Ukraine is no stranger to high-level corruption and since the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution a lot has changed. To examine the challenges of journalism in the post-truth world, Hromadske visited this year's MezhyhiryaFest, an investigative journalism conference held at the opulent estate of fugitive ex-President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych.
There, we spoke to Nataliya Sedletska, anchor and editor-in-chief of one of the most popular and impactful investigative programs in Ukraine, Scheme, for RFE/RL.
According to Nataliya Sedletska, corruption has changed since the revolution in 2013-2014. "Under the Yanukovych regime corruption schemes were much simpler and easier to investigate," she told Hromadske. "Now corruption schemes are more complicated." While recent developments such as the establishment of public registries for assets and land have made investigating easier, Sedletska claimed that politicians and businessmen have also gotten better at hiding corruption.
Sedletska's investigative team has also had an uneasy relationship with Ukrainian law enforcement. The Security Services have attempted to stop them from publishing stories about their department. Neverthless, Sedletska maintained that investigative journalists should keep working to uncover the facts that the authorities want to keep hidden. "It's the job of investigative journalism to criticize the government," she said.
Sedletska also underscored that investigative journalism's major impact is when it results in new legislation being adopted. In Ukraine, this has taken the form of the establishment of public registries and electronic declaration laws. "The National Anti-Corruption Bureau was also created because of a long history of investigating corruption," she explained. According to Sedletska, investigative journalism leads to strategic rather than fast results.
Sedletska's investigative work on the use of offshore companies to anonymously purchase real estate in the UK has also yielded international results. "This campaign on disclosing offshore anonymity is going through the whole world," she told Hromadske. "I think it's a good tendency and there is development."
Nataliya Sedletska is the anchor and editor-in-chief of one of the most popular and impactful investigative programs, Scheme, for RFE/RFL. She has been investigating a lot of high-level corruption here in Ukraine. Nataliya we’re now here at Mezhyhirya Fest trying to assess some of these phenomenon. How is it for your team? How has corruption in Ukraine changed the work of journalists? Your program and your journalists have court cases with the Security Services, you have difficulties today. What are they and what do we to know about how corruption has changed?
Nataliya Sedletska: The corruption changed. We could say that under the Yanukovych regime corruption schemes were much simpler and on the one hand it was easier to investigate them. Now corruption schemes are more complicated, but at the same time we were able with the help of civil society and civil organizations to disclose the public registries. This made it easier for us to uncover corruption because we’ve got open registers of companies, open registries of assets, land registries and so on. It’s much much easier to investigate, but now politicians and “corruptioners” hide it better.
Do we know any particular industries which are the most closed? Where is it the hardest to dig?
Nataliya Sedletska: Army contracts are very closed and it’s really hard to investigate procurements for the Ministry of Defense. But also the most corrupted sphere, I would say, is state owned companies. So it’s not the budget of some ministries but state companies that are still throughout Ukraine and are still owned by the government.
Your journalists have been followed by the Security Service. Also there is a defamation campaign against you and some of your team of reporters. How does this impact your work and what are your current relations with the state and law enforcement?
Nataliya Sedletska: So the Security Service of Ukraine is a structure which is still unreformed and is still very very closed. Contrary to other law enforcement agencies they haven’t published publicly their law enforcement declarations and the law says that they should have published them. So now it’s still very hard to investigate potential corruption within the law enforcement structure. That’s why we are looking very closely into them and the workers that are working there.
We had heard so many complaints about one specific department of the Security Service of Ukraine, it’s called the economic department, they have to defend the economy of Ukraine. We heard from businesses and entrepreneurs so many complaints about this department, that they are starting criminal cases and then by paying money this criminal case can be closed. So then we thought how can we prove this in any way? So we simply went to this department and put a camera and we were filming what cars these people working in this department are using. These people are making not more than $400-$500 per month, but they are driving cars that start at $20, $30, $40 and $50 thousand dollars. Their cars are much more expensive than they could afford from their government salaries.
We sent a request to the Security Service of Ukraine saying that “we’re going to publish this report, are you going to comment on this?” before publishing and they didn’t respond. Just one hour prior to our program on-air, we received a letter from the Security Service of Ukraine saying that if you are going to publish this story in this way, there will be criminal responsibility for your journalists because we are the Secret Service and it’s not allowed to publish stories about our employees. After that we published the story because I thought that they were just trying to threaten us. What they do not want is not for us to not publish information about secret agents, there were not secret agents in our story, they don’t want us to publish information that these people somehow are making much more money unofficially.
In this dispute between civil society activists and some people from the government, we are accused of being “grant eaters,” a Ukrainian term, or “panickers” –those people who are not seeing that there are good results sometimes, trying just to see the bad side of the government, making Ukrainians very depressed and underestimating the good things done by the government in difficult times during the war with Russia. What would you say on that discussion? Are we just seeing the bad things and not seeing the good things?
Nataliya Sedletska: I think it’s the role of investigative journalism to criticize the government and to find facts that they want to keep hidden, to uncover such facts. It’s just our role. We do not have to say good things only. We have to uncover bad facts, it’s true. But I think this agenda, that it’s not patriotic to criticize the government, is inspired by corruptioners, mainly, who just want the system to not change.
You were working a lot with international companies on money laundering schemes. We understand that a lot of money laundering is allowed to take place because of Western companies, there are tax havens. Some of governments allow these schemes take place. Do we see any developments? Do we see in the end that your investigations end in some results and court convictions?
Nataliya Sedletska: Absolutely there are already results. Of course people don’t go directly to jail after the investigation, there should be some process, but also there is no direct effect from investigative journalism especially in countries like Ukraine. But the major impact of that is that after some stories we have new legislation adopted: public registries are opened, electronic declaration law is adopted. The National Anti-Corruption Bureau [in Ukraine–ed.] was also created because of a long history of investigating corruption. I think it’s a strategic result, not a fast result mainly.
If we talk about the international aspect some more, especially the offshore problem. I have some person experience. Two years ago I was in Great Britain taking part in a British Investigative Documentary about dirty money flowing into London from offshore companies. Corrupt Ukrainians and Russians were purchasing real estate in the name of offshore companies so nobody knows who the real owner is. This documentary had a big impact in the UK and after that some legislation was adopted in the UK saying that you have to disclose who the real owner is and this campaign on disclosing offshore anonymity is going through the whole world. There are a few new initiatives regarding disclosing of public registries in many many countries, including in the offshore world. So I think it’s a good tendency and there is development.
/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk
/Written by Eilish Hart