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Corruption in Ukraine’s Military: Journalists need to check their facts first

Ukraine’s Armed Forces are according to many observers on a path of slow recovery. Its morale and popular credibility depends not only on its success on the battlefield, but also on how it is portrayed. Journalists have a special responsibility when it comes to documenting accusations of corruption in an environment where the problem is so real.

May 23, 2018 - Yuriy Lukanov - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Ministry of Defence of Ukraine (cc), Yosef Vyenskovych, flickr.com

Accusations of corruption against the Ukrainian government are very frequently made by the Ukrainian media, but these are often based on hearsay and not good investigative journalism. A case in point is that of a recent scandal surrounding a poorly conducted ‘investigation’ into corruption in Ukraine’s military by the Novoe Vremya (New Times) weekly political magazine which was shown to be inaccurate. The scandal had resonance because Serhiy Leshchenko, a well-known MP and critic of President Petro Poroshenko (although still a member of his parliamentary faction) supported the allegations. The spurious claims were picked up by the Kyiv Post, a thorn in the side of every Ukrainian president, which refused to retract the story when the allegations turned out to be false.

The demand by Serhiy Pashynskyy, an MP, to pursue criminal charges for “spreading false information that undermines country’s defense capabilities” and created a strong sense of déjà vu. Attempts to impose criminal responsibility for journalists in 2010 led to massive protests by media workers and forced the government to abandon its plans.

Deputies from different political forces have regularly flirted with this idea. First it was supported by Yevhen Murayev, owner of the News One channel and a mouthpiece for Kremlin mythology in Ukraine, then by some MPs from the Popular Front party.

But there is one important difference this time. Previously politicians made accusations without mentioning specific materials. Now, Pashynskyy accused journalists of utilising false information to undermine the country’s defense capabilities by pointing to the investigation of Novoe Vremya journalist Ivan Verstiuk.

Additionally, Novoe Vremya chief editor Vitaliy Sych claimed that Serhiy Pashynskyy’s lawyers offered an ultimatum. . According to him, Pashynskyy’s lawyers stated that if Novoe Vremya would print Pashynskyy’s photo on the next magazine’s cover and publish a refutation, they would not destroy the publication. Pashynskyy also said he would sue Novoye Vremya to defend his honor and dignity and make the magazine refute the false information.

In tandem with the MP, the Polish company Wtorplast also promised to file a court case against the journal on the grounds of “damage to its professional reputation”, claiming repayment of 1 million US dollars in damages.

As a result, a large scandal blew up.

Overall, this situation mirrors various previous accusations in Ukraine that are not based on facts. Think tank experts and journalists agree that since 2014 the government has contributed to strengthening the Ukrainian army, improving its equipment and provisions and, thus, helped raise its capabilities to resist Russian aggression. While various problems in the Ukrainian army persist, it has significantly improved over the last couple of years. At the same time, different articles have been published, including in the Kyiv Post, that uncover corrupt schemes by government representatives.

The investigation by Novoe Vremya claimed that people close to the head of the parliamentary committee of defense, including Pashynskyy, partook in a corrupt scheme that involved the importing of armored personnel carriers (APC). They allegedly purchased APC parts, put them together in Ukraine and sold the assembled APC’s to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense at inflated prices.

The Novoe Vremya investigation first cites MP Serhiy Leshchenko who said that money flowing through the defense sector was corruptly divided between the Petro Poroshenko Bloc and Popular Front in order to “keep everyone satisfied.” It then describes the allegedly “strangest contract of 2016-2017”.

Zhytomyr Armored Vehicles Plant (ZAVP) purchased written off APCs produced in 1980 by the Polish company Wtorplast, which itself had bought them from the Czech company Excalibur Army at a price of EUR 20,000­-25,000 each. ZAVP brought this APCs to Ukraine in separate parts, with each turret valued at 66,000 US dollars and each chassis at 99,000 US dollars. Then the plant “repaired” the APC’s by putting together different parts. These services cost an additional 40,000 US dollars for each APC.

“As a result, one APC originally costing 20,000 euros,­ was sold to the Ukrainian defense ministry at around 205,000 US dollars. During the last year alone, the Ministry of Defense purchased 200 APCs from ZAVP, paying 41 million US dollars for them.”

No more information on this was provided by the Novoye Vremya investigation. I felt baffled after reading this. Similarly to a majority of other readers, I have no knowledge of the process of the assembling of APC’s or any other military vehicles, for that matter. I also have only very superficial knowledge about market prices of military equipment. I supposed there could have been corruption, but the Novoye Vremya author did not explain this. Are these prices too high or too low?

Moreover, the expert opinion that the author mentioned in his article is not accurate. In the publication, an analyst for the Centre for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies Anton Mikhnenko allegedly wondered why these APC’s had been purchased abroad in the first place, as the Kharkiv Tractor Plant produces its own lite version.

