In a time of war, investigative reporting in Ukraine is a tough sell

Dmytro Gnap, an investigative reporter at Hromadske TV, being interviewed by another television station in regards to a story about a wealthy driver who won't be charged for murder after striking and killing a pedestrian in Kyiv. (Photo credit Cheryl L. Reed)

The morning after journalist Pavel Sheremet was blown up in his car in Kyiv last July 20, a US State Department expert told Fulbright Scholars headed to Ukraine that the post-Soviet country would only become truly democratic when journalists expose its corruption.

I was among a handful of former journalists in that large DC conference room. My Fulbright project—to teach investigative reporting to the next generation of Ukrainian journalists—suddenly took on new significance.

Now, after 10 months of teaching in one of Ukraine’s top graduate journalism programs, I see major challenges to reporting corruption there in a way that makes a difference, especially in the everyday lives of Ukrainians. Most investigative reporting in Ukraine focuses on high-level corruption and pays little attention to failing institutions, which is where most citizens intersect with the government. Too often, it fails to identify and humanize the victims of corruption, or show how changes could be made to improve people’s lives. Investigative reporters are largely uninterested in reporting in-depth about crime and courts, and as result they aren’t pushing the government to open these critical records.

Moreover, the cadre of 25 to 30 reporters who do independent investigative journalism are constantly under attack. Even media watchdogs have disparaged their investigations. Because Ukraine is at war with Russia, journalists who report critically about the Ukrainian government—including the president, military, or police—are labeled tools of Russian propaganda.

“It’s one of the attempts to split journalists,” explains Anna Babinets, 33, an investigative reporter at Hromadske TV, an independent media outlet in Kyiv. “They are saying that either you are with the government and against Russia, or you are with the Kremlin. The war has made people see the world in either black or white.”

Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, more than 60 journalists have been killed, according to the Kyiv Post, an English-language newspaper and website that has tracked the deaths. The gruesome murders—poisonings, a beheading, point-blank shootings, and the latest, Sheremet’s car bombing—are warnings to future reporters, and, to some degree, it’s working. Up and coming journalists say they are reluctant to put their lives on the line.

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“We can write about all this corruption and the bad oligarchs and no one will care,” explains Mariia Yuzych, a Ukrainian journalist and one of my graduate students at Kyiv Mohyla Academy School of Journalism. “Young journalists do not have a prime example of how their work can really change our system of government.”

While journalists face extreme risks in Ukraine, aspects of their professional practice also open them to criticism. Investigative journalism in Ukraine has no uniform ethical standards. Investigative reporters routinely use hidden cameras, don’t always identify themselves as journalists when interviewing people, and in their reports, use dramatic music and effects, like over-the-top re-enactments, to heighten drama.

Ukraine’s journalism schools are partly to blame for the lack of quality reporting. Most are stuck in a Soviet mode in which professors with little or no newsroom experience teach theory—not the practical application of reporting and editing, and certainly not the modern skills of shooting video and using social media. Students themselves often lack the ambition to tackle investigative stories, another legacy of the Soviet system, which seldom rewarded hard work. As a result, the reporters and media executives I spoke with said journalism graduates arrive in their newsrooms unprepared to do basic stories, let alone investigative pieces.

“I’m not seeing anybody coming up who can do the work,” says Vlad Lavrov, one of Ukraine’s leading investigative journalists.

Last year, Lavrov offered data training for journalism students from some of the country’s best schools at an investigative reporting conference in Kyiv. Lavrov gave the students information on Ukrainian businessmen, provided access to the Panama Papers online database, and asked them to write 300- to 500-word stories from the information they developed using those and other sources. Out of about 100 students, no one produced a single story, he says.

“Whenever we said, ‘You have to dig deeper, they didn’t do anything,’” says Lavrov, 40, who was educated to become a businessman but decided journalism was a better fit.

The war in eastern Ukraine—which has claimed 10,090 lives, including about 2,777 civilians, and internally displaced more than 1.5 million people, according to the United Nations—has profoundly altered the climate for investigative reporting.

“There are many sensitive topics—like criticizing the Ukrainian army—which if you cover them, you may be deemed unpatriotic or pro-Russian,” says Oksana Grytsenko, 36, a war correspondent for the Kyiv Post. One of Grytsenko’s recent stories looked at how people who did little or no fighting were receiving lush military benefits, while some who had suffered serious injuries were denied them.

