Chain of attacks on Ukrainian whistleblowers continues: RFE/RL car set on fire

The car belonging to the RFE/RL program was set on fire. Photo: RFE/RL 

Ukraine

Edited by: Michael Garrood

Leading Ukrainian investigative program Schemes: Corruption in Details is one of the Ukrainian service of the RFE/RL’s projects has suffered repeated attacks. The latest incident involved a car belonging to the program being set on fire. This happened just a week after its leading journalist Mykhailo Tkach informed the public that his apartment had been bugged.

The Schemes (Skhemy) program is broadcast on UA:Pershyi, a Ukrainian national television channel. The program has been screened in Ukraine since 2014 and is known for its coverage of high-profile corruption. During the presidency of Petro Poroshenko, it broadcast investigations uncovering corruption in his inner circle. It has also exposed corruption in large state enterprises, Ukrainian oligarch corruption schemes, questionable state appointments, and other cases of corruption.

The program and its journalists have made numerous enemies within the old and new political elite, including president  Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was not pleased with the journalists’ work. At his annual press conference at the end of May 2020, the president himself referred to the work of the Schemes’ journalist Mykhailo Tkach. In particular, Zelenskyy said that he considers the methods of collecting information used by Tkach who accompanied the cortege of the president as “impudent”.  

Among the program’s enemies are Andriy Portnov, ex-deputy head of the fugitive president Viktor Yanukovych’s Presidential Administration. Portnov left the country after the Euromaidan revolution and came back the day before Zelenskyy became president. 

In November 2019 Portnov became embroiled in a conflict with Schemes. The program was preparing an investigation into his connections with state officials in the then-new Ukrainian government. In revenge, Portnov in his Telegram channel published personal data belonging to the program’s driver. Portnov has also been threatening to reveal personal details and information about Schemes journalists. Furthermore, Portnov complained about the program to the president’s office. However, its council on the freedom of speech condemned the pressure placed on journalists. 

About nine months later, the program’s car was set on fire. 

“The bad news continues. The car which we for four years have been using to shoot the materials you all have seen was burned. The last material we worked on with an important member of the film crew, driver Borys Mazur on a Kia Cerato, was ‘Kings of the Roads’. It has already been watched by almost 700,000 viewers on YouTube. During the filming and in the material itself, I repeatedly emphasized that we and our car were being monitored by security guards working for the president of the Department of State Protection. On that night the car was near the house where the driver lives,” Tkach wrote on his Facebook page. 

The car is a write-off. 

Natalya Sedletska, the program’s editor-in-chief, stated that the arson was linked to the journalists’ activities. 

“About a year ago Andriy Portnov published all the personal data of our drivers – their passports, car numbers, residential addresses and threatened the editorial office. The national police even have a criminal case on this matter, which however is not moving. And last Friday, Portnov once again published the following: ‘Marginal Radio Svoboda [Ukrainian service of the RFE/RL]  I’ll continue the complex of measures to educate them’.” 

However, Sedletska adds that it might not be the only version. 

“This car is very well known to a wide range of people involved in our materials. This car was, in fact, our working tool with which we filmed a large number of journalistic investigations.” 

President Zelenskyy reacted to the incident saying that freedom of speech “is a foundation for a democratic country” and that journalists’ activities “can never be a reason for persecution”. 

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“As the president of Ukraine, I will always defend the rights of every citizen, regardless of their personal attitude towards me.”

On 18 August, the Ukrainian service of the RFE/RL referring to a report made by an expert of the State Emergency Service informed the public that short circuit or negligence with fire could not be the reason for the fire, but placing “an external ignition source”. 

The incident continued a chain of probable attempts at persecution and pressure being placed on Schemes employees. 

On the night of 8 August, Tkach said he had discovered signs of his apartment being bugged. In particular, he found a deep thin hole in the kitchen ceiling leading to a shared attic, which is accessible from various entrances of the house. 

Prior to this, the journalist had received signals from his sources about allegedly being followed. 

The police came to the house, but their actions were rather strange. As a result, on 11 August Tkach filed a complaint about the inactivity of Ukrainian national police investigators who did not conduct an inspection of the scene with special equipment for detecting listening devices and traces of their installation or removal, and who during the inspection of the premises used only “improvised means”. 

Referring to specialists and well-known forensic lawyers, RFE/RL reports that the hole in the ceiling of the journalist’s apartment and the holes in the attic discovered by the police later, probably suggest an attempt to install a hidden surveillance device. The only questions the experts cannot agree on so far is whether the recording device had already been removed or not yet installed, whether it was video surveillance or audio listening, and who is behind it.

Police opened two criminal proceedings over the situation with Mykhailo Tkach on privacy violations and illegal circulation and use of concealed recording devices, and another over the arson attack on Borys Mazur’s car on deliberate destruction or damage to property. 

The acting president of the RFE/RL Daisy Sindelar has called on the Ukrainian authorities to investigate both incidents as soon as possible.

Also on 17 August, the Committee to Protect Journalists released its statement on the attacks. 

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On the same day, Security Service officers in Lviv Oblast detained an ex-policeman involved in torching a car used by RFE/RL’s Lviv correspondent Halyna Tereshchuk.  The incident occurred in January 2020. 

Uncovering corruption remains a dangerous business in Ukraine. Earlier this summer, leading anti-corruption activist and head of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre Vitaliy Shabunin informed the public that his house had been set alight. He and his wife and children were not at home. His parents were there, but managed to escape. A neighbor heard an explosion.

 

Edited by: Michael Garrood

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