Yanina Korniienko: Journalism affirms democratic values in war-ridden Ukraine [VIDEO]

Yanina Korniienko is an Ukrainian journalist at the investigative site Slidstvo. In an interview for both Bulgarian National Radio and Cross-border Talks she speaks about the accomplishments of Slidstvo with regards to anti-corruption and improper things, related to army procurement and war issues. Korniienko also explains what are the risks for journalists in today’s Ukraine and how her site remains viable financially and editorially independent. Finally, she claims that journalism is an agent of change in today’s Ukraine, affirming democratic values in society.

A complete transcription of the video is available below.

Welcome to a common interview between the Bulgarian National Radio and Cross-border Talks, in which we have a special guest from Slidstvo, a leading investigative site in Ukraine. I hope it will be an interesting discussion because there is an underreported, in my view, story in Ukraine. Usually media reports about Ukraine are dealing with war or with geopolitics and we somehow remain less aware of the successes or the advancement of civil society in Ukraine. And investigative media in Ukraine have great influence and have traditions.

We are now going to discuss Slidstvo, which is one of the leading investigative media, and understand how this media contributes to positive social change in the country. Yanina, first of all, could you tell us some words about yourself, your position, your professional experience in Slidstvo or beyond? And also just in short, to present your media?

Hello. Thank you for your invitation. It’s really nice of you to put in public a situation in Ukraine and invite Ukrainian journalists for this discussion. So I’m working for Slidstvo Media. It’s investigative Media, which was founded in 2012 by Anna Bobinets and Dmytro Hnap, the Ukrainian journalists. Before the full scale Russian invasion, it worked as investigative media, focusing more on corruption or crime stories. And after the full-scale invasion, we had to change our focus and now started to investigate war crimes. As well, of course, we are continuing to work on investigation, high-scale corruption. I’m working as an investigative reporter here, before that I worked in the OCCRP research team, and years before I worked for the Ukrainian Truth. So all my career I worked as an investigative reporter mostly.

Slidstvo is known for having very good investigations on anti-corruption. I am aware of cases of investigations in the judicial system, for example, and also importantly Slidstvo dared to investigate even the president of Ukraine – the acting president. So could you tell us more about the investigative activity and successes of your media and the public reaction – not only in terms of the institutions, institutions as well, but also Ukrainian society? To what extent there is resonance when you have a good investigation?

I also have to add that Slidstvo is an OCCRP partner, OCCRP is Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, the global network of investigative media all over the world. Slidstvo is a member center in Ukraine of OCCRP for like a decade. We participated in a lot of loud investigative stories and projects like Panama Papers, Paradise Papers, Swiss secrets. etc, etc. -everything that was in public. That’s basically how we found a lot of interesting data about Ukrainian politicians and made our widely known stories about presidents: not only Zelensky, but also Poroshenko, a previous Ukrainian president, and Yanukovych, who was the president before.

We made investigations about all presidents and that was leaks from different offshore countries. My colleagues analyzed documents and found presidents’ offshore companies. That were loud scandals. I believe that that’s what journalists have to do, is to find corruption and put it on light. Then, voters and civil society in Ukraine can make their decision based on facts, on the election day and on any other day.

That was a story about the president’s offshores, but we also made a lot of other stories about politicians’ corruption, for example, in the judicial system, as you mentioned. We made a few documentaries about that. Another story concerned the Constitutional Court in Ukraine and we made a presentation on the wall of this court. We brought projectors and showed it in the street. Since it was a public place, it was permitted for us. I believe that made a huge impact. The judicial system becomes better in the years. It’s not the best still and we are still actually fighting in a court with some people right now. And we see that the process is not really clear. But some of the judges were reelected and they passed the examination, checking their transparency and their knowledge.

We also made stories about law enforcement authorities in Ukraine. We published investigations about the security service, about police, about every authority. Again, our stories were mostly about corruption, but also about their not really useful and not really transparent departments, about their connections with government and any other violations.