In May 2016, Grytsenko and 4,500 other journalists worldwide discovered that their names, cell phone numbers, and addresses had been posted on the internet site Myrotvorets, which purports to expose “enemies of Ukraine.” The site claimed the journalists had “cooperated with terrorists” because they received accreditation from separatists to report in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Several of the journalists received threatening phone calls and emails. “It was really dangerous for some of them,” says Grytsenko, who believes she was spared any reprisals because her stories appear in English.

A few months later, Grytsenko wrote a story about the Ukrainian Security Police (SBU) operating secret prisons in which they detained people who had voiced pro-Russian sentiments. I invited Grytsenko to speak to my journalism class about her work, which I hoped would inspire my students. Instead, the students grilled her about her decision to report such stories during wartime.

“It makes the army look bad,” one student said. Another said: “It is bad for society. We need to support the government.”

Grytsenko told the students that such stories push the country to improve by forcing it to weed out corruption. “The real journalists are the ones who tell what the real problems are in the army, in the country, in the government,” she said.

After her talk, three students out of 21 expressed a vague interest in investigative reporting, and no one wanted to cover the war.

“Americans romanticize being war correspondents,” said Mariia Ulianovska, 24, a journalism graduate student with a bachelor’s degree in law. “When the war is fought in your country and not overseas, it’s more real. We see the devastation and the danger up close.”

Her reasoning—echoed by several others in class—struck me as remarkably lucid for such a young journalist. Even US war coverage in Iraq and Afghanistan tended to be pro-government.

Dmytro Gnap and Anna Babinets, who run their own investigative NGO called Slidstvo.info, in their offices at Hromadske TV, an independent news website and cable television network where most of their work appears. (Photo credit Cheryl L. Reed)

Lavrov, who is technically on staff at the Kyiv Post, but whose salary is largely paid by the global Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), isn’t surprised by the students’ attitudes.

“When it comes to war correspondents, you must understand there is no consensus on their role [and] whether it is to cover the facts fully, which would be super difficult because Ukrainian journalists do not have not access to the other side,” he says. “It’s an unfortunate situation with media watchdogs in Ukraine taking the stance that journalists should be on the side of the government.”

Lavrov and his colleagues Babinets and Dymtro Gnap—who have their own investigative NGO called Slidstvo.info—have been highly criticized for their reports about President Petro Poroshenko’s administration. Last year, the three worked on a video report that aired online at Hromadske TV. Entitled “President Poroshenko’s Secret Life,” the report was based on documents that were part of the the database known as the Panama Papers. The 20-minute investigation showed a re-enactment of Poroshenko’s lawyers setting up offshore accounts while the Ukrainian army was engaged in some of its bloodiest battles with Russian-backed separatists.

“People were asking: ‘How could you accuse our president of setting up offshore accounts during a time of war?’” Lavrov remembers. “I still stand behind it because during the worst military conflict in your country, you don’t expect the president, who is commander in chief of the army, to be working simultaneously on tax evasion offshore schemes.”

Poroshenko said the accounts were established to set up a blind trust, not to avoid taxes.

An independent media council made up of journalism critics and lawyers summoned the reporters to defend their story.

“They asked us why we used every word of the text in that story,” says Babinets, who lost her appetite for mountain climbing and extreme sports once she became an investigative reporter. “Then they said we are working for the Kremlin. And from then on, that became the discussion. Even our former [journalism] colleagues criticized us.”

 

Journalism Critics

Yevhen Fedchenko, who sits on the board of Hromadske TV, has also been critical. A former TV anchor and current director of Kyiv Mohyla Academy School of Journalism, he is familiar with Western journalism standards, having been a Fulbright Scholar for a year at USC-Annenberg.

“Investigative reporting is a growing sector in Ukraine,” he says. “But it is self-centered and sometimes infantile in its approaches and its critical judgment of it results. It’s self-centered because the journalists see themselves as the most important part of the project.’’

Fedchenko criticized the Panama Papers’ juxtaposition of war scenes and re-enactments as an attempt to play on people’s emotions. “The Panama Papers report was a simulation of a real investigative project,” he says.

