Ukrainian journalist Anna Babinets, 37, is used to controversy, and to being on the receiving end of threats. The investigative agency Slidstvo.info, that she co-founded ten years ago, specialises in investigating high-level crime and government corruption. Babinets – who in 2019 received the International Women’s Media Foundation Courage in Journalism Award – recalls how, when investigating the offshore holdings of oligarch and former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, she faced online abuse from trolls who tried to discredit her work, and stood accused of being unpatriotic and of working for Russia. “When we publish something bad about a Ukrainian president we are spies, we are not Ukrainians,” she says, and describes corruption in the country as being like a second war.
Despite President Zelensky’s anti-oligarch stance, as recently as last October slidstvo.info‘s ‘Offshore 95’ investigation into Zelensky’s business interests, which was due to be premiered in a theatre in Kyiv, came close to being derailed when the theatre manager faced pressure from Ukrainian security services to shut it down. The event only went ahead after an appeal was made on social media. Babinet’s fear is that corruption will stall Ukraine’s development into “a real European country”.
On waking to the news that Russian President Vladimir Putin had launched an invasion of her country, Babinets called an editorial meeting at Slidstvo.info. She realised, she later said in a keynote speech to the European Investigative Journalism Conference, that no matter how long you prepare for the war, “you are never ready, you never register that your world can be destroyed in some stupid way.”
At the meeting in the early hours of February 24, Babinets took the decision to shift the focus of her team’s work away from investigating corruption, to gathering evidence of crimes against Ukrainian civilians, mainly through social media and speaking to witnesses. “We don’t cover corruption now for many reasons, because now we have much bigger dangers for the existence of our country,” she says. “We focus on collecting war crimes. There are a lot and we have a lot of work to do. We mostly follow the Russian militaries and try to explain who was there, and what exactly they did.”
On the day of the invasion, Ukrainian journalist Victoria Roshchyna, 25, was in the eastern region of Luhansk, which is currently under the control of Russian backed separatists. There she filed reports for independent broadcaster Hromadske on the shelling of the town of Schastia a few dozen miles from the border, whose inhabitants have been on the frontline of conflict since the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
“With the start of the war, I became convinced that I loved my profession madly,” she says via email interview. “We are losing our territories, and I wanted to record these crimes. I believe that the occupied territories need the maximum attention of the Ukrainian media, because people are abandoned there. But many of them believe in the future with Ukraine. And I really want their voice to be heard.
“I have always tried to cover events as objectively as possible so that ‘the truth is not lost’. This has not changed since the beginning of the war. Although it’s risky, I never agree with the statement that ‘it’s a risk for the sake of risk’. We are losing our territories, and I want to record these crimes. I also want to talk as clearly as possible about how the occupiers are using our territories, what it is becoming and how important they are to them. This is history.”
On March 12, en route from Zaporizhzhya to the besieged coastal city of Mariupol in the south of the country, Roshchyna went missing. Nothing was heard of her for ten days. Then a 45 second video aired on pro-Russian media and Telegram channels in which she denied she was being held by Russian troops, and claimed that Russian soldiers had saved her life. She later gave an account of what happened in an article for Hromadske. She had been stopped at a checkpoint, blindfolded, taken, held and interrogated by Chechens and Dagestanis as well as Russian security service officers. The videotaped confession was made under duress, as a condition of her release.
‘”I had no fear,” she wrote. “I knew they were trying to break me. But I felt desperate because I knew nothing about the outside world, and I was not able to do my job. ‘We do not fucking care that you are a woman and a journalist,’ they shouted. But I knew the fact that I was a journalist restrained them.”
Jeanne Cavelier, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), says journalists in Ukraine have no choice but to cover the war, to in effect, become war reporters. “It’s dangerous and that’s why we opened a centre in Lviv and now in Kyiv to help journalists, especially local journalists with security equipment, security training, first aid training, psychological support, and financial support when needed.”
RSF ranks Ukraine 106th on their World Press Freedom Index for 2022, a fall of nine places from 97th in 2021.Since the Russian invasion, journalists in Ukraine have been more threatened than ever, she says. “Already seven reporters have been killed and 11 injured during their work as a result of gunfire.” In cities like Melitopol, Berdyansk, Enerhodar and Tokmak, Russian troops have been compiling lists of journalists for questioning. In occupied areas, local media have been silenced and replaced by Russian channels, and the vast majority of newspapers have been forced to suspend publication.”
More than 100 local outlets have stopped working according to the Institute of Mass Information. ‘When they are not in the frontline and physically targeted by mostly Russians forces or unknown people, journalists are targeted in their own towns because Russian forces want them to distribute Russian propaganda,” Cavelier says.
Babinets is hopeful that once the war is over the work of reporters across Ukraine will be brought as evidence before national and international courts. “We will see that we’ve done everything we can do as journalists,” she says, determined to keep up the work of her investigative agency. “It changes us as journalists, as personalities, when you see people killed, raped, when you see all this destruction, when you see a clear line between life and death.”
On returning to Kyiv, she plans to follow the money that will be spent on reconstructing Ukraine. She and her team will analyse how the budget to rebuild the country is handled, and continue to cover corruption.
Roshchyna is no less resolute in her determination to keep on reporting, to fulfil what she sees as her journalistic duty and mission from the field. She no longer works for Hromadske but has been preparing reports for other media such as Radio Svoboda and Ukrayinska Pravda from Mariupol and other occupied areas.
“Journalism is my life and I always try to do my job professionally, assessing the risks,” she writes in an email. “But I will not leave journalism. This is the only thing I was afraid of in captivity – to lose the opportunity to shoot and write.”