Dying for Truth

By failing to solve killings of journalists, Ukraine grants impunity

Editor’s Note: This story is an introduction to a new special project by the Kyiv Post, “Dying for Truth,” an online database and a series of stories documenting violence against journalists in Ukraine’s 28 years of independence. Since 1991, when the country gained independence from the Soviet Union, more than 50 journalists have been killed across Ukraine. Most of the crimes have been poorly investigated and the killers remain unpunished. The project is supported by the Justice for Journalists Foundation. Content is independent of donor.

The full article is available on the Kyiv Post website. 

The hunt for information that exposes corruption by politicians, law enforcement and oligarchs is a dangerous job in Ukraine, one of the most corrupt countries in Europe.

Journalists’ work to uncover fraud and financial machinations frequently harms the interests and reputations of politicians, both local and national, and government and business heavyweights. Their reaction can be severe: attacks on social media, threats, surveillance, physical assault, and even murder.

In the first half of 2019, the National Police of Ukraine have already registered 36 physical attacks against journalists and launched pre-trial investigations into more than 63 crimes motivated by journalists’ professional activities, according to National Union of Journalists of Ukraine.

Overall, more than 50 journalists have been murdered in Ukraine since 1991. Investigators have confirmed that the killing was motivated by the journalist’s work in only 13 cases, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported on its website.

In June, Vadym Komarov, a reporter from the city of Cherkasy, became the latest Ukrainian journalist killed for his investigations into local corruption. So far, the National Police have delivered no results in investigating his murder, Tetiana Popova, an expert at the Information Security non-profit told the Kyiv Post on July 10.

The authorities have also failed to solve the brutal murder of Pavlo Sheremet, another journalist who died in a car bombing in July 2016.

Nearly  19 years later, investigators still haven’t managed to identify who ordered the murder of Georgi Gongadze, the founder of the acclaimed Ukrainska Pravda news website, in September 2000. Only the assassins, all Interior Ministry servicemen, received prison sentences.

Despite such a hostile environment, dozens of journalists continue to expose high-level corruption at their own risks. The Kyiv Post asked top Ukrainian investigative journalists what it’s like to report on potentially dangerous topics in a country where crimes against journalists often go unsolved.

Anna Babinets, Slidstvo.Info

Anna Babinets, 35 is an award-winning journalist, editor of the Ukrainian bureau of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and chief editor of the Slidstvo.Info investigative journalism agency. At the age of 15, she decided to become a journalist and has never looked back — despite the risks.

“Discovering information that people try to hide is always a challenge that inspires me a lot,” Babinets said.

In the five years since the EuroMaidan Revolution, which drove the corrupt government of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych from power, Slidstvo.Info journalists have revealed a lot of unflattering information the post-revolutionary government, which claimed to support reforming the country and fighting corruption.

Ukraine’s fifth President Petro Poroshenko, a confectionary magnate, used offshore companies to control his businesses while serving as president, a violation of the law. Meanwhile, top officials from the Prosecutor General’s Office helped allies of the fugitive Yanukovych escape justice. And these are only a small selection of Slidstvo.Info’s dozens of scoops.

“When we were working on the Panama Papers leaks about Poroshenko’s offshores, some people I barely knew kept warning me,” Babinets recalled.“They weren’t threatening me, just telling me to stop investigating his offshores and choose another topic. They were like: ‘What are you doing? He is the president?’”

Were these people trying to warn her because they cared for her? Or had someone in the government wanted to send her a message using people she knew? Babinets wasn’t sure.

The same thing happened when Babinets was investigating Sheremet’s 2016 murder for the documentary “Killing Pavel.”  However, this time, she was sure her colleagues and friends were just trying to protect her and other journalists investigating the case.

When someone brutally kills a top journalist and a good friend in the center of Kyiv, the investigation becomes personal.

“The best way to battle fear and stress for me is to go to a crime scene and start working,” Babinets said.

On July 20, 2016, Dmytro Gnap, Slidstvo.Info’s co-founder,  summoned Babinets to the site of Sheremet’s murder. They immediately started questioning witnesses and collecting evidence. Working together with a team of OCCRP journalists, they soon discovered many details the official investigation had missed or ignored.

For example, a former security service officer had been tracking Sheremet for several weeks before his death and police hadn’t even questioned the officer.

“We knew we can’t bring (Sheremet) back to life, but we were doing our best to uncover information that would be important in the future.  We hoped for justice, hoped that one day the official investigation would identify the people who killed Pavel,” Babinets said.

Ultimately, the documentary on Sheremet’s murder met mixed reactions. Some people were grateful, but others criticized the journalists for publishing the information the uncovered instead of sharing it with law enforcement.

“Our investigations are always controversial. Hardly anyone likes what investigative journalists publish, both in Ukraine and elsewhere in the world. Our stories are mostly about the people in power. And we must be prepared for their reaction: attempts to destroy our reputation,” Babinets said.

According to her, the is still an “old school” of journalism in Ukraine that always pushes back against this investigative work, arguing the country is not ready for the kind of information Babinets and her colleagues are revealing.

“There’s always time for the truth. The sooner we uncover the truth, the better chance we have to find out even more.  If we hold onto our information and keep quiet, the official investigation will hardly move things forward.”

Babinets still believes that, one day, Sheremet’s murder will be solved.

“Maybe, it is not the right time yet,” she said.

Radio Liberty journalist Mykhailo Tkach (L) is interviewed after he and cameraman Kyrylo Lazarevych were forcibly detained by SBU officials for shooting outside the SBU headquarters in Kyiv on Oct. 2, 2015. The officials were investigated but not punished. ((Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty))

Mykhailo Tkach, “Schemes: Corruption in Details”

In his latest interview with the Novoye Vremya weekly magazine, oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky said he hasn’t seen Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s newly elected president and his former business partner, in person for a long time. According to him, that’s because of journalist Mykhailo Tkach.

Tkach, 30, is an award-winning journalist with the investigative TV show “Schemes: Corruption in Details,” a joint project of the UA:Pershyi public TV channel and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

He exposes top Ukrainian officials and politicians’ shady ties with oligarchs by tracking their movement and reporting on their secret meetings.

In September 2017, officers of Ukraine’s State Guard Department attacked Tkach and cameraman Borys Trotsenko as they tried to film Poroshenko leaving a luxury resort in Kyiv Oblast where the son of Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko was celebrating his wedding. While guarding the private wedding, the state guards used force to stop the journalists from filming the president.

In November 2017, the journalists were attacked again, this time by the private security of pro-Russian businessman and politician Viktor Medvedchuk. Journalists were tracking Medvechuk’s private flights to Russia near Kyiv’s Zhulyany airport. When they tried to follow Medvedchuk, his security service used force against them and even blocked their car.

“You can’t get used to this kind of behavior,” Tkach said.“Those people have no fear of punishment when they attack journalists.”

He has been trying to bring the offenders to justice in court. Journalists must protect themselves and their rights as professionals using all possible legal means, Tkach said.

“There are not enough successful examples to say that Ukrainian law protects journalists. So we have been trying to create more by filing claims to the police and the courts, providing evidence. This all takes so much of our time, that we even joke that, with one more case, we will have no time for real journalism,” Tkach said.

“But it is very important to prove that we were doing our job and have the right to do it. This will show the subjects of our investigations that they are not above the law.”

For now, however, seeking justice is a slow and sometimes absurd process. In the case of the State Guard Department, the journalists still don’t even know the name of the prosecutor leading their case.

“The authorities just ignore our requests,” Tkach said. “And we understand that Yuriy Lutsenko is the prosecutor general. It was his son’s wedding, and a prosecutor in our case is his subordinate.”

Despite the stress and danger of his job, Tkach is confident that his work is important for Ukrainian society.

“When Kolomoisky can’t secretly meet and solve his problems with the president of Ukraine because of us, that means we’re doing something right,” he said.

At the same time, Tkach says that the lack of progress in the official investigations into Sheremet and Gongadze’s murders sends a signal to many other subjects of his journalistic investigations: they can treat journalists however they like, and one can even escape justice after committing murder.

Denys Bihus, a Ukrainian journalist leading the investigative team Bihus.Info.

Denys Bihus, Bihus.Info, “Nashi Groshi with Denys Bihus”

Denys Bihus says he became a journalist by accident. “But then I got used to it. It appears to be the perfect job.”

Bihus, 33, is an OCCRP correspondent and founder of the investigative show Nashi Groshi (“Our Money” in Ukrainian). His award-winning team of journalists has published numerous investigations exposing corruption in all sphere of Ukraine’s government.

In February and March, Nashi Groshi published a multi-episode investigation that showed Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies helping cover up corruption in state defence conglomerate UkrOboronProm. The journalists proved that one of the key people allegedly involved in the scheme was the son of Oleh Hladkovskyi, a top ally of President Petro Poroshenko who was deputy secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council at the time.

Published at the peak of the presidential campaign, the investigation was a political bombshell. Bihus and his team found themselves the object of social media attacks blaming the journalists for trying to spoil Poroshenko’s chances for re-election. They were even accused of working for Russia’s security services.

But their investigation also proved effective: Hladkovskyi was fired and cleaning up UkrOboronProm is now higher on the Ukrainian government’s agenda.

Bihus reacted to the social media hate campaign stoically. “There was always a small circle of hell in the comments section below our investigations.  Social media attacks and threats are an ongoing process,” he said.

Fortunately, all the threats and hate stayed on social media, and the Ukrainian authorities have not threatened Bihus’s team. But sometimes they try to make the journalists’ lives more difficult.

“When we are working on a topic related to the Security Service of Ukraine or other intelligence services, we sometimes notice surveillance. Some guys appear near our office and start tracking the movements of our journalists,” Bihus said.

“But they usually do it so openly and insolently that it is clear to us: They just want to get on our nerves.”

Bihus says that journalists who work in Kyiv are used to such professional risks.

“I would divide journalism into national and regional,” he said.“Those journalists working in Kyiv are more secure, especially if they already have a name. But regional journalism is sheer horror, with threats you must take seriously.”

In Ukraine’s regions, threats against journalists investigating local corruption frequently turn into actual violence, as in the case of Vadym Komarov. Komarov died in June after spending a month in a coma following a brutal beating. That same month, the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine reported six other attacks against journalists in Kharkiv, Odesa, Rivne and Chernihiv Oblasts.

One of the most vicious attacks in June was against Kharkiv cameraman Vadym Makariuk. Several men severely beat him while he was filming a conflict between local businessmen at the Barabashovo market. He spent almost two weeks in the hospital’s emergency department and suffered a stroke, Serhiy Tomilenko, head of the National Union of Journalists wrote on Facebook on July 4.

“Physical aggression against journalists can be stopped only if the offenders will be punished,” he said.

For that to happen, law enforcement must conduct effective investigations and demonstrate that they really want to protect journalists, Tomilenko added.