The risky task of investigating corruption in wartime Ukraine

The Ukrainian branch of the NGO Transparency International issued a statement on January 17 warning that ‘attacks on journalists are becoming systematic’

Corruption in wartime Ukraine
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addresses the media during a press conference in Kyiv on February 25.Anadolu (Anadolu via Getty Images)
Cristian Segura

Ilia Vitiuk was an affable and charismatic man when he spoke to EL PAÍS in Kyiv on February 7. Vitiuk was the head of cybersecurity at the Security Services of Ukraine (SSU). He spoke to this newspaper about Russian cyberattacks during the invasion of his country, a subject he has mastered and was comfortable with. He was less friendly with Yevhen Shulhat, a journalist from the Slidstvo Info media outlet, who on April 4 revealed alleged irregular real estate operations within Vitiuk’s family. Three days earlier, while Shulhat was investigating the case, he was harassed by two soldiers and an SSU agent: they identified him while he was visiting a shopping mall and urged him to enlist in the army. Through a store’s security cameras, Slidstvo Info was able to uncover the identity of the SSU officer who led the operation, a man close to Vitiuk. He was dismissed from his post on May 1 by the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Investigative journalism has been a risky profession in Ukraine for decades. The death of the founder of the Pravda newspaper, Gueorgui Gongadze, in 2000 caused a national scandal that put the government of former president Leonid Kuchma on the ropes. Gongadze was investigating government corruption and was killed by four policemen. His newspaper is today a benchmark for the media in Ukraine, and in the supervision of power, and Gongadze is an icon of the efforts of Ukrainian society to democratize the system. The media and non-governmental organizations now warn that impunity has increased during the war against Russia.

The difference is that Ukraine today is more in the international spotlight than ever. Its status as a candidate for accession to the European Union is a leap forward in the fight against corruption and institutional transparency. Its European allies, but above all the United States, are also demanding control measures and monitoring to keep track of where the tens of millions transferred to Kyiv in financial and military aid are going.

A total of 16 human rights organizations published a manifesto on April 12 alerting the government and the judiciary to the increasingly frequent practice of prosecuting activists and journalists for allegedly failing to comply with conscription requirements. The manifesto, which names two activists and four reporters affected by this practice in recent months, states: “With this strategy of discrediting activists and investigative journalists, law enforcement violates the presumption of innocence and manipulates the issue of mobilization. These actions are unacceptable and deliberately shift the focus of public attention.” The text stresses that these pressures “discredit Ukraine internationally and play into the hands of Russian propaganda that spreads the narrative of an authoritarian and undemocratic country.”

The Ukrainian branch of the NGO Transparency International, a signatory of the manifesto, issued a statement on January 17 warning that “attacks on journalists are becoming systematic.” “Transparency International Ukraine considers any form of pressure against journalists unacceptable, especially in view of the country’s aspirations to accede to the European Union,” it added.

This statement was released in the wake of a case of coercion that has been investigated by the Prosecutor’s Office and even prompted Zelenskiy himself to intervene. The digital media Bihus, which specializes in investigative reporting on cases of malpractice in power, was spied on for months by the SSU. Videos of the private lives of members of the editorial staff were recorded by its agents and disseminated on social networks.

Not all press reports are harassment like those suffered by Bihus or Slidstvo Info. The Institute for Mass Information (IMI) is an NGO that analyzes journalism in Ukraine and publishes a monthly press freedom barometer. The latest available, from March, counted 16 cases of violation of freedom of expression in Ukraine. Seven of them, the most violent — acts of war and cyberattacks — were committed by the Russian occupying forces; nine were complaints on the Ukrainian side, and four were complaints by several media outlets about the refusal of various government institutions, including parliament, to provide public information.

Two media organizations and two NGOs preferred not to comment for this article. The editor of a media company that has been the victim of political pressure agreed to explain, on condition of anonymity, the basis of these refusals: “At this moment, when Ukraine is facing a new major Russian offensive, it is more important and relevant to talk about this and not about other issues.”

“I would say there is a free press in Ukraine, but there are some restrictions and a lot of self-censorship,” Viola von Cramon, MEP and vice-chair of the committee for parliamentary relations with Ukraine, told Interfax on April 27: “These journalists think ‘if I publish this, if I write that, it can help Putin to discredit Ukraine.’ And this certainly does not do journalism any good.”

United News

The German Green MEP underlined one of the most controversial aspects of Zelenskiy’s presidency; the control with which he subjects critical media, especially since the inauguration of United News, a joint information telethon launched at the outset of the war and which all channels must broadcast. “There is a tendency in the president’s office not to give voice to the opposition or critics. With the telethon, he has ensured that pluralism in the media sector has virtually disappeared,” Von Cramon said.

The U.S. State Department in April published its annual report on the human rights situation in Ukraine. The document cites the telethon as an example of control over information: “The government banned, blocked, or sanctioned media outlets and individual journalists deemed a threat to national security or who expressed positions authorities believed undermined the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Some speakers who were critical of the government were also blacklisted from government-directed news programming. Investigative journalists critical of the government were sometimes targeted by negative social media campaigns, sometimes via government-friendly channels. Other practices continued to affect media freedom, including self-censorship,” the report stated.

Serhiy Leshchenko, an advisor to the Ukrainian presidency, assured the state-run Ukrinform agency on April 29 that without the telethon “there would be media chaos that would make it easier to weaken society internally. The telethon was created to be a source of truthful information, not falsehoods.” Leshchenko implicitly threatened the opposition with being investigated by the SSU: “Ukrainian politicians who disinform are fully in tune with Russia. This is a question for the intelligence services: why are there Ukrainian politicians who spread this information — are they part of Russian propaganda or are they useful idiots?”

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