Olena Prytula is the editor-in-chief of the Ukrainian online newspaper Ukrainskaya Pravda. With its attacks on politicians and its penchant for rooting out corruption, the paper has created a stir almost since its founding. Prytula founded the feisty online news source in 1999 with now-deceased journalist Georgy Gongadze, who was murdered in 2000.
After Gongadze's death, the paper was quick to publish transcripts of the famous "Melnichenko tapes," which allegedly include former President Kuchma discussing the need to "do something" about Gongadze. Readers printed the transcripts from their own computers and even posted them around the streets of Kyiv.
In 2005, Prytula was honored by the U.S. National Press Club with an award for courageous and independent reporting. Here, Prytula talks with producer Brian Knappenberger and series editor Stephen Talbot about Gongadze and how she sees the paper as a monument to him. She also describes how she and other reporters at Ukrainskaya Pravda continue to challenge those in power -- even the politicians who were heroes of the Orange Revolution. Two interviews were conducted, in May and October of 2005.
People in America don't know what Ukrainskaya Pravda is. Tell me about it.
Ukrainskaya Pravda is one of the oldest Internet news Web sites in Ukraine. We started our Web site on April 16, 2000, and at first it was maybe hundreds of people who read Ukrainskaya Pravda, then it was thousands of people. It wasn't very popular until Georgy's disappearance. It was just after September 16, 2000, that a lot of people in Ukraine -- most people in Ukraine -- knew for the first time what the Internet is. And they knew also that to be a journalist in Ukraine, and to be an Internet journalist in Ukraine, is very dangerous. I think that my newspaper, our newspaper is like a monument for him [Gongadze]. So, that's why actually I'm doing everything just to make it live, to make it popular, to make it influential. So that people can remember Georgy and can remember that he actually started this newspaper.
You say that at the time everybody knew it was dangerous to be an Internet newspaper journalist. Can you explain that?
I will try. When Georgy disappeared and when we knew that our President Kuchma could be involved in his murder, everybody in the Ukraine understood that there is some politics in this murder. Everybody understood that to be critical of Ukrainian authority, it's actually very dangerous. They understood that Georgy was killed just because he wrote critical articles about Ukrainian authorities. So that's why it's dangerous.
By virtue of being on the Internet, did that give you a certain freedom that other news sources didn't have?
In almost all other Ukrainian media at that time, censorship was just growing, so journalists, they actually didn't print those articles, which would be uncomfortable for our authorities. Internet was still free of censorship. That's why actually a lot of journalists became Internet journalists, to write their articles free of interference.
That's the beauty of the Internet. You don't need printing presses and distribution systems and all that. A small group of people like you can reach a large audience.
That's true. Ukrainskaya Pravda shows that such a small team can actually make some steps to change people's life. I think that the paper played a huge role in Ukraine's revolution, in everything that happened last year in Ukraine. I think so.
Can you explain why that is?
All the time after Georgy's disappearance, we controlled the Gongadze case. Ukrainian authorities knew that journalists from our paper will always ask what's happening in the case, so they knew also that they can't do anything against us because international attention was so high. Everybody all around the world knew what Ukrainskaya Pravda was. And I think a lot of people in the world know Georgy Gongadze's name. So, Ukrainskaya Pravda became very popular, and we are still the No. 1 news edition in the Ukrainian Internet.
I want to talk about Georgy. Can you tell me what kind of person he was?
I told this it seems to me one million times already -- he's so very bright. Actually, every time he would come into the room, everybody would pay attention, because he would talk loud, he would be very happy, smiling, very happy. He was so energetic and so inspiring. He was, I think, the soul of Ukrainskaya Pravda.
Was he always pursuing difficult political stories?
Yes, it was impossible for him to find a job, even in print media, just because editors didn't want to print some kind of information, which would be uncomfortable for other financial groups, political financial groups, or for the government. That's why in 1999, he actually wrote a big letter saying there was censorship during the 1999 elections, and there was something like, as I remember now, 82 journalists who signed this letter. In December 1999, he took this letter actually to the U.S.A., to the State Department. He had a lot of meetings with people from the State Department, and he brought this letter and told everybody there is no free press in Ukraine. He was saying you should pay attention to this kind of problem. It was at the same time that Kuchma actually came to the U.S.A., and that's why Georgy thought that it would be good to come to Washington just two or three days before to show people what kind of situation there was in the mass media in Ukraine.
So he was always controversial, a controversial figure?
Yes, he was.
