April 2, 2023

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When a major corruption scandal broke in Ukraine last weekend, reporters faced an excruciating dilemma between professional duty and patriotism. The first thought that came to my mind was: “Should I write about this for foreigners? Will it make them stop supporting us?”

There was no doubting the severity of the cases that were erupting into the public sphere. They cut to the heart of the war economy. In one instance, investigators were examining whether the deputy infrastructure minister had profited from a deal to supply electrical generators at an inflated price, while the defense ministry was being probed over an overpriced contract to supply food and catering services to the troops.

Huge stories, but in a sign of our life-or-death times in Ukraine, even my colleague Yuriy Nikolov, who got the scoop on the inflated military contract, admitted he had done everything he could not to publish his investigation. He took his findings to public officials hoping that they might be able to resolve the matter, before he finally felt compelled to run it on the ZN.UA website.

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 how Nikolov feels about wanting to hold back when your nation is at war. Russia (and Ukraine’s other critics abroad) are, after all, looking to leap upon any opportunity to undermine trust in our authorities.

A journalist is meant to stay a little distant from the situation he or she covers. It helps to stay impartial and to stick to the facts, not emotions. But what if staying impartial is impossible as you have to cover the invasion of your own country? Naturally, you have to keep holding your government to account, but you are also painfully aware that the enemy is out there looking to exploit any opportunity to erode faith in the leadership and undermine national security.

That is exactly what Ukrainian journalists have to deal with every day. In the first six months of the invasion, Ukrainian journalists and watchdogs decided to put their public criticism of the Ukrainian government on pause and focus on documenting Russian war crimes. 

But that has backfired.  

“This pause led to a rapid loss of accountability for many Ukrainian officials,” Mykhailo Tkach, one of Ukraine’s top investigative journalists, wrote in a column for Ukrainska Pravda.

His investigations about Ukrainian officials leaving the country during the war for lavish vacations in Europe led to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy imposing a ban on officials traveling abroad during the war for non-work-related issues. It also sparked the dismissal of the powerful deputy prosecutor general.

The Ukrainian government was forced to react to corruption and make a major reshuffle almost immediately. Would that happen if Ukrainian journalists decided to sit on their findings until victory? I doubt it.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy ended up imposing a ban on officials traveling abroad during the war for non-work-related issues | Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

Is it still painful when you have to write about your own government’s officials’ flops when overwhelming enemy forces are trying to erase your nation from the planet, using every opportunity they can get to shake your international partners’ faith? Of course it is.

But in this case, there was definite room for optimism. Things are changing in Ukraine. The government had to react very quickly, under intense pressure from civil society and the independent press. Memes and social media posts immediately appeared, mocking the government’s pledge to buy eggs at massively inflated prices. Ultimately, the deputy infrastructure minister was fired and the deputy defense minister resigned.

This speedy response was praised by the European Commission and showed how far we really are from Russia, where authorities hunt down not the officials accused of corruption, but the journalists who report it.

As Tkach said, many believe that the war with the internal enemy will begin immediately after the victory over the external one.

However, we can’t really wait that long. It is important to understand that the sooner we win the battle with the internal enemy — high-profile corruption — the sooner we win the war against Russia.

 “Destruction of corruption means getting additional funds for the defense capability of the country. And it means more military and civilian lives saved,” Tkach said.

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