Cherkasy, Ukraine – On May 4, Vadym Komarov, a 58-year-old journalist in the central Ukrainian city of Cherkasy, left his house on foot – he didn’t like to use his car.
Komarov quickly reached the central Heavenly Hundred street, renamed in 2015 after more than 100 Ukrainians were shot dead by security forces during the 2014 Maidan revolution.
At around 9am, a tall man wearing a baseball cap and a black jacket jumped him, beat him with a blunt object and left him for dead.
Komarov was in a medically induced coma for over a month. He died on June 20.
An investigative reporter who uncovered corruption, Komarov’s death has highlighted the vulnerability of activists and journalists trying to hold authorities accountable in the country’s regions, away from the media spotlight in the capital Kyiv.
It was not the first time Komarov was targeted. In 2016, he said a man fired a gun in his direction as he left home in Cherkasy, which is about 200km from the capital.
The assault in May was the worst case of violence against a journalist since 2017, according to Kateryna Diachuk, an analyst at the Institute of Mass Information, an NGO monitoring Ukrainian media.
Last year was marked by a sharp increase in physical assaults against activists, Human Rights Watch reported in October.
As Ukraine readies to elect its parliament in July, having voted in a new president in April, journalists and activists are calling on authorities to end the impunity often enjoyed by those behind attacks.
International organisations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nationshave also made appeals for justice.
Ukraine is a country of precedents. If the leader will defend journalists and talk about this issue, then all the levels of the state will attempt to protect journalists as well.
In Cherkasy, it is the context of the murder – in broad daylight, right in the city centre – that has shaken local journalists.
“There’s a strong feeling of insecurity here, and it’s built on such events,” Serhiy Makarenko, a cofounder of local news outlet “1800”, told Al Jazeera a few days before Komarov died. “There’s a feeling that every person voicing a strong opinion about the local authorities, about corruption, is in danger.”
Reporting on corruption is a daunting task in Cherkasy, a city of about 280,000 plagued by corruption scandals and high-profile killings.
In April 2014, local journalist and right-wing activist Vasily Sergiyenko was kidnapped from his house and brutally tortured. Activists found his body in a forest the next day, with his head severed, multiple stab wounds to his chest and broken knees.
“Criminal groups have a lot of influence here, even if they remain mostly invisible,” said Oleksiy Khutornyy, the editor-in-chief of Hromadske Cherkasy, the local branch of an independent media network formed during the 2014 revolution and supported by grants from Western NGOs.
An ‘uncomfortable figure’
With his smartphone mounted on a handheld monopod and a pair of glasses hanging around his neck, Komarov was often found at Cherkasy’s regional administration, a six-storey, imposing Soviet-era building and the heart of the region’s political life.
He used to work for local outlets but had shied away from traditional media in recent years, preferring to publish his reports on his Facebook page.
His denunciations of murky deals in the city’s construction business and reports on embezzlement of the city budget had made him an “uncomfortable figure” for many local politicians, according to Valeriy Makeev, a journalist who regularly worked with Komarov.
He was also involved as an activist, making frequent appearances at the mayor’s office and regional public council – an institution designed to connect civil society and the authorities.
Outspoken and rumoured to have close relationships with some politicians, he divided opinion in the local media community.
“He’s more of an activist. I don’t think he’s very keen on things like fact-checking,” a local journalist said before Komarov died. “But it’s clear that he has a lot of very good sources in almost all local government institutions.”
Just four days before he was attacked, Komarov posted on Facebook a video report that quickly gathered more than 13,000 views.
Komarov’s allegations were explosive: he described a vast network of corruption and drug smuggling allegedly organised by prison officials inside a local penal colony, and accused the authorities of trying to cover up a deadly riot that had happened there on April 28.
In a post further detailing the allegations, Komarov named the prison officials he said were responsible.
“The prison system is like a country inside the country, it’s dangerous to talk about this,” said Nazariy Vivcharyk, a local journalist. “When I saw he named all the people, I got really scared for him.”
Authorities rushed to react and declared on May 3 a “special regime” inside the prison while riot police searched the building.
Calls for official response
While there is no evidence that Komarov’s report on penal colony 62 prompted the attack – local journalists put forward several other theories linked to his investigations – the authorities’ weak response means reporters and activists have lost hope in discovering the truth.
Police gave few details about the case and refused to open an investigation under an article of the law that specifically deals with attacks on a journalist’s life – and carries a potentially stronger sentence.
Cherkasy Mayor Anatoliy Bondarenko told Al Jazeera that, while he was dissatisfied with the police’s lack of communication, law enforcement was a “parallel structure” he had little influence over.
The authorities did publicly react after Komarov died, however.
On July 20, Ukraine’s National Police published a sketch and photos of the suspect and called on media to “help with the identification of the alleged attacker” – but did not explain why the images had not been released earlier.
Ineffective law enforcement bodies and courts enable violence against critics, according to journalists and activists in Ukraine.
They are calling on the new Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, to send his own signal and properly investigate attacks against journalists.
“Ukraine is a country of precedents,” said Sergiy Tomilenko, the chairman of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine. “If the leader will defend journalists and talk about this issue, then all the levels of the state will attempt to protect journalists as well.”
By the time of publishing, the new administration had not made any comments on Komarov’s death.