For Ukraine to qualify for the international support it will need to rebuild its economy and resist pressure from Russia, it must quickly get a handle on internal corruption. The $17.5 billion package recently announced by the IMF requires stringent oversight and anti-corruption measures. This is easier said than done in a country that until recently was controlled by the corrupt president, Victor Yanukovych. With corruption continuing to run deep, the best way to root it out is to expose it.
This is the reason that Slidstvo.info (a project of Hromadske.tv), Ukraine’s newest and most effective investigative reporting program, was born. Launched last spring, the program airs a weekly investigative report with major wins under its belt.
Corruption in the military
Last September, Anna Babinets of Slidstvo.info revealed that the Commander of Special Operations in Ukraine’s Anti-Terrorist Operation, Vyacheslav Nazarkin, was feeding troop deployment information to his brother who served in the Russian military. Babinets and her team proved that the brothers spoke on several occasions while Nazarkin was deploying Ukrainian troops to the East. Nazarkin’s troops were repeatedly ambushed by pro-Kremlin insurgents and Russian soldiers arousing suspicions that he conspired with the Russian military to organize attacks on his own troops.
As a result of the Slidstvo.info story, Commander Nazarkin has been relieved of his duties and is under criminal investigation. Babinets was invited to the Military Prosecutor’s Office as a witness in the criminal case and prosecutors included all of the information collected by Slidstvo.info as evidence.
In addition to breaking the story about the corrupt General, Slidstvo.info did an in-depth piece on the Ukrainian security services (the SBU), the government security agency in charge of counterintelligence activity and combating terrorism. The piece revealed that after the change of power last year, the SBU made only minor changes to its high-ranking staff, despite the role it had played in cracking down on the Maidan protests, which have yet to be investigated. Reporters who requested information about staff changes at four SBU locations in the West were refused information. Lawyers for Slidstvo.into challenged this decision as a violation of the access to public information law. Two weeks after the story was broadcast, President Poroshenko dismissed the heads of the four regional SBU offices.
It’s not easy
It has been a particularly bad year for journalists in Ukraine. Between the revolution on the Maidan in February and the outbreak of conflict in the East in March, 2014 was one of the worst years on record with almost 1,000 freedom of speech violations against journalists (according to the Ukrainian Institute of Mass Information). In fact, the total number of violations in 2014 was 995 cases — twice the number in 2013 (496 cases) and three times as many as in 2012 (324 cases).
While 2014 will be remembered as a year of unprecedented threats to the freedom and livelihoods of Ukrainian independent media, it will also be remembered as the year that these journalists came forward to fight for their right to freely practice their profession. The small but growing number of independent journalist organizations in Ukraine are committed to advancing the reforms that will transform Ukraine into a free and fair democracy.
In this endeavor, the work of Slidstvo.info is critical. Slidstvo.info broadcasts a well-documented, legally-vetted weekly program that examines corruption and wrongdoing in all aspects of the Ukrainian public and private sectors. In the past year, the organization and its regional partners have produced and aired programs on a wide range of issues including corruption within the Ukrainian military, the abduction, torture and murder of human rights protesters in Russia-controlled Crimea, the illegal clearing of forests in Mykolaiv, illegal mining in Nikolaiv, and several pieces devoted to the corrupt practices of MPs, judges and prosecutors — one of the most enduring legacies of the Yanukovych regime.
On a recent visit to Ukraine, I spent some time with Olga Krainyk, a Production Editor at Slidstvo.info. Our conversation made it clear that the organization’s work is both important and new.
“During the Yanukovych era it was very dangerous to do investigative work about politics and criminal scams and corruption,” Krainyk said. “But now the situation has changed in terms of our ability to talk about it. What hasn’t changed as much is the nature of the corruption. Much of the corruption from the Yanukovych era is still in play.”
She added, “Yes, we have a serious problem with Russia. We all know this. But at the same time, our biggest problem is corruption here in Ukraine. The vested interests are deep and the corruption is endemic. The war is a huge opportunity for corruption. There is big money in war and many people in the military are interested in seeing it continue.”
A recent story Slidstvo.info about corruption at a Ukrainian armored vehicle assembly plant underscores this point. Focusing on Ukrainian MP Alexander Dubovyi, the report revealed that he was suspected of stealing money allocated for new armored transporter vehicles for the Ukrainian army. Dubovyi was forced to publicly explain his involvement in this scheme and subsequently lost his bid to join the new parliament in the election last October. Criminal proceedings are underway. Another scandal revealed that the head of the Internal Audit Department for the Ministry of Defense was linked to corrupt procurement of ammunition, prompting him to resign from his post.
Krainyk said, “Increasingly, we are getting information for our reports from whistleblowers. The story about the corruption in the munitions factory came from an inside source. People who work in these factories are willing to lose their jobs to share the truth. They just can’t stand by and watch our soldiers die because they are not getting the munitions they need.”
Slidstvo.info continues to dig deeper. Its most recent work focused on corruption among Ukrainian judges. Krainyk said, “We are profiling a judge who has made a very modest salary for 20 years and we reveal that he owns 20 flats, some big houses, a significant amount of private land and a fleet of very expensive cars. It is our job to reveal these problems and we hope that the law enforcement agencies will respond.”
This body of work is not only impressive but also brave. When asked about the risks involved, Krainyk is resolute. After the sacrifices made in the revolution and the conflict in the East, the journalists at Slidstvo.info are unified in their belief that this work will pave the way for a new more just Ukraine. This is a sophisticated and experienced team and they are in it for the long haul.
“We don’t want to have a President who is a liar. We don’t want to have a Prime Minister who is a liar. But we voted for these people,” Krainyk said. “The problem is not just theirs, but ours as well. Our work is about informing people. Maybe after months and years, our minds will change and our society will change along with it. Step by step, our country will change. This work will help make us ready for the new country.”
Slidstvo.info (Investigation.info), a project of Hromadske.tv and a partner of Internews, has a large and growing audience throughout Ukraine. The program enables media to promote good governance by drawing attention to corrupt public servants and engaging citizens with accurate and balanced information not available in Ukraine’s mainstream media. Slidstvo.info is supported by funds from the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.