New York, March 11, 2020 — Ukrainian authorities should not conduct a criminal investigation into Slidstvo.Info, and should allow its journalists to work freely and without fear of reprisal, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Anna Babinets, the editor-in-chief of the Kyiv-based investigative reporting website, told CPJ via messaging app that Slidstvo.Info is under investigation by the Ministry of Interior, but has not been officially contacted by the ministry.
Babinets said that Slidstvo.Info sent public records requests in December 2019 to 14 current and former officials, state agencies, and politicians, for an investigation involving U.S.-Ukraine relations.
In January, Oleksandr Dubinsky, a member of parliament from the ruling Servant of the People party who received one of the requests, held a press conference accusing Slidstvo.Info of illegally surveilling U.S. Embassy officials in Ukraine in violation of Article 163 of Ukraine’s criminal code and said he was filing a criminal complaint against the outlet.
Dubinsky told Slidstvo.Info that he met with Interior Minister Arsen Avakov on March 2 about the outlet’s alleged “illegal activity,” Babinets told CPJ. The following day, the Ministry of Interior announced an investigation into the allegations mentioned in Dubinsky’s complaint, but did not identify Slidstvo.Info by name as a subject of investigation. Dubinsky wrote on his Facebook page on March 5 that his meeting with Avakov was about “fake media outlet called Slidstvo.Info” and accused them of “illegally collecting information.”
Article 163 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code covers violations of privacy and can result in imprisonment of up to seven years.
“Ukrainian authorities must allow Slidstvo.Info to report the news freely, and should not launch a criminal investigation into the outlet in retaliation for its coverage,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “Journalists at the outlet are doing an important service to the Ukrainian public and should be praised, not prosecuted.”
Babinets told CPJ that she and other journalists at the outlet fear that their phones have been tapped as part of the investigation, and believe their office could be raided at any minute. Slidstvo.Info, a member of the international Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, mainly covers political corruption in Ukraine.
Babinets said she believes that Avakov may be retaliating for the outlet’s reports on him, including a February 23 article published in Slidstvo.Info that questioned the Ministry of Interior’s handling of several high profile crimes, including the 2016 killing of journalist Pavel Sheremet.
According to Babinets, the public records requests asked for information about meetings and other forms of contact between U.S. and Ukrainian officials. She said they chose the recipients of the requests and the questions included in them based on media reports and other publicly available information.
CPJ emailed the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior for comment but did not receive any reply.