I have known the Centre for almost three decades, first as professional military journalists and then as respectable experts. I telephoned Serhiy Zgurets and asked him to clarify the situation and his answer stunned me. It turned out that Anton Mikhnenko had not said this and Zgurets referred me to his article on this topic.

In his publication, Zgurets refutes the information provided by Novoe Vremya and says that Ukraine does not produce APCs. “Ukraine can meet its demand for APC parts in the short term only by purchasing them abroad. The only reservation is that there is no one who could sell it and the cost of repairing them at the time of preparation of the contract exceeding the cost of the new APC’s.

During the Cold War when the Warsaw Pact was still in existence, APCs were produced in the Russian SFSR, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Notably, Czechoslovak APCs, due to the higher quality of their technological processes, were significantly better than the Russian ones. But post-Soviet leftovers soon disappeared, and it was fortuitous to find APCs owned by one of these companies in Eastern Europe. In 2016, Ukrspetsexport, a state-owned arms trading company, launched negotiations with this company and the first batch of APC parts was delivered to Ukraine through a foreign intermediary.

Zgurets’ publication also has a link to a blog by Anton Mikhnenko who visited military units and examined the purchased APC’s on site. He said that these APC’s were completely new if one considered their actual condition and the only ‘old’ aspect about them was the year of their production. Zgurets also cites sources from the Ministry of Defense who are very satisfied with these APC’s.

Dmytro Tymchuk, a member of the parliamentary committee on defense and security, said in an interview for the UA: First TV channel that the Novoe Vremya journalist had made a second error. According to Tymchuk, the cost of an APC being assembled at the Zhytomyr Plant equaled 4,000 – and not 40,000 US dollars as was claimed in the article. He also said that all key small parts of the APC’s were produced in 2016–2017 and concluded that only the APC armor was produced a long time ago.

What about the price?

After the scandal with the publication spread to social media, the director of the media-holding that owns Novoye Vremya sent a letter to Spetstechnoexport, the state-run Ukrainian export-import company involved in the foreign armaments market , acknowledging mistakes in the published article. It said: “Since the editorial office is interested in publishing only objective and accurate information, it refutes the information that is not true.” This statement relates to the sentence in the faulty article that said that Spetstechnoexport issued licenses for exporting arms. The letter also said that Ivan Verstiuk’s article in Novoe Vremya contained no information about business relations between PH Strategic Bussiness Limited and Spetstechnoexport.

The error relates to another episode described by Ivan Verstiuk in his article. He wrote about “other dubious contract” by Shostka-based Impuls plant which is a part of the Ukroboronprom consortium. The plant reportedly sold detonators to Cyprus offshore PH Strategic Business Limited.

The author claimed that the implementation of the contract led to someone gaining corrupt profit of about 600,000 euros. He accused  Pashynskyy’s son of receiving this profit. Pasynskyy’s son is the head of  the department of external contracts of Spetstechnoexport that, according to the journalist of Novoe Vremya, issues licenses on arms export.

However, it is clear from the above-mentioned letter that Spetstechnoexport does not issue any licenses and has no connections with the offshore company. It means that these accusations are, again, groundless.

In addition, Zgurets pointed to eleven (!!!) mistakes in another part of the article. This could be found in Zgurets’ publication discussed above.

It is hard to raise criticisms at ones own colleagues and working environment. Everyone has the right to make mistakes. But there is one area that needs special attention; namely that of the sphere of defense and security.

Until recently, I have covered the Russian-Ukrainian war in my own publications and have seen with my own eyes how conditions in the army have improved compared to the catastrophic situation in 2014. I am also aware of serious problems that continue to exist. Moreover, considering the long-standing problems of corruption in the Ministry of Defense, it is safe to assume that corruption is still present there which should be uncovered. At the same time, if you decide to write about corruption in the defense sector, you should do it with extra care so that your claims are based on concrete facts and not groundless accusations.

Otherwise, it may seem as though the journalist is lobbying someone’s interests in the arms trade or, worse still, playing into the hands of Ukraine’s enemies.

Could Zgurets and Tymchuk, be wrong or even lie in refuting the claims made by Novoye Vremya? Hypothetically, yes. But, investigative journalists should collect and present fact-based information and make arguments backing up their claims that cannot be refuted.

The Pashynskyy threat of introducing criminal responsibility is a bad solution to the problem of low quality and sensationalist journalism because Ukrainian legislation offers all the necessary instruments to punish those who disseminate false information. In fact, both Pashynskyy and the Polish company used these instruments and went to court. If the court finds Novoye Vremya guilty, it will incur a penalty and its reputation will be damaged.

Corruption continues to flourish in Ukraine and it needs to be combated. But, it is time that Ukrainian journalists stopped assuming that everything is bad in Ukraine and nothing has changed for the better since 2014. We should focus our energies on the Europeanisation of Ukraine, as there is still lot to do, rather than on sensationalist journalism.

Yuriy Lukanov is the former head of the Independent Trade Union of Journalists of Ukraine and freelance journalist, a frequent blogger and contributor to Ukrainian media.

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