sheremet described his last trip to Minsk to visit his mom and his father’s grave. He wrote that some Ukrainians tend to idealize Belarus as it is clean and organized under dictator Lukashenko’s rule, but their attitude will change as soon as one visits the country. The system BelToll, created to make foreign drivers pay for using Belarusian roads, was introduced in the country in 2013. Its introduction was so concealed that many were not aware of the changes – thus, Sheremet himself had to pay a EUR 200 fine for using the road two years ago. Unsuspecting drivers entering Belarus will be charged for their previous ventures into the country, as well as obliged to install a special counter that measures distances driven. Drivers are forced to pay for installing the counter, then to pay a fine if they fail to detect and report its malfunction. Sheremet concludes that the road police have turned into racketeers, but suggests that Ukraine also adopts fees in order to improve its catastrophic roads.
In the summer of 2014, a group of prosecutors of Pechersk district of Kyiv with the support of a special unit Sokol and a few workers of Ministry of Internal Affairs robbed a jewelery shop under the guise of investigation. In doing so, they forgot to destroy a channel of surveillance video in the shop which showed them putting diamonds into their pockets and bags. Despite the direct evidence of the prosecutors’ guilt, they are still free. Moreover, they still work in law enforcement and continue to investigate other cases. Sheremet pressed for justice and gave the case visibility by publishing the text of the open letter of the robbed jewelery shop and their colleagues to the prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko.
“Ukraine should end the era of oligarchs”
In December 2015, Sheremet in an interview to Hromadske.tv gave a scathing analysis on how oligarchs impact Ukraine, concluding that the country will remain poor while they are in power:
“The problem is that oligarchs totally monopolized whole sectors of the economy. There are three reasons why Ukraine should end the era of oligarchs.
- Oligarchs use money to have political instruments of pressure on authorities, and through these political instruments receive control over financial flows. This constant involvement of oligarchs in politics makes political life in Ukraine:
a – hysterical,
b – distorted.
2. All the oligarchs cling to media and that is why we receive a false mirror of public opinion and image of the country.
3. Monopolization. The problem is not that somebody receives lots of money, but that a few people in some areas of economy destroy all competition. Not only the energy sector is monopolized, ruled by Akhmetov, or the gas sector, ruled by Firtash, or oil production, where Kolomoyskiy was and to a large extent continues to be king. The problem exists in other areas, for example, in wine production. As far as I know there are only 17 producers of wine in the country. While in France there are tens of thousands of them. Or in Austria, which isn’t a large wine manufacturer, there are thousands of wine producers. And this means working places, taxes. But in Ukraine there are only 17.
Until oligarchs, small and large, in different areas of the economy, are defeated, there will be no economic growth. Oligarchs preserve poverty. They capture the market and corner it. They earn not on volume like in other countries – the richer a country is, the larger its business volumes are. Even with a small gross profit you feel great. But here we have a poor country, poor economy and they even more monopolize and corner it to receive maximum gross profits in this poor economy. That is why this is the country of false mirrors. Oligarchs feel the best in poor countries, where they constitute a thin layer of those who own life. And they are interested in preserving this poverty. Anyway they take this fat, this thin fat, but they take all of it, strip it to the roots. When the economy develops and the country gets richer, competition appears unwillingly. However, oligarchs are not interested in it.”
Pavlo Sheremet received an education in economics and started his career in banking. However, two years later he traded it for journalism, starting working as an author and a presenter of an analytical program on Belorussian TV. The next year he was awarded as the best Belorussian journalist by a pen-center.
Vadym Dovnar, a Belarusian journalist working in Ukraine, recalls that at the beginning of his career Sheremet was already considered to be a leading professional:
“I was only learning differences of genres in the profession, and he was already presenting weekly analytical program at the state Belorussian TV. And this was nearly the only program that was worth watching on the state television. In 1995, we were struck bythe illegal referendum on Russian as the state language and the union with Russia, and Sheremet, as it seemed then, played along with the newly-made president. But he did it observing the canons of journalism, giving airtime to the opposition. Already such people were inconvenient for the authorities and after several months following the plebiscite Sheremet was removed from TV,” wrote Vadym.
Later Sheremet worked as chief editor of a business newspaper and started collaborating with the Russian channel ORT. Very soon his investigative work for the Russian channel resulted in his arrest. It happened after Pavel and his cameramen Dmitriy Zavadskiy (who was supposedly killed) were reporting about the situation at the Lithuanian-Belorussian border. Russia’s then president Boris Yeltsin covered for Sheremet and the journalist was sentenced to two years in prison with probation. In total Sheremet, had spent three months in prison. The journalist himself had no doubts that the case against him was ordered by the president of Belarus Alyaksandr Lukashenka. That was the time when he became considered as a representative of the opposition to the president.
In 1999, he started working in the Russian program Vremya [The Time] at ORT. Later, he assessed this period of his life as a negative professional experience. He expressed regret and shame: “I feel embarrassed for what was happening during the parliamentary and presidential elections. We thought that we will be able to retain some objectivity. But during the parliamentary election all the channels were beyond good and evil,” said the journalist.
In 2005, he created the site Belorus Partisan for free exchange of opinions, but eventually it became perceived as a media which criticizes current authorities. He also participated in the opposition protests in Minsk.
In 2010, he was deprived of Belorusian citizenship, with the official reason being his Russian citizenship. However, Belorusian laws do not forbid double citizenship.
Reasons for the murder
So far, Ukrainian journalists suppose that the destabilization of Ukraine is the main reason of why the journalist was killed. Vitaliy Sych, the chief editor of Novoe Vremia, compared this incident to the murder of the journalist Georgiy Gongadze in 2000 during the presidency of Leonid Kuchma. “I didn’t think that such a feeling of alarm will ever return to me after Maidan,” wrote Sych.
Indeed, just before the incident, the media situation in Ukraine seemed to become better. According to the new report of Reporters Without Borders, Ukraine ranked 107th out of 180 countries in the latest RSF World Press Freedom Index, rising 22 ranks since the last such index. «Since the fall of the Viktor Yanukovych regime, there have been no limitations on internet access and online media. Journalists are rarely, if ever, imprisoned for their work and the offences committed against journalists have reduced significantly,” an article in Mapping Media Freedom states.