In late May, OCCRP released an investigative documentary of the Sheremet car bombing, titled Killing Pavel. The documentary took almost 10 months to report and produce, and the reporters believed its quality would make it a model for future investigative pieces.

Unlike the Panama Papers piece, which used moody music and special effects, the Sheremet documentary is Western in its approach and style. The 50-minute film shows reporters collecting and analyzing security footage taken near Sheremet’s apartment. The reporters—who included Lavrov, Babinets, and Gnap—painstakingly track down a man with former ties to SBU, who on closed-circuit videos appeared to be staking out Sheremet’s apartment the night before the assassination. The story suggests that SBU may have been behind the murder, and that police have done little to find the killers. The film’s narrator lists the government authorities who declined to meet with reporters.

As soon as Killing Pavel was released, the stinging backlash began. The team was criticized for a host of purported offenses, including not sharing their findings with authorities prior to release. (The reporters say they prepared a two-minute video summation of their findings to show Poroshenko, but still couldn’t get a meeting, a key point that was bewilderingly absent from the film.) Media critics questioned whether the report had jeopardized the police investigation.

Yevhen Fedchenko is the director of the Kyiv Mohyla Academy School of Journalism and sits on the board of Hromadske TV. (Photo courtesy of Fedchenko)

“The documentary didn’t deliver anything,” Fedchenko says. “It’s just bits of scenes glued together with emotional stuff. It was the same as the Panama Papers. It’s conspiracy theories.” He added, “It didn’t produce any answers or valuable outcome. The result was that it basically framed law enforcement. That’s no secret. Everyone knows they’re not doing enough.”

The loudest detractor was Natalia Ligachova, a media critic at the website “Detector Media: a Ukrainian Media Watchdog.”

“The authors make a claim that SBU might be involved in Pavel Sheremet’s murder. But, when watching this film, we see that there are no sufficient arguments for such a strong allegation. That is to say, there’s whipping up of emotions without a sufficient body of evidence,” Ligachova explains in an email. She also questions why reporters didn’t turn over the identity of a key witness, instead of waiting months until the documentary aired.

Ligachova and reporter Gnap got into a spat on Facebook. “I claimed to be the real watchdog, and not a Maltese,” says Gnap, 39. “I didn’t call her personally a dog. I said, ‘You are a media critic and you also need to support and protect the media community from soft censorship of the government. You need to support reporters. You need to be a real watchdog of Ukrainian media society, and not act like a Maltese.’”

Fedchenko characterized Gnap’s portion of the exchange as arrogant and unprofessional. Ligachova is “a very well respected media critic,” he says. “She asked a lot of questions, which sounded reasonable. Instead to getting answers, she was brushed off.” He adds: “Dmytro [Gnap] is not a journalist. He’s a politician. He really needs to switch sides of the barricades. He’s basically using journalism for his own personal agenda.”

Gnap says he was surprised at Fedchenko’s criticism, since he says Fedchecko had lauded him as “a brave and professional investigator” only a few years ago when Gnap exposed the large-scale corruption of former President Viktor Yanukovych and his friends, who siphoned millions from government coffers.* “But now when I do the same things about President Poroshenko and his friends, Fedchenko says I’m not an objective journalist. Could there be some connection here?”

Fedchenko says that Gnap was courageous for his investigative reporting during the Yanukovych regime. “It was dangerous for a journalist,” he says. “The added value was that journalists could make a difference. But you cannot be a professional ‘opposition journalist’ all the time just because it’s a good position and you will always get your portion of attention with that.”

Katya Gorchinskaya, CEO of Hromadske TV, which airs many of Gnap’s stories, strongly disagrees with the criticism. “Fedchenko is in the patriotic camp that says in the times of war, we shouldn’t be criticizing the president because we are undermining trust. I think it’s just wrong. If you don’t identify problems, they’ll never get fixed. If you don’t look for graft, the army will continue to be starved. I think it’s very unpatriotic not to do it.”

Fedchenko admits he’s a Poroshenko supporter. “I consider Poroshenko to be the most able president in recent Ukrainian history, but that does not mean that he should not be subject to criticism. But the criticism should be grounded and justified and scaled according to his wrongdoings. He should also be credited for all his positive efforts in nation-building during times of war.”

Fedchenko says he’s simply trying to raise the level of journalism in his country, and he feels the investigative reporters are “an incestuous group” who are not critical enough of their own work. “If you say something against their work, then you become kind of a foil.”

