Muckrakers Unleashed: What to Expect From Ukrainian Investigative Reporting
11 June, 2018

Investigative reporting in Ukraine is often strenuous and dangerous work, and it doesn't always bring about the desired results. Hromadske spoke to Cheryl Reed, an American investigative journalist and author, about the main challenges for reporters in Ukraine and how journalists’ findings can trigger legal action against corrupt politicians.

"Until Ukrainians internalize this corruption and see it as a personal rape of the country, I don't think that citizens are going to respond in a way that is effective."

Сheryl, you're doing investigative journalism research in post-Soviet countries. Could you please tell us what's so different about investigative journalism in post-Soviet countries that you've decided to research it?

Since 1991, there's been a lot of freedom granted to independent countries. It's interesting to me how the media has developed very differently. I'm interested specifically in how the lessons of Ukraine or Moldova – or Georgia, where there seems to be a little more freedom – can be adopted in some other states. I'm also interested in the Balkans and why they developed the way they did, as opposed to some of the other states, and the sort of juxtaposition between all of these countries. I was just in Belarus this week, and the journalists there look at Ukraine as this amazing country where so many documents are open. They started asking me about the U.S., and I start telling them about things like the First Amendment and the Freedom of Information Act, which they had never heard of. They think that we have it really easy in the U.S., that we could just go to the courthouse and get documents, which isn't exactly true. So I think it's really interesting how each country uses their colleagues and other countries [as examples] and how they're all kind of comparing and trying to learn from each other and how to improve media in each country.

Photo credit: Dmytro Rusanov/HROMADSKE

So you've already been to Belarus and Ukraine, and here you spoke to some of the best investigative journalists like Dmytro Gnap, Anna Babinets, Denys Bihus. What have they shared with you? What are their main concerns here, and was there anything that surprised you about Ukrainian investigative journalism?

They report on corruption and repeatedly report on corruption, draw a line in the map, here are the documents, here's how these people are connected, and yet nothing happens. I have to say that if that happened to me in the United States when I was working on stories, I would be incredibly frustrated. The other thing is that it's dangerous, and they have to watch if they're being followed. They're frustrated with the Pavel Sheremet investigation; I don't think they liked how the [Security Service of Ukraine] manipulated the Babchenko situation. So I think that they constantly feel like they're under the gun. And yet, no one is paying attention or responding to the corruption that they're pointing out.

How does it work in the U.S.? What's the difference?

I would like to say that in most cases something happens when you do point it out. Once you do an investigation, (and this is a general statement) usually prosecutors will jump on the case, politicians will be sure to come out and say, “We'll pass laws against this, this is terrible.” They want to use this opportunity to advance their own career. Usually, you'll have politicians trying to help you and even calling you in the process of the investigation, so they'll be ready to present some sort of bill or legislation in response to whatever you find. In some cases when the government doesn't respond, you make it another story. You call out the prosecutor or people in Congress and say "Why aren't you interested in this?" and "Why are you not going to go after these people?" So then you kind of put pressure on them. They know that and they do try to respond.

Let’s take political corruption. If a large-scale investigation discovered that a politician has been corrupt or abused his power somehow, how would a normal society react in this situation?

An example is the #MeToo situation, Harvey Weinstein. A year ago, if you had said in a newsroom or as an actress that you would be sexually harassed, that would be career suicide. No one would've done that. Because of #MeToo and because these women, and largely women investigative reporters, went after Harvey Weinstein and other actors and writers and producers and TV personalities, the reaction from the public is "Yeah, they need to go." And even before there's any trial, prosecution, civil courts, they're just being laid off, they're being fired. I think in the US what's effective is that when elections happen, members of Congress will point out that some corruption came to light and this person did nothing. I think that needs to happen here. Parliament members need to hold each other accountable, they need to hold prosecutors accountable, there need to be some outside forces, and the public needs to put pressure on people in power so that they actually do their jobs.

Photo credit: Dmytro Rusanov/HROMADSKE

In terms of freedom of press and access to information, how do you think Ukraine is today?

I think Ukraine is getting better: the e-declarations are amazing, these are really great funds for information. I think the tender system is very good and in some ways better than in the US. I think the police force needs to be opened up and the courts need to be opened up, so we know who the perpetrators are and who the victims are. And I think investigative reporting needs to get more out in the country on the local level. There's so much being done about Poroshenko and Poroshenko’s colleagues that I think a lot of readers and viewers have become numb to it. They expect it. The other thing is that a lot of investigative reporting doesn't show what happens as a result of this corruption. All of these millions and billions of dollars are stolen from the people of Ukraine, so that money is not going to education, it's not going to hospitals, it's not going to health care or medicine, and I think there needs to be a much bigger push to show who the true victims of this corruption are. If you talk to ordinary Ukrainians, they'll tell you that the number one problem in their lives is crooked cops. So why not push for police records to be open, so we can find out who is being arrested and why?

Ukrainian journalists learned how to get around closed documents. Does it work like this in the U.S.? How is it different?

In the U.S., there are lots of times when reporters are denied documents that should be open. They're denied the records under the basis of national security. The other big issue is that politicians are using their private e-mails to get around not revealing what's going on because they're not putting it in their public e-mails, which are open and "FOI-able" as we call at (they fall under the Freedom of Information Act). Instead, they're doing government business in private e-mails. And unfortunately, it takes a long time and a long court process in order to get access to that information.

In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge for Ukrainian investigative journalism today?

I think number one is to not feel defeated. You can feel defeated because it takes a long time to see a country change, but I think we are seeing a change. It's slow. I think number two is lack of documents, lack of openness by legislators, and I think number three is just disinterest from the public. I think there have been so many years of corruption stories that citizens have become almost immune to it or are feeling apathetic as though they have no power. So I think investigative journalists have to re-inspire the residents, the citizens of Ukraine, that they can do something, that it's not futile.

After discovering something in the government or about a politician or our security service, Ukrainian investigative journalists often face a lot of criticism from officials. In the current state of war, we are accused of serving Russia's interests. We shouldn't discover things like that or report them to people. How should journalists react to such critics?

I think they have to tell the truth, and that's the number one rule of being a journalist. Maybe number two is question authority. So in this country, the government is authority, and your job as a journalist is to question and tell the truth. There are certain cases where you shouldn't reveal certain things. If it's an issue of national security, if it's going to affect war patterns, or how they're going to execute some sort of strategy, of course, you wouldn't reveal those sorts of things. But any criticism of the government just makes the government better. It's not tearing down the government, it's trying to build a more open society and a more open government, and all that is great.

/By Mariia Ulianovska