Now, during the war, we hope we will keep doing the same, but it becomes harder to investigate. We were not able to search for declarations of politicians for thelast two years, but now it’s going to be changed exactly because of the pressure from the media and from civil society.

There are a set of registers which are closed for, let’s say, so-called safety reasons. But in reality it is something that is really useful for politicians. And sometimes it’s really hard to explain that it is about safety reasons more like their own interests. So I hope we will get back to corruption investigations more this year. And that’s kind of our focus. But we still need to do some urgent stuff in terms of reporting. And I believe this is really close to civil society needs.

You mentioned that war changed the focus of your activity. And I know that you have also been dealing with the procurement for the Army, but maybe you also have other issues to investigate in relation to the war. And importantly, the Minister of Defense of Ukraine was set to resign because of exactly such problems, improper things related to procurement for the Army. So could you tell us more about your activity now in the conditions of war and war related activity in your reports and investigations?

The story you’re talking about was published not by Slidstvo, but by our other partners in Ukraine. They made an amazing investigation about corruption the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and raised a lot of discussions in Ukraine. We also start looking closer to everything the military does in Ukraine, to their tenders etc. I would say it’s also quite hard because some of the information we want is closed. We can just search public procurement and public information, which is available online. It’s still enough to watchdog what’s going on there, but it requires specific knowledge.

So now we are trying to focus more on things like sanctions, violation of sanctions, for example,transfers of European components to Russia and how it’s really related to the Ukrainian situation now. That’s what we want to discover deeper. But at the same time, of course, the procurement of Ukrainian authorities connected to the military is highly important because I believe that we have to fight the enemy. By we I mean the Ukrainian citizens and civil society. We have to fight the enemy not only outside of the country, but also inside the country. During the war, we need strong institutions withou corruption. And if we have it, our duty is to fight it and to be sure that all the money we get from our partners goes to their purposes. We really need not to see them coming into someone’s pockets. Journalists are doing a lot of work right now in this way. And at the end we are also writing news and daily stuff about that.

How dangerous is it to be an investigative journalist in Ukraine today, bearing in mind that historically there have been some cases when journalists even lose their life or face a lot of hardship. There has always been this talk of some mafia influence in society, etc.

Actually, Slidstvo started its documentary career, by publishing documentary stories exactly from this kind of case. It was the murder of Pavel Sheremet – a journalist who was killed in the center of Kyiv. My colleagues and our editor and founder, Anna Babinets and her colleagues, started to investigate it deeper. And they found actually the guy who was in the place near the car that exploded the night before. They found people involved in that. That was even before the official investigation found at least any evidence.

We followed all the fampus cases of murdering journalists and activists in Ukraine and made a few more documentaries after that. And our last one, it was about journalists during the war. It is a documentary I worked on. It includes a few stories of journalists in Ukraine who were kidnapped or killed by Russians. I interviewed more than 20 of them and they shared their experience. The main point is journalists in Ukraine are not just random victims, they are the aims of Russian soldiers. When Russian entered a city, journalists were the second targets, the first ones being the military.

This is a wrong idea that the biggest danger for journalists is to be on the front line because of the shelling. There is a pretty high possibility for journalists in Ukraine to be tortured in the basements in occupied cities. And this is something we have to talk about because these cases are not widely reported on the foreign medias just because Ukrainian journalists are afraid to talk about that. Russian soldiers who kidnapped them and lately let them go if they were lucky, still have access to their parents or relatives, and journalists are not able to, you know, share this experience with everyone because they are afraid of their relatives. I managed to find a few people who were able to talk: three journalists from the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions. One of the men, was tortured and kidnapped by Russian soldiers, who forced him to sign an agreement of collaboration. Later they let him go. But not everyone in Ukraine was… I don’t want to use the word lucky, right, but whose life didn’t change after that in a worse way. For example another journalist in a Kyiv suburb. He was kidnapped by Russians and put in a Russian prison. He is still there. One more journalist was killed in a Russian suburb by Russian soldiers. Our colleagues in Reporters Without Borders organization discovered that he was murdered because they found a bullet in the ground like 20cm down, which means he was shot from the top. This means that Russian soldiers who did that clearly saw the PRESS word on his west.