 

Oligarch-funded vs NGO-funded Investigations

Part of the reason investigative reporting is growing in Ukraine is that oligarch-owned TV stations have their own investigative teams, though they largely target their employers’ enemies.

“They’re just over-sensationalized stories taken out of context,” says Gorchinskaya, who was a well-regarded former editor and reporter before leading Hromadske. “It’s actually quite shocking what people think is investigative reporting. The media in Ukraine is used to either promote business interests of the oligarch directly, or to promote political interests. It’s very effective.”

Even President Poroshenko owns his own media station, and seems to hold sway over the other oligarchs who own media outlets. According to a 2016 VoxUkraine content analysis, there were almost no negative mentions of the president on the country’s largest television stations, where most Ukrainians get their news.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are three or four independent investigative teams, financed by Western grants. The teams produce their own content and contract with various media, usually small and medium independent outlets, to publish their work. This arrangement allows the teams to retain editorial control. The partnership gives media organizations the option of publishing or not publishing the work, but the outlets do not have any editorial input.

Critics say dependence on donor-supported reporting creates a quest for big stories involving top officials at the expense of uncovering smaller-scale corruption in local city councils, courts, police departments, hospitals, and schools.

 

“I created my own standards. We don’t lie. We don’t make up things. I have no problem with hidden cameras. I see no problem with not identifying yourself as a journalist because these tactics are effective. I’m pretty sure in the USA I’d be some gonzo, badass journalist, the most unethical bastard ever

 

“Donors want big stories,” Fedchenko says. “They want big investigations.”

Dependence on outside grants has given the government ammunition to discount uncomfortable findings, and in some cases, legitimate reason to distrust such work. Last summer a scandal erupted when Sergeii Leschenko, an investigative reporter-turned-politician, bought a $281,000 condo that he said was partly financed by Western grants he’d received for his investigative reports. (The average monthly salary in Ukraine in 2016 was about $200, according to the State Statistics Service of Ukraine.)

“If you’re a good investigative reporter, your standard of living is way above the average reporter’s because there is enough financing through the grants,” Lavrov explained.

President Poroshenko recently signed a law that requires investigative reporters and investigative NGOs to reveal income sources. Many journalists see the law as retribution for media coverage critical of many politicians’ vast income and assets, which they’ve recently been required to make public.

Editorial control residing with the investigative teams can also undermine quality control. While Gorchinskaya, the Hromadske CEO, says she’s confident of the work of some NGOs, she’d like more input with others. “When we see a problem with a story we won’t put it online, and we get back to them with our feedback.’’

But that doesn’t mean the NGO will make changes.

Denys Bigus, 31, a self-proclaimed “dictator-editor,” founded and runs two investigative NGOs that are funded by a number of foreign grants. He and his team have won many international journalism awards for exposing corruption in the country’s procurement system. He dismisses the need for formal ethical standards.

Denys Bigus is an investigative reporter who founded two journalism NGOs. One is called Book 14 and the other is called White Collar Hundred. Those NGOs are largely supported by Western grants, including donations from USAID and the US Embassy in Kyiv. His investigative team’s work largely appears on the website Nashi Groshi, which means “Our Money” in Ukrainian, and on a Youtube channel. (Photo credit Cheryl L. Reed)

“I created my own standards. We don’t lie. We don’t make up things. I have no problem with hidden cameras. I see no problem with not identifying yourself as a journalist because these tactics are effective,” he says. “I’m pretty sure in the USA I’d be some gonzo, badass journalist, the most unethical bastard ever.”

Lavrov, the highly respected reporter at OCCRP, says he has no problem with hidden cameras when there is no other way. He also questions how journalism schools can teach ethics because the situations that arise on the job usually fall into gray areas, unlike cases culled from textbooks.

One area in which Lavrov believes journalists should be trained is detecting whether they themselves are under surveillance. “If someone is going to kill you, they need to know your schedule, your lifestyle. Sheremet was under surveillance for many, many months, and he didn’t do anything about it. Unfortunately for him, it was like a joke to tell his friends.”

After all the work Lavrov and others invested in the documentary, they still don’t know conclusively why Sheremet was murdered. He was a commentator, not an investigative reporter. Lavrov believes his death ties back to the Myrotvorets list of journalists who were labeled as having “cooperated with terrorists.”