I know that he got into a period where he was worried about something happening, that he might be followed. Did he tell you about that?
He took me to the balcony, and he whispered that he had been told that our interior minister Kravchenko was looking for him, looking for Georgy. And we discussed these questions, but as I remember, we didn't take it seriously enough, unfortunately.
Georgy believed it actually, but we didn't take any measures to just go somewhere. I think if Georgy would have gone from Ukraine, it would have saved his life.
It never occurred to him?
It seems to me it was impossible for Georgy. He was just like, OK, if I have this kind of problem, I will just live with this problem. I am not going to go somewhere just to save my life. And it seems to me at that time we didn't know actually that it's so, really so dangerous. We didn't think that this would be such a tragedy. We could think that maybe people will, could beat him, for example, something like that. But nobody would believe that people could kill him for that, for writing articles.
So you were the last person to see him. Can you tell me what happened?
Actually, as I always say, if I thought that I was seeing him for last time, I would try to remember every minute. But, you know, it was just like ordinary evening and as usual, Georgy has a lot of ideas, and we discussed those ideas. He also was planning his life for the future. He was very calm, and it wasn't anything particular we were talking about. He just told me, "I will call you tomorrow, and we will meet somewhere around two o'clock during the day." And he told me, "I have to rush home just because my children, they don't have keys and it is very cold outside." So he left me somewhere around 10:30 [p.m.] as I remember. And after that I never saw him again. And nobody saw him again.
When did you first have the sense that something was wrong?
Just when his friend called me and told me that Georgy didn't come home. I understood at that very same moment that something very bad happened with Georgy, just because I know how Georgy loved his children. I know that he would never allow them to stay on the street. And he had left to open the door for them. That's why I thought that already something happened. And you know, I even went to the street just to go around my building because Georgy said that he had some kind of problems with his heart, and I thought, "Who knows? Maybe he's lying right now on the ground and nobody can help him." So I was looking for him, walking around, and at that moment I saw a white dog howling. We in Ukraine say that when you see a white dog howling, someone has died. At that moment I realized that something had happened, and I called the militia.
What did you do after that?
I was looking to our militia, but understood that, for example, one week will come, and they will just forget about this. And I was trying to do something that will keep their attention. So only my colleagues could help me in this situation. And they put his photo, not actually photo, but his black silhouette, on the newspaper, newspapers everywhere, on TV, and it was counting something like 17 days, and we don't know anything about Georgy Gongadze. We did it just to keep the militia very active. Just to make everybody in Ukraine know that we want the militia to find Georgy Gongadze.
That just sounds like such a difficult thing to go through, to love somebody and then just have no answers basically.
It's just difficult to describe in another language. I mean, when you wake up and each time thinking that something terrible has happened in your life. And during this minute when you just woke up, you don't remember what actually happened. And when you remember, you can just cry. And the only thing you can do actually in this situation, you can just work. Just work all the hours during all those days. And actually, it didn't help because when you are going home your heart is crying. And you feel like something cold in side. And you feel so lonely, and it was very difficult. And as I told before, it was maybe one and a half years after that time, I remember that I can actually smile again.
What did you think when you heard about the secret tapes implicating PresidentKuchma?
I remember this morning. I went to my work as usual, to the office, and my friend from the news agency she called me and asked me, "Did you hear that President Kuchma was actually involved in the Georgy Gongadze case and that some kind of tapes were made in the presidential office?" I was so surprised. It was incredible at that moment, even to believe in this. And just that evening when I heard those tapes -- you know, after we found Georgy's body -- I thought that nothing can shock me in my lifetime.
What did you do then?
It was a huge shock for me and for all the people who saw those tapes, who listened to those tapes. We put all those tapes [transcripts] on our Web site, and the next day, we had twice as many readers than before. Day after that, we had twice as many readers than we had before. Readers it seems to me all around the world who read those tapes were shocked.
What happened after that?
People understood they should do something. There were actually thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people who came into the streets. They wanted Kuchma's resignation, and they wanted to know who killed Georgy Gongadze. But Kuchma was still very strong, so the opposition, the demonstrations, just stopped. But I believe now, and everybody would say now, it was the first stage of the revolution. It was the first test for the opposition. It was the first test for Ukrainian people. But a lot of people just felt empathy, they didn't believe that they could change something in their life. And, it seems to me just maybe two months before the Ukrainian election 2004, nobody would say that people would actually come to the street to fight for their rights.
Many people in America think the revolution pretty much solved all the problems in Ukraine and that things are perfect now. Is that true?
