‘Why are they attacking us?’ Ukraine’s anti-corruption campaigners face slurs, surveