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Opinion I’m a Ukrainian journalist, and I’m tired of living in fear

People take part in a procession July 20 marking the one-year anniversary of the death of journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was killed by a car bomb, in Kiev. The board reads: “Who killed Pavel? A year has passed.” (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

Maxim Eristavi is a nonresident research fellow with the Atlantic Council and co-founder of Hromadske International, an independent news outlet, based in Kiev.

I’m a journalist in Ukraine. If I’m killed, justice will not be served.

As a kid from a poor town in eastern Ukraine, full of anger and frustration about the injustices that surrounded us, I decided to become a journalist at age 16. The first person I told was my father. I thought he’d be proud. But the look I saw on his face wasn’t what I expected: utter fear and panic. “They’re going to kill you,” he pleaded. “Please, don’t do it.” It was just two years after the prominent investigative journalist Georgiy Gongadze was kidnapped and beheaded. I made a promise to my family that I would never end up dead because of my writing. Fifteen years later, every journalist in Ukraine will tell you that this is still an unrealistic promise.

Today, on July 20, Ukraine marks one year since the assassination of Pavel Sheremet, one of the country’s most prominent reporters. He was killed in a car explosion in downtown Kiev just a few blocks away from my home. It took me days to overcome the sense of paralyzing horror; I suspect that many of my colleagues still haven’t. I remember I couldn’t force myself to call my parents. I’m not a heroic, high-profile journalist like Sheremet was. I’ve faced threats of violence — I’ve been pushed around on a few occasions, and the police arrested me once — but nothing serious. But since that promise 15 years ago I’ve developed a neurotic habit: Every time I hear about an attack on a journalist, I call my father to reassure him that telling the truth in Ukraine isn’t getting any more dangerous. But one year ago I knew that my promise would sound like a joke.

The murder of Sheremet was the biggest assault on the Ukrainian freedom of the press since the killing of Gongadze in 2000. Gongadze’s family is still waiting for justice: His head has never been found. Neither have the people who ordered his murder. Ukraine has always been a dangerous place for journalists. The 2014 revolution and the Russian invasion of the country that followed have only made the situation worse. The world’s leading press freedom watchdogs warn of rising violence and intimidation. Even so, our journalists don’t usually end up dead. Sheremet’s killing was a dramatic departure from the norm. His murderers didn’t merely want to assassinate him. By doing it in daylight, in the center of town, with a car bomb, they were clearly intending to send a message to every journalist in the country.

Every day I work with colleagues in parts of Eastern Europe where being a reporter is more dangerous than in Ukraine — whether it’s Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan or Belarus. For them, Ukraine isn’t just a less dangerous place — it’s also a symbol of hope. If freedom of speech survives there, we can eventually prevail all around the region. After Sheremet’s murder, however, that hope has been evaporating with every passing day.

We’re losing hope largely because the investigation has achieved almost nothing. A recent special report by the Committee to Protect Journalists warns that the Sheremet case has gone cold and there are no signs of political will to solve it. Reporters Without Borders concluded that the 12-month inquiry has led nowhere. Local journalists have uncovered serious gaps in the investigators’ work. A year ago, Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, declared that solving this crime was “a matter of honor.” Recently, he personally vowed to help, asking foreign investigators to assist with the case. But the authorities have never made good on their vows.

Call me naive, but I don’t believe that there’s evil intent behind the failure to investigate the death of Sheremet. The Ukrainian justice system is so broken and corrupt that it’s simply not designed for this kind of investigation. More importantly, the ruling oligarchic elites, including Poroshenko himself, just don’t see any special value in protecting journalists.

They couldn’t be more wrong. Countering violence against journalists must be a priority — and not because journalists are special or better than everyone else. When telling the truth becomes a mortal risk, it erodes the fabric of every healthy society. History has shown us that time and time again.

So solving the Sheremet case would not only bring justice to his family and colleagues, as important as that is. It would also give vital support to the Ukrainian journalists who have been on the front lines of the fight for democracy since the Maidan Revolution. It would also be an important step forward on the path to a strong European state, one where justice is available for all, crimes are punished and honest reporting is not an act of life-threatening bravery.

As a Ukrainian journalist, I’m tired of living in fear. I’m tired of being haunted by my father’s terrified face. Let’s create an environment where no one in Eastern Europe has to be afraid of telling the truth. It all starts with Ukraine finding justice for Pavel Sheremet.

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