Many sports journalists cherish the view that they should not mix politics and sports. But from time to time they were forced to take sides as it happened when the anti-apartheid movement called for the boycott of South African sports in the 60s. Many journalists responded to the call, as they could not be seen to stand on the fence on the issue of South Africa’s system of apartheid.
Today the political situation in the Ukraine which is co-hosting the UEFA 2012 football Euro championship is of course not of the same magnitude than racist South Africa’s but sports journalists must be wondering what to say as some European governments turned on the heat by announcing they will boycott the opening of the games in protest at the jailing of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. She was jailed for seven years last autumn on abuse-of-office charges.
The IFJ does not have a view on the political tussle between President Yanukovych and Tymoshenko. We did however send sports journalists covering the tournament a strong message urging them to spare a thought for their colleagues in Ukraine who have been enduring for years threats, physical attacks and censorship.
The joint IFJ/EFJ leaflet listed the cases of unsolved killings and disappearances of journalists in the country, as well as examples of media being taken off air or harassed because of their work.
We highlighted the cases of Georgy Gongadze, publisher of the Internet journal Ukrainska Pravda, who was kidnapped in September 2000 and his body found later beheaded and of Vasyl Klymentyev, chief editor and reporter for the Kharkiv-based weekly newspaper Novyi Stil, who has been missing for two years now, presumably dead.
Gongadze had been investigating corruption at senior levels of the Ukrainian government led by former President Leonid Kuchma. Twelve years later and the trial of his murderer, General Pukach, is currently underway, but is being inexplicably held behind closed doors.
Klymentyev's newspaper was known for its critical coverage of authorities.
President Yanukovych brushed aside the action of European leaders saying in an interview "What boycott?". "It's a rash act. Everyone who announced it, it's their matter. Let God be their judge."
The very fact that impunity states like Yanukovych’s are sensitive should, of course, be the point and we are right to be holding them responsible for their negligence and, in some cases, complicity. The neuralgic nerve should be pressed hard, effectively and continuously, by us trade unions. Not once a year, or when there host a major sport event, but every time they acquiesce or sanction, or turn a blind eye on the murder of a journalist.
But our fight against impunity is not the same as Western government’s flip-flops using sports for their own political interest. In the best of times, their inconsistency smacks of hypocrisy and no wonder they don’t convince their citizens. Days before declaring their boycott of the opening of Euro 2012 over human rights abuses, the British government arranged for their Queen to invite to her jubilee lunch the King of Bahrain, notorious for his oppression of his own people. “He promised reforms” was the stock answer from the Foreign office. To make things worse, Britain’s boycott of Kiev was exposed as half-hearted as its government signalled it would review its boycott if the English football team progressed to the more glamorous knock-out stages.