Ukrainian journalists fight another kind of war - against graft
By Dan Peleschuk
KYIV (Reuters) - Ukrainian reporter Serhii Andrushko believes his country's struggle for freedom also includes another kind of war - against high-level corruption - which experts think could have more success now as Kyiv strives for European Union membership.
Last month, the Radio Liberty correspondent confronted candidates on camera vying to become Kyiv's next top anti-corruption official about their personal finances and political ties.
That might seem less urgent when soldiers are dying every day, but part of Ukraine's battle includes shedding any perceived similarities to Russia. "Particularly its attitude to corruption," Andrushko said.
According to Transparency International's 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index, Ukraine ranked slightly better than Russia but still well below the global average.
So reporters like Andrushko say they are working to keep their rulers honest, a job some experts and media insiders said could have more impact now that Kyiv is under pressure to prove it can clean up its act as it seeks membership in the European Union.
They said a major political shake-up seen earlier this year, when more than a dozen officials were dismissed amid a flurry of critical domestic press coverage, could be a taste of things to come if Ukraine's investigative journalists continue.
Their focus also shows civil society is embracing its role as a government watchdog even as the war grinds on.
"Media are becoming more influential because they're appealing to the more acute sense of justice among citizens," said researcher Petro Burkovskyy, of the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation think-tank.
They will need to choose stories wisely and back up their reporting, he added, since being sloppy or overly critical can invite public scepticism or even accusations of being unpatriotic.
Many journalists are also turning their attention to uncovering Russian war crimes and assets in Ukraine.
Before the war, critical reporting on illicit or scandalous behaviour had been a fixture in Ukraine, where a robust free press means reporters spotlight everything from opulent homes to luxurious trips abroad that are unaffordable on official salaries.
They lurk outside pricey properties, filming officials entering and exiting, or snap images of them driving flashy cars. Video investigations are often sleekly produced, set to dramatic music and narrated in an acerbic tone.
Now the stakes are higher, said investigative reporter Mykhailo Tkach, as many Ukrainians donate their own money to keep soldiers equipped as they fight Russia's invasion, and want to know it is spent properly.
The EU has also made eradicating graft a key condition for membership, which most here believe is a lifeline to a brighter future. Ukraine wants candidacy negotiations to begin this year.
Reporting by Tkach, a journalist for online outlet Ukrayinska Pravda, on a top official's Spanish vacation during the war played a role in the dismissals in January, which President Volodymyr Zelenskiy pledged to continue if more graft was uncovered.
A separate report by a peer alleging the defence ministry was overpaying to feed its troops helped crystallize the immediate dangers of corruption and led to a ministry shake-up.
A more recent Tkach investigation probed the purchase of a luxury apartment, among other assets, by a brother of one of Zelenskiy's advisers allegedly at a bargain-basement price.
Such reports play a key role in Ukraine's fledgling anti-corruption system, created after the 2014 Maidan revolution toppled pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.
Oleksandr Novikov, head of the National Agency for Corruption Prevention (NACP), a state body that monitors officials' lifestyles, said the information media uncover can help build legal cases against officials suspected of graft.
"We consider Ukrainian journalism, especially investigative reporting, to be like another anti-corruption institution," he told Reuters during a recent interview in his Kyiv office.
Watchdogs believe cleaning up corruption will be a long game, while media advocate Oksana Romaniuk said journalists must vet their stories on graft extra carefully to help retain public confidence.
A recent survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) showed that trust in mass media grew from 32% to 57% over the past year. But that's far below the 96% and 84% who trust the military and Zelenskiy respectively.
Romaniuk, director of the Institute of Mass Information, an NGO in Kyiv, said Ukrainian journalists' role as anti-corruption activists will become increasingly important as Kyiv maps out a more transparent future.
"Our plan is definitely to preserve democracy, because we see what happens when there isn't any."
(Reporting by Dan Peleschuk; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)