Once the list was published, government officials accused journalists of being overly dramatic about threats to their safety, Lavrov says. “They said: ‘Ukraine is a free country with a free press. There is no danger to the journalists.’ I’m afraid this could be one of the reasons why Sheremet was killed. Someone wanted to embarrass the Ukrainian government for saying ‘Ukraine is not Russia and journalists are not in danger here.’”

 

Crimes without Victims

If you ask ordinary Ukrainians about their biggest concerns, they talk about police corruption and the inability to get local police to investigate routine crimes. That’s where government corruption affects citizens. Yet crime and the inner workings of the police generally go unreported.

Police records are private in Ukraine. Court records have names blocked out. Military records are closed. Conviction records are difficult to obtain. Yet investigative reporters I talked with didn’t see a need for access to such records.

Bigus explained that investigative reporters in Ukraine follow the money and the data. Since there is no data from the police and the corruption seems comparatively small, police reporting doesn’t often pique reporters’ interest.

In addition, investigative reporting in Ukraine rarely connects large-scale fraud to its victims. The reports neglect to suggest ways Ukrainians can make changes. A steady diet of this kind of reporting is numbing after awhile. After several months of studying such reports, I understood why my students expressed such cynicism about journalism’s ability to change their country’s culture of corruption.

“Reporters do very institutional reporting instead of bringing the reporting down to the ground and converting it to issues relevant to people’s’ lives,” Gorchinskaya says. “With shortage of both skills and time to allow the story to brew, you’re not going to have this kind of reporting. They simply don’t answer ‘Who does it affect?’”

Ukraine is ranked as the 38th most corrupt country in the world—more corrupt than Russia, according to Transparency International. Though oligarchs and politicians have bilked billions of dollars from Ukrainian coffers and assets, the reporting mostly focuses on the lavish lifestyles of the schemers and how they orchestrated their elaborate frauds, often escaping prosecution.

For example, many Ukrainian banks have collapsed from fraud schemes that gave connected oligarchs and their friends millions in loans, which they never paid back. When the banks collapsed, average citizens lost their deposits. It is a heartbreaking story that plays out frequently in Ukraine. Yet rarely do the stories focus on the 1.5 million Ukrainians who are the victims of such schemes.

Earlier this year, reporter Gnap was working on such a story. He had connected the bank collapse to huge loans taken out by friends of President Poroshenko. He asked me how such a story would be structured in America. I told him that the story would almost inevitably begin with one of the victims he’d found—one man who had lost everything and another man who needed the money for his wife’s cancer treatments. Viewers, I explained, need to relate to the people who were affected to be engaged in the story. Initially Gnap disagreed, saying that he thought Ukrainian viewers were more interested in the big names connected to the schemes and not the common victims. But Gnap decided he would try the American approach and was happy with the result, which aired in late February.

“This was a good idea to focus on victims,” Gnap says. “During the last year we cooperated with producers from USA, Canada and Sweden. So we see this is one way to provide good storytelling—to find a victim or hero who can show the problem through his life.”

 

Worth the Risk

Mariia Ulianovska graduated from the Kyiv Mohyla Academy School of Journalism master’s program in June. She is now a social media editor at Hromadske TV in Kyiv. (Photo supplied by Ulianovska)

As my investigative reporting class progressed this spring, I saw slight changes in my students’ attitudes toward reporting. Maybe they had a better appreciation for the work required after having spent months on their own investigative projects that were the mainstay of my classes. But it wasn’t until some of them started their lives beyond the classroom that I heard a real shift in their beliefs.

Mariia Ulianovska, who had criticized American attitudes toward war reporting, often voiced a disbelief that investigative reporting could make a difference when she was a student. Then she went to work at Hromadske TV. She told me that she’s learned more in a month on the job than she did during her two years at journalism school.

“Previously, I didn’t see any results from investigative journalism, and no consequences for politicians,” she says. “But I’ve discovered that journalism has played a huge role in reforms. We’ve progressed as a country only after these stories. I saw that it is hard and extremely slow. But we still have to do this. It’s worth the risk.”

*An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect first name for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

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Cheryl L. Reed is an assistant professor at Syracuse University where she researches investigative reporting in post-Soviet states.