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

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.

Her boss vetoed the idea. She did the program anyway -- and got fired.

Danger zone

The collapse of the Soviet Union has clearly not brought Western-style freedom of the press to the land of Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev -- and getting fired is the least of an iconoclastic journalist's worries in the former Soviet republics.

Since 2000, 13 journalists have been killed in just one of those republics -- Russia. Reporters Without Borders calls the country the most dangerous in Europe for journalists. Since 1995, six men who owned or ran news media have been killed in one Russian city -- Togliatti -- which, as the New York Times reported recently, is now known as "The City of Dead Journalists."

But Goryachova's television experience left her with a taste for crusading journalism, danger notwithstanding. After the TV station fired her, she took a job as editor of a new newspaper whose owners said it would be independent of the local government.

"What they really wanted," she says, "was a newspaper that would help them replace the local government with their own people."

Fortunately, the owners also hired the equivalent of a new CEO, and he and Goryachova quickly fell in love -- and agreed that if they wanted independence they had to run the paper themselves.

"On Aug. 4, 1998, we took the staff and started our own paper," she says. "We couldn't use the same name, so we just turned it around -- from Delovoy Berdyansk to Berdyansk Delovoy.

Since then, Goryachova has written about briberies allegedly accepted by the director of the city's best-known kindergarten; about the mayor's plan to turn the local library into a nightclub; about a local utility inexplicably reducing the supply of heating oil in the winter; about the "deplorable state" of government-mandated maintenance of residential buildings; about the illegal firing of a nurse at the city hospital; and about a young woman who died in that hospital after doctors refused to listen to her complaints.

Early last year, Goryachova decided that in a break with local newspaper tradition, she would give equal coverage to incumbents and challengers in a local election. Several days later, her husband had his car "accident." Then came the acid attack and the threats against her family.

So why continue to fight? Why not give up the paper and go back to teaching?

"Our newspaper is the only way for people to learn the truth in our town," she says. "The newspaper is my baby. I can't abandon my baby." She starts to cry softly, then shakes her head vigorously, trying both to shake the tears away and to signal her refusal to surrender. The glint in her eyes and the firm set of her jaw make clear her resolve.

"They're trying to kill my baby, but I won't let them. I will protect it, no matter what."

David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com.

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