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To her, freedom of the press is a life-and-death matter

November 16, 2003|DAVID SHAW

Tatyana Goryachova, editor in chief of the weekly newspaper Berdyansk Delovoy, in the Ukrainian port city of Berdyansk, was walking home from work one night last year when she decided to quicken her pace to get out of the winter cold and into her home, then just 100 yards down Gorbenko Street.

She tried to squeeze past a man walking slowly in front of her on the narrow, darkened sidewalk. He didn't make way for her. Instead, he suddenly flung a jarful of hydrochloric acid over his shoulder, into her face.

"I felt an intense burning right away.... The pain was excruciating," she told me over breakfast a couple of weeks ago, when she was here to accept a Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation. "I couldn't see. My face got swollen. There was snow -- dirty snow -- on the ground, and I groped around, trying to pick up some and put it on my face to stop the pain."

Goryachova was blind for two months, then slowly regained the vision in her right eye after surgery in Dallas subsidized by an anonymous American benefactor recruited by an American journalist. Gradually, she began to see out of her left eye as well, and her vision with that eye is now about 60% of normal. Six months of skin treatments have alleviated most of the facial burns as well.

But the emotional scars remain. So does the danger, to her and her family.

Goryachova doesn't know who threw the acid at her. She thinks she knows why, though.

Berdyansk Delovoy is the only independent newspaper in Berdyansk, a city of 133,000 on the Azov Sea. Ukraine has one of the worst press freedom records in the world, and Goryachova has been writing about local corruption and incompetence -- much to the chagrin of the local government (and competing newspapers, all of which are owned by the local government or by local political parties).

Five of the six other papers in Berdyansk are also weeklies, with circulations ranging from 600 to 4,000. The sixth paper, government-owned, publishes four times a week and has a circulation of 29,000.

"We've doubled our circulation in the past year," Goryachova says. "It's 5,200, and it will be 11,000 the first of the year, when the new subscriptions start. We've become a serious competitor, and they're not happy."

That's putting it mildly.

Anonymous callers have threatened to kill her and to harm her mother and her 4-year-old daughter, and 11 days before she was attacked by the acid-thrower, her husband, Sergey Belousov, the publisher of Berdyansk Delovoy, was driving his new car when it suddenly swerved out of control and crashed into a tree.

Doctors treated him for a concussion. Mechanics examined the car and found that someone had tampered with the steering mechanism.

Pressure tactics

Goryachova is not surprised that no arrests have been made, either in the attack on her or in her husband's automobile "accident."

But she's determined to keep working, to keep exposing wrongdoing, even as local authorities try to shut down her newspaper.

She says they've pressured her advertisers, used their influence to have her printing bill tripled and repeatedly sent fire, safety and tax inspectors to her offices looking for "phony" violations.

On the day we had breakfast, she'd just heard from her husband that the local postal service, which has a monopoly on the delivery of periodicals, had issued an ultimatum.

"They already charge us more than they charge the government-controlled media, and they gave us a week to pay even more or they won't deliver the paper," she said.

Goryachova says she gave the post office the $2,000 she won as part of her Courage in Journalism Award. She also used money the paper had collected in its recent subscription campaign. Now she needs funds to run the paper. Otherwise, she says, she might have to close it next month.

She has received some help already. Thanks to Hal Foster, a former Times staffer she met at a journalism seminar in Kiev last year, the Omaha World-Herald has agreed to donate one of its old presses to her and to train her husband to operate it. (Foster was also responsible for finding the man who financed Goryachova's eye surgery in Dallas.)

But Goryachova's struggle for survival has only just begun.

So how did this 37-year-old woman with close-cropped, strawberry blond hair, steely, blue-gray eyes, a winning laugh and no real journalism training find herself in a situation that would terrify even the most battle-hardened war correspondent?

"I was a high school teacher, teaching Russian language and literature and conducting workshops on international relations for teenagers," she says, "and I won a national workshop competition sponsored by UNESCO. Some television people noticed me and asked if I'd like to help them with an independent news program."

Less than a year into that job, in late 1995, a well-known Russian TV reporter who had been critical of the government was assassinated in Moscow. Goryachova wanted to do a program about him.

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