Ukraine’s Investigative Journalists Find New Opportunities, Old Threats

September 16, 2014

Josh Machleder, Internews Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and Asia Programs, and Simone Otus Coxe, Internews Board Member are traveling in Ukraine, visiting Internews projects and sending updates on the work of local media and civil society in-country.

This time a year ago could be considered one of the dark moments of the Yanukovych era for journalists. There was virtually nowhere for an independent minded journalist to work – media outlets were shutting down their investigative units and there were strong editorial pressures to put out a pro-regime message and to halt exposés into the malfeasances of the ruling party and their cronies. At that time, a group of these journalists banded together to form Hromadske.tv, an online broadcaster.

Dmytro Gnap is Chief Editor of Slidstvo.info, an investigative reporting project at Hromadske, supported by Internews with funding from the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development. Gnap said during the Yanukovych era, after working for six years as an investigative reporter shedding light on cases of corruption and cronyism, people would question the results.  “’The Yanukovych cronies, they’re doing well, what’s the result of all this [reporting]?’ We took the advice of our foreign journalist colleagues,” Gnap told us, “they said ’just lay bricks.’” Do the investigations. Build a foundation which supports the truth. And then one day, last year, at the Maidan, they saw results. Ukrainian society rose up against the regime. 

Hromadske’s appearance on the scene in Ukraine was well-timed, playing an important role covering the Maidan, the popular uprisings that ejected president Yanukovych, who fled the country this past February. Over the course of the protests, Hromadske saw 2 million views a day online. And since Yanukovych’s departure, the national state-owned broadcaster UT-1 and many of its regional affiliates have been re-broadcasting Hromadske’s content on broadcast TV. Hromadske’s coverage has made it one of the top news providers in the country in its 10 months of existence. Its broad public support can be demonstrated by the contributions – already half a million dollars – from citizens, in a fundraising drive.

Slidstvo.info (slidstvo translates to investigation) focuses on corruption and the public’s demand for better, cleaner government without links to the old corrupt government. These days, the focus is on the conflict in the east of the country, where the Ukraine government is staving off a pro-Russian separatist rebellion. Five recent programs have concentrated on corruption in the military. One recent investigation showed the links between Ukrainian commanders who were tipping off enemy officials. It spurred a criminal investigation against a Ukrainian general linked with the Russian army. “When he gets investigated,” Gnap said, “possibly we can save the lives of soldiers.”

As our meeting with Gnap took place right before the September 16 memorial for Georgi Gondadze, a Ukrainian journalist who was kidnapped and murdered in 2000, one wonders how safe an investigative journalist can feel. Gondadze’s murder was never resolved.

“For investigative journalists, after the Maidan, we thought that the pressure on journalists was in the past,” Gnap said. “This is not true.”

An investigation into money allocated to produce armored personnel carriers showed that the funds disappeared in a proxy company linked to a crony of the Speaker of the Parliament. The Speaker called upon the investigative journalists to not publish their report, threatening a lawsuit. He then circulated a video online slandering the investigators – saying they’re not professional, that they make investigations for money.

“That's the way it was in the beginning of the Yanukovych regime. They started out with phone calls, then propaganda, then threats, then it became attacks on journalists,” Gnap said.  “We can't tell the future. We think that the country changed, politicians changed, society changed, but these new threats are a bad thing for us.”

Nonetheless, Slidstvo.info is a motivated team. “We like the work, to chase criminals, to try to help good people. We get satisfaction when you can help clean up society from corruption, lawlessness. When you can see that from your work, the society and the country are getting better.”