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Ukraine: Wiretapping scandal puts journalists at risk

Marina Baranovskaya
January 24, 2024

After a case of year-long surveillance of journalists in Ukraine was uncovered, experts warn of systemic pressure on the media. President Zelenskyy has called upon law enforcement agencies to identify those responsible.

The silhouette of a camera operator holding a video camera in a brightly-lit arena
Investigations in a newly uncovered wiretapping scandal cannot restrict the freedom of the pressImage: Markus Ulmer/picture-alliance

Employees at Ukraine's well-known investigative outlet Bihus.Info have been covertly wiretapped and filmed. A video leaked online, purportedly showing team members consuming illegal substances at a New Year's party, has caused a scandal.

The video was released on January 16 on a little-known YouTube channel called Narodna Pravda (Ukrainian for "national truth"). It ostensibly also contained snippets of private conversations between Bihus.Info employees as they discussed buying drugs. The video has since been removed.

A group of journalists founded the investigative outlet in 2013 under the aegis of editor-in-chief Denys Bihus. One of its reports uncovered the financing schemes of Ukrainian power plants located in Russian-held territories and owned by the brother of Rostyslav Shurma, Deputy Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine.

Other stories unveiled cases of public servant corruption and intrigues, as well as recordings connecting the pro-Russian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk to Ukraine's former president, Petro Poroshenko, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

'Systemic, long-term monitoring'

Bihus confirmed that the video showed members of his camera crew. They have reportedly been let go. The team at Bihus.Info is now investigating the case internally. On January 19, the outlet posted a video on its website alleging that at least 30 people must have been involved in installing surveillance cameras in the remote building where the New Year's party took place.

The head of Bihus.Info also believes that his team members must have been surveilled for over a year. He bases this claim on recorded telephone conversations held several months apart.

"This doesn't look like a spontaneous act of revenge for one of our investigations. This is a case of systemic, long-term monitoring and persecution, with the aim of discrediting the work this team has been doing for years," he said.

War, conflict and crises put a strain on free media — at a time when they are needed most

Ukraine's security service investigating

The overwhelming majority of Ukrainian parliamentarians have condemned the journalists' surveillance and the invasion of their privacy. The parliamentary committees on freedom of speech and humanitarian and information policy have requested that law enforcement agents look into the illicit wiretapping affair.

The parliamentary committee on freedom of speech has now also turned to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). The chair of the committee, Yaroslav Yurchyshyn from the liberal and pro-European party Holos (Ukrainian for "voice" or "vote"), told DW that "this is the only law enforcement agency that can recognize illegal surveillance measures and authorize other parties to undertake such surveillance measures."

"Those measures were either illegal, which would make them a case for the SBU to investigate, or the SBU sanctioned them," he said.

Criminal proceedings 

Meanwhile, the SBU has launched an investigation into the "illegal acquisition, illegal dissemination and illegal deployment of special equipment for receiving information." The agency believed the "transparent and unhindered work of independent and professional media is an important condition for the development of Ukraine as a democratic state."

"Such surveillance should be given a legal assessment, regardless of whether or not a possible violation of the law related to the circulation of narcotic substances was made public in the covertly filmed material," the SBU said in a statement posted on Telegram, a messaging app widely used in Russia and Ukraine.

In an interview with the UK's Channel 4 News, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he had personally invited SBU head Vasyl Malyuk and that he had also received details from Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gesturing in front of a blue screen
In an interview with British Channel 4 News, Zelenskyy emphasized that pressuring journalists was 'inacceptable.'Image: Efrem Lukatsky/AP/picture alliance

Zelenskyy has called for a thorough investigation and for those responsible to be found. He also mentioned that a criminal case for illegal surveillance had been opened.

The journalists at Bihus.Info have also filed a complaint with the police, which has led to additional criminal proceedings.

The YouTube channel on which the video with the defamatory recordings was initially posted is no longer available, and the video has since been removed. Staff at Bihus.Info say the footage was deleted after it became public that police were investigating.

Ukrainian media response

Representatives of the Ukrainian media association Mediarukh, comprising journalists and media experts advocating for journalistic standards, have voiced concerns over systematic pressure on journalists and demanded Zelenskyy personally oversee investigations into the wiretapping scandal.

Oksana Romanyuk, Executive Director of the Institute of Mass Information (IMI) said she was reminded of the rule of former president Viktor Yanukovych, when "targeted hunting, surveillance, and secret recording of media" were commonplace. She added that should authorities fail to respond resolutely, this would be "very bad for Ukraine as a democratic country."

Freedom of the press is one of the conditions for Ukraine to join the European Union.

The head of Ukraine's National Journalist Union, Serhiy Tomilenko, has since called upon public authorities to protect journalists. "We need to prove that we are a country that will not tolerate the kind of defamation campaigns seen in Russia and other authoritarian countries," he said.

This article was translated from Russian.