We wanted to show that, yes, the journalists in Ukraine are targeted and Russians are also using lists of journalists to find them and target them. So it’s not just like attacking random journalists they found on the street. It’s a list of journalists prepared a month before the full scale invasion. Some of the list was prepared by local collaborators who know other citizens really well. They wrote down all the names and helped Russians to catch those journalists. Journalists under occupation are in huge danger in Ukraine.

Journalists who are investigating war crimes, but on the Ukrainian territory, which is under control of Ukraine, they are quite safe. However, we also get some threats from, I don’t know, cyber Russian forces or stuff like that. They said we should collaborate or otherwise we will be in captivity. But a lot of Ukrainian journalists and war correspondents got those emails and didn’t pay that much attention to them. Still, it doesn’t mean this danger is impossible or so far away. It’s a possible scenario if once we will appear under occupation or Russian forces will be too close to us.

If we talk about investigating Ukrainian authorities or the Ukrainian government, it doesn’t feel like a danger. It never actually was so much. Well, it depends on the case, of course. It’s been dangerous for some of the journalists who investigated Ukrainian- Russian connections. So it’s not really clear who was the biggest, the biggest danger part for that. What I experience now, for example, it’s a court fight and not really fair enough. But as for now, we never mentioned any, any physical threats from Ukraine and part of course it was only by Russians.

Ukrainian journalists pay a price for being professionals, and responsible for what they do. There is also a difficulty to be an independent media in a country which is at war and which is also historically having strong oligarchs. So how is Slidstvo being independent financially and to what extent the civil society of Ukraine supports Slidstvo? Perhaps you could introduce us a little bit to your business model of success.

I’m not the best person to talk about the business model of the media because I’m not really involved in these issues. But as far as I know, Slidstvo was supported by multiple donor organizations who donate for our existence. And we also ask our readers and the people who watch us to give us donations. It’s not that much, but it still covers some expenses.

We definitely collaborate with all our partners abroad, for example OCCRP partners are our main partners and OCCRP support us a lot. So I think this is possible just when you’re doing your job and people trust you and you can show quality investigations and other partners in Europe who follow the same values and the same ideas about making the world more transparent and bring justice. They want to collaborate with us and usually they approach us and we approach them and we are doing this kind of collaboration. For example, this documentary about journalists was made with the support of a Reporters Without Borders.

Okay. Finally, as I mentioned in my introduction, there is, in my view, an overview of the change or transformation in Ukraine in the last years, which is related to the growth of civic culture, democratic culture. To what extent your media contributes to that, to what extent do you feel this change really advances thanks to journalists in Ukraine? Is Ukraine really moving to better compliance and integration of let’s call them Western or democratic values?

Well, I think that the main, basic, basic rule of democratic society is its no tolerance for corruption and that transparent dialogue. That’s something that we also follow. So I think in this way we are definitely contributing to that and revealing any kind of crimes in Ukraine.

We pass the ball to the human rights activists, anti-corruption activists, who are doing their part of the job. We reveal stuff and they have to follow it, by later bringing it to the courts. But it is also raising public awareness the people in Ukraine, so that they can make the right decisions. Ukrainian politicians, after a few revolutions in Ukraine, don’t really like people’s anger. Publishing investigations, we are bringing this public anger on them, for the cases of corruption or violation of rule of law or abuse of power. I think this is how we push this transformation from the society to our way to democratic society, mostly to the Western society, let’s say. I believe journalism work plays a primary role in that. But it is just basic stuff. And there are other players in Ukrainian society that have to also be active to make it everything possible to make it work.

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