Kiev, February 19, 2019–The Committee to Protect Journalists today condemned a ruling by the Pechersk District Court of Kiev granting investigators from Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office access to internal documents of independent newsmagazine Novoye Vremya and email conversations of its reporter Ivan Verstiuk in an attempt to discover a source.
Prosecutors are seeking access to internal documents of Novoye Vremya, one of Ukraine’s top critical news outlets, and Verstiuk’s conversations in an attempt to find the source of a 2016 investigative story that revealed the allegedly corrupt dealings of a high-profile Kiev prosecutor, Novoye Vremya‘s editor-in-chief, Vitaliy Sych, told CPJ.
“Prosecutors in Ukraine should be investigating the alleged corruption revealed by Novoye Vremya‘s reporting, not pressuring the outlet and its reporter Ivan Verstiuk to reveal their sources,” said CPJ Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna in New York. “The protection of sources is a fundamental tenet of newsgathering, and we call on prosecutors to drop this case immediately.”
If Novoye Vremya does not turn over the material demanded from prosecutors, its editorial offices stand to be searched by armed investigators, the news magazine reported, citing a copy of the official decision from the Pechersk District Court of Kiev. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesperson for Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, also confirmed the ruling in a post on Facebook. According to Lysenko, the Prosecutor General’s Office submitted its request to obtain the magazine’s documents on February 1 and the Pechersk District Court of Kiev ruled in its favor on February 4. He said that Novoye Vremya had been notified of this information on February 13.
Verstiuk’s investigative story in question, titled “Brilliant Daughter,” published in August 2016, explored how a former Kiev regional deputy general prosecutor paid 120,000 British pounds (about $154,000) a year for his daughter to study at a school in the United Kingdom despite his official salary of only $7,600 a year. The former Kiev regional deputy general prosecutor was fired in July 2015 but prosecutors are still investigating his case, according to the Kyiv Post. Sych said that prosecutors claim Verstiuk’s source came from the Prosecutor General’s Office and violated the confidentiality of the investigation.
Sych told CPJ the magazine will “try to appeal in court even though the procedure of appeals is vague for such cases,” adding, “If we fail, we will have to disclose the sources or our reporter will face criminal charges.”
“I view this as an attempt to pressure us and help locate those who leaked the info to us, and in such a way cover up corruption in the [General] Prosecutor’s Office,” Sych told CPJ. “Basically, the prosecutor’s office is not disputing the fact one of its key officials spent 40 times more than he officially earned on education of his daughter alone. It is upset we reported it and somebody within the prosecutor’s office helped us with the docs.”
In a separate case in 2018, Novoye Vremya reported that the Pechersk District Court of Kiev ruled that prosecutors could obtain data covering a period of 18 months from the phone of Novoye Vremya reporter Kristina Berdynskykh. Novoye Vremya and Berdynskykh are appealing the decision, Berdynskykh told CPJ. The European Court of Human Rights has condemned the court’s decision granting access to the phone records of reporter Natalie Sedletska of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Ukrainian service, who is named in the same case, as CPJ documented last September. Those cases and the court rulings stem from a criminal probe into the alleged disclosure of state secrets to Berdynskykh and Sedletska in 2017 by Artem Sytnyk, director of the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine, CPJ and Novoye Vremya reported.