Actually, the revolution solved only one problem for us -- now we understand that we are Ukrainian people. Now we understand that we can change everything in our life. Now we understand that our vote actually means something. And that's a lot. We changed our leadership. We, for the first time, believed our government. We, for the first time, have some kind of hopes, and for the first time, we can control and ask for a new government. It's already a lot. But we have so many tasks ahead, and it's so difficult to implement.
We have seen a lot of headlines recently: "Orange Revolution Falling Apart," "Turmoil in Ukraine." Our viewers want to know, has the turmoil been the end of the Orange Revolution?
[Editor's Note: In September of this year, Ukraine experienced its greatest turmoil since the Orange Revolution of a year ago. President Viktor Yushchenko fired many members of his government -- including popular Orange Revolution partners like the colorful Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko -- because of political infighting.]
This is just normal life in a democratic country, where people disagree with each other and people split. People here are now saying that it is very easy for politicians to make a revolution together, but it is very difficult to build democracy or to build a country together. So I don't see something dangerous happening in Ukraine right now, it seems to me just a normal democratic process.
Is there any danger of going back to the dark days when this was a totalitarian state, before democracy?
No, I don't believe we will go back. If this was so now, there wouldn't be any criticism in the press. Information would be closed off to people. We would know about Tymoshenko's "resigning" just from the news, and we would never expect people to comment on these events. Now, everything is open. Unfortunately, we have some problems with the understanding of our new power. [The politicians] don't know how to explain to people what they want, but we still have a very open society, and it's difficult to imagine we would have had this kind of situation under the Kuchma regime.
You said that revolution is the easy part -- building democracy is the hard part. Is some of the euphoria of the Orange Revolution over?
No, the euphoria is not over. It seems to me that it is inside of everybody. Even here in the office we have an orange flag. I always say that I was standing on the square not for Yushchenko, not for Tymoshenko, and not for any other politician. I was standing there for me, because for me it was important. I understood that this was the very moment where I could go and say "enough." There is some frustration now because you always want people to implement something in one hour or one day. You always want your life to change for the better in just three months, but it's impossible. Wise people understand this, and they know that Ukrainian people will never be the same as they were before.
So the spirit of this revolution is still alive, and it has changed Ukrainians forever?
Yes, that's true. It has changed people. It has changed their minds. It has changed their understanding of what this nation is. We will never be the same again.
So what was the recent problem [that led to the firing of the government]? Can you explain it to us?
It is difficult to explain into words, but I will try. It was very difficult to keep all the people of the Orange Revolution together after all this. They had different interests. They had different financial interests. A lot of people who were close to President Yushchenko hated each other. They didn't work for Ukraine, they just worked for their own interests. That's why this happened. Sometimes people are just normal people, even if they are in power, even if they are presidents or prime ministers. It was a problem of personalities. But I believe we still have a president with some kind of vision that he can implement. Unfortunately, we also have a president that cannot do everything he said during the Orange Revolution because he is not the ideal president. Many people would be happy to believe that we voted for him and he is the best person in the world, but unfortunately, he is just a human being. So that is part of the frustration.
Why do you think he did not move quickly after the Orange Revolution, with all the support he had, to do more to reform society, to pursue cases like the Gongadze case, or even to pursue his own poisoning?
First of all about reforms, it is difficult to understand, especially for those on the Maiden [Independence square in Kyiv, the primary location of the Orange Revolution protests], that Yushchenko didn't do reforms from the first day in office. Unfortunately, he chose another way. He decided that soon we will have parliamentary elections, and it is important to have a group of people in parliament who will support him. Unfortunately, he and his government tried to solve social problems -- they raised pensions, they raised salaries and social aid -- but they forgot to do reforms. They forgot that they have a rare moment in history where they can do almost anything and people will support them. As I understand, they will do these reforms at the beginning of 2006, but it is going to be difficult.
He took care of poor people, but the middle class or the economy, that hasn't happened yet?
Yes, unfortunately the poor people are more or less happy, but the middle class, those people who were on the Maiden, they didn't feel any reforms. They didn't see anything that will matter to them.
What about his poisoning -- why has he not tried to bring to justice whoever poisoned him?
I think it's a rather complicated story. I think he can guess who poisoned him, and actually that's why he doesn't want to solve the case. I think, and I could be wrong, that you could see the Russian hand in this poisoning. Yushchenko, as a politician, doesn't want to create another problem with this huge country that is our neighbor. It is difficult to understand why, because he is saying that he will solve the crime. He is saying, "I want to know who poisoned me." But when he came to office, he seemed to forget those words.
