Aidan White

The fight for democracy and freedom in Ukraine is being fought on two fronts, one against the deadly weapons of Russian invaders and another against the enemy within – bribery and corruption.

On both of these battlegrounds, Ukraine is locked in a war with powerful forces. Just how powerful was revealed early in May when anti-corruption authorities in Kyiv arrested Vsevolod Kniaziev the head of the country’s Supreme Court as part of a $2.7m bribery investigation, the biggest in Ukraine’s history. 

Soon after his detention, a no-confidence vote by the Supreme Court of 140-2 paved the way for Kniaziev’s formal sacking. This extraordinary development highlights not only the determination of the authorities in Kyiv to crack down on graft at all levels (a prerequisite for membership of the European Union) but how corruption is a fact of life within Ukrainian society.

Almost a quarter of Ukrainians paid a bribe when using public services last year and according to Transparency International’s Corruption Index, a leading global barometer of bribery and corruption, Ukraine was ranked 118 out of 180 countries last year, only slightly better than Russia but well below the global average.

A culture of internal secrecy, weak institutions and poor law enforcement allows corruption to flourish and exposing malpractice in centres of power can be a dangerous and difficult task, but it is not a job that should be left to government fraud squads alone. Independent investigative journalism also has a critical role to play.

The dilemma facing some Ukraine journalists is how to report corruption without damaging the country’s reputation and putting at risk international support.

Journalist Yuriy Nikolov, for example, was leaked evidence that army food procurement contracts had been inflated in January this year, but conscious of not wanting to harm the war effort, he went to great lengths not to publish them. 

But he changed his mind when he approached defence officials with the findings and found their response “was not what it should be”. He sensed that the matter was not going to be pursued officially and decided he had to run the story.

Nikolov told The Guardian that he and other investigative journalists paused their activities at the beginning of the war and had gradually resumed work in the autumn. “I will say that during the invasion, I have turned down many stories,” he said.

But his story published in the news site ZN, UA was a tipping point, along with the news on the same day that a deputy infrastructure minister had been arrested for siphoning aid money intended to buy generators. Sources in the presidential administration said president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was furious and the incident led to the dismissal of 15 senior government and regional officials, including two senior defence officials.

Journalist Veronika Melkozerova writing in Politico this year about this incident said: “Getting a scoop that shocks your country, forces your government to start investigations and reform military procurement, and triggers the resignation of top officials is ordinarily something that makes other journalists jealous. But I fully understand about wanting to hold back when your nation is at war.”

The challenges facing Ukraine journalists are, therefore, not just in fighting and winning a military struggle, but in creating the space for responsible journalism that will encourage independent scrutiny of political power and will hold to account those in charge of the country’s money.

This becomes particularly important now that eye-watering sums of money are suddenly being shifted around to support urgent reconstruction projects.

According to an estimate from the Washington-based Brookings Institution last year, the full cost of rebuilding Ukraine in the aftermath of war will cost anything up to $750 billion. Unless anti-corruptions are giving priority and put in place there could be “sprawling corruption and, in turn, wasted money, disenfranchised citizens, and fertile ground for continued conflict.”

The lessons from previous conflicts – in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, for example – illustrate how recovery from a devastating war requires not just adequate funding for reconstruction, but also systems that will combat corruption in how money is spent and accounted for. 

And it’s not just in times of war. Corruption risks are high whenever investments are large and distributed quickly and no nation is immune. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, media revealed how huge sums of public money were wasted in both the United States and Britain alone, for example, for want of official transparency and scrutiny of how money was spent. 

With this in mind, Brookings proposes using a small fraction of reconstruction funding to support journalists who can mitigate corruption by reporting on financing, procurement, project execution, and other aspects of the massive programme of international support now being developed for Ukraine.

They suggest that a percentage of the total reconstruction budget should be paid to support investigative journalism and anti-corruption efforts. They suggest that three percent of total reconstruction funds could be directed towards anti-corruption efforts and the expansion of independent investigative journalism in Ukraine.

It could be money well spent given that they estimate, according to relevant reconstruction precedents, that the cost of corruption can be as high as 30 percent of the total investment. 

For journalists exposing corruption means working closely with civil society groups and the state anti-corruption investigators and audit agencies. At the best of times, these can be uneasy relations and in the heat of war they are even more fraught.

Ukraine’s leaders should have nothing to fear from the investigative instincts of good journalists. Ethical and professional reporters are critical friends who can contribute to an anti-corruption ecosystem that will promote good governance throughout Ukraine’s current war and will enhance the country’s democratic standing in the reconstruction to follow.

People who care about Ukraine want every penny for reconstruction spent as effectively as possible, so government, the judiciary and public institutions must take the lead by dismantling structures that enable corruption, introducing new rules, creating more transparency, and taking action, even against the most rich and powerful, when they break the rules.

Political leaders and policymakers also need to recognise that quality journalism is a key ally in the fight against corruption.

For that reason, international media support agencies and journalism development groups should make support for in-country investigative journalism a top priority.

They can provide support for media education and training for journalists in forensic accounting, the principles and rules of procurement, and the skills needed to use state-of-the-art technology to analyse financial data or to surf the dark web.

News media, additionally, should also be encouraged to work with civil society and local communities to monitor reconstruction, particularly in the areas most affected by the war.

But working in Ukraine alone is not the only answer to transnational corruption. Any viable anti-corruption strategy also needs to ensure cross-border collaboration and joint investigations supported by regional and international media. 

Main image by Sharomka (Shutterstock)

The Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) with the support of the Evens Foundation has commissioned a series of articles about the ethical challenges facing journalists covering this war – in Ukraine, Russia and around the world.  This series follows the recent publication of media landscape reports – ‘Building Trust in Journalism in Central Eastern Europe‘ – on Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Georgia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.


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