Do people want to know?
Yes, people also want to know. But they would never go to the street demanding to know who poisoned Yushchenko. They think it is his personal thing right now.
What about the Gongadze case?
I think Yushchenko did a lot to resolve this case; unfortunately, he also made several mistakes. He is not an investigator, so he cannot do more than he did. All he can do is make political statements. He can ask the general prosecutor's office what is happening, and ask about news, and everything else. I think he is doing it, and I think that he always remembers the Gongadze case. He was saying that this was his case and that he wants to know the truth. He made several mistakes, and among them is the appointment of the new/old general prosecutor Piskun. Me, personally, I don't believe in this general prosecutor, and Myroslava Gongadze [Gongadze's wife], as I know, doesn't believe in him, and Georgy's mother, I would say even, hates Piskun. Nobody believes him. Even if Piskun goes to them and says that these people killed Georgy and these people ordered his killing, it will be a difficult situation because we wouldn't believe him. We don't trust him in this situation. I think Yushchenko must think about who is investigating this case, and it seems to me very logical to appoint another general prosecutor in this case. I don't know why he doesn't do it.
[Editor's Note: General Prosecutor Svanislav Piskun was originally hired by former President Kuchma. He was then fired by Kuchma, but reinstated by Yushchenko during the weeks of the Orange Revolution.]
Do you think he might decide, he might feel he has to replace Piskun?
I don't know why he trusts Piskun. We did a lot of articles saying that we don't trust Piskun. Leysa Gongadze [Georgy's mother] made many statements about her mistrust. So I don't know why our president doesn't react to that.
[Editor's Note: In October of this year, Yushchenko fired General Prosecutor Piskun for what many considered to be his slow investigation of the Gongadze case. When asked for reasons for the firing, Oleg Rybachuk, head of the presidential secretariat, said, "There were more than enough."]
For an American audience, is President Yushchenko a man who has sold out or someone who has remained true to the revolution?
After they signed this memorandum with Yanukovich [in September of this year, Yushchenko signed an agreement of cooperation with Viktor Yanukovich, his former presidential rival], it is difficult to recognize him from the person who was on the Maiden. Yushchenko is always thinking about Ukraine, and from his point of view, it was a decision to make a better Ukraine. We people, I am a part, we cannot understand him. But I want to believe that he still has his vision and he is still a part of this Orange Maiden, which he was, just several months ago. I think that power has changed him. He understands that it was very easy to say "I will do this" when he was on the Maiden, but that it is very difficult to implement those ideas when you become a high politician. This understanding changed him a little bit, but he is still the leader of the Orange Maiden.
Let me ask you briefly about his rival now, the woman Americans know because of her gold braids. What do you think of Yulia Tymoshenko? She has said some nasty things about the president, but has recently been a little more conciliatory. What should we think of her now?
First of all, I am proud that in Ukraine we have a woman politician that you can look at who is very smart and beautiful and can represent Ukrainian women all around the world. But even though she is a very bright person, I don't believe in her honesty. Sometimes she has her own interests that are above the interests of the Ukrainian people. She loves power too much, it seems to me. In this situation, she can be very dangerous.
What about Yuri Lutzencko?
He is an interesting politician. He is young, bright, smart, and is among those politicians who are the most trusted among Ukrainian people. He has a sense of humor, and he, as I understand, has made many notable changes in his ministry. People love him, not just ordinary Ukrainians, but also the people in his ministry. I believe he has a bright and very interesting political future.
But Lutzencko is not in charge of the Gongadze case.
Fortunately, he knew Georgy Gongadze personally, so he is watching this case very carefully; but unfortunately, he is not in charge of this case, so he cannot help.
Three men have been indicted for the kidnapping and murder, but they haven't come to trial yet. What do you know about these three men?
I don't know a lot about them. But everything I know makes me believe they are the right people, the people who kidnapped and killed Georgy. It was actually another man [General Pukach] who killed him. As I know, the three men arrested have explained everything they know about this situation -- how they did it, showing different kinds of places where the prosecution found Georgy's things. I cannot believe that people would not say that yes, they did it and explained how they did it.
Tell us about General Pukach, the man thought to have killed Georgy.
He escaped. Once, he was on trial, but that was during Kuchma's time. Then he was released and after that he flew somewhere and nobody knows where he went. Some people believe that there were officials in the general prosecutor's office who helped him escape. I think Pukach knows it is very dangerous for him to be in Ukraine or be captured by Ukrainian officials, so he will just sit somewhere. It seems to me it will be very difficult to find him right now.
The next step up the ladder is Yuri Kravchenko, former Interior Minister, who committed suicide or was murdered. What can you tell us about him or his involvement?
Our officials said as always that he killed himself, but it is very difficult to believe that a person can shoot themselves twice. In Ukraine, you can't believe everything that officials say. I believe that it wasn't suicide and that someone just killed him because he knew too much.
And the timing was dramatic because it was right before he was called in to give testimony in the case.
Yes, it was the day before he was to give testimony, and people around him say that he was normal, just like in any other day. He wasn't nervous or something like this. So a person who wants to commit suicide, he changes, you'd think maybe you would notice.
There are these tapes, these famous audiotapes that Kuchma's bodyguard made. On these tapes there is a conversation that seems to suggest that Kuchma is saying that Georgy should be killed -- but Kuchma is now free. What are we to make of these tapes?
I believe personally that those tapes are real. Kuchma definitely talked with his aids about Georgy Gongadze. Georgy Gongadze is dead right now because Kuchma was talking about him. But you know it is very difficult to bring him to justice, even if he was saying those things. I always compare Kuchma to mafia men. Mafia would always say, "OK, I don't like this person." They would never say "OK, I want you to kill him." Kuchma was talking the same way -- he would say "Let's get rid of him," "Let's get him to the Chechens" and everything else. It's rather difficult to prove that Kuchma wanted Georgy to be killed after that. I think that Kuchma will have very good lawyers.
Do you think that Kuchma should be brought to trial?
Yes, I believe that he will be brought to trial. I hope that even if judges will never say that he is guilty, the people would understand everything from his explanation. So sometimes maybe it is not only about being on trial. The most important thing is that Kuchma will understand that everybody in Ukraine knows that his talking was the reason that Georgy Gongadze is dead. I just want people to know the truth, you know? Even now, I believe that Kuchma cannot sleep very well during the night, that it is very difficult for him.
Sometimes people say that for the future of a country, you have to forget about the past, no matter what happened. Others say no, you have to confront the past and you need to have justice. Why is it so important in the Gongadze case to bring the truth out?
It seems to me it is very easy. Here in Ukraine, people are talking about the guarantees that Yushchenko supposedly gave to Kuchma about the Gongadze case, to protect the future of Ukraine. I cannot believe in this kind of future, if people who did something wrong in their life cannot be brought to justice -- especially those high officials who killed somebody or became the reason that someone was killed, as Kuchma did. We have to know the truth. If Kuchma is guilty, he has to be in jail. It is important for the future of Ukraine, and it will build democracy.
Your paper has been critical of Yushchenko.
Yes, we supported Yushchenko when he needed our support during the Orange Revolution. But we really didn't support Yushchenko, we supported those people who went to the streets to support themselves, and Yushchenko was the leader of those people. But we are just normal mass media -- when we see that someone is doing wrong, then we will write about that, especially if it is interesting for people. Yushchenko's son did something wrong and we were critical about that [the paper has been questioning the extravagant lifestyle of President Yushchenko's eldest son]. Even if it is very painful for Yushchenko and very painful for his family, I believe we changed the situation a lot, even just in what Ukrainians know about how the high officials live their everyday lives.
What about your own future? Do you ever feel you're in danger as you continue to push people, powerful people, to investigate a case maybe they would prefer to avoid?
Not now, now I am happy to say that I am not afraid of anything. Just a week ago, I was looking out the window, and I remembered that even during the Orange Revolution, there were people watching our office. At that time it was dangerous. We locked our door. Right now our door is open. We aren't afraid of anybody or anything. I can say that I am happy to live in this kind of society, where you can criticize freely all the people around the president or prime minister and not be killed or beaten. I think time has changed a lot.
How do you carry on yourself?
I am also happy to say that Ukrainskaya Pravda has become profitable. We have almost become like a commercial newspaper. But we still are looking out for the interests of our readers, as usual. When we do something of political interest, it is popular with our readers. Our independence also helps us to be popular. As for my own plans, I wanted to make a print version of our newspaper. As you can see, we are running an online version of our newspaper, but it is as influential and as popular as any other printed newspaper in Ukraine, sometimes even more. I can see a huge future for Internet newspapers in Ukraine. We have a very interesting role with the Internet in Ukraine. I always want to do something new that I haven't done before, but Ukrainskaya Pravda will always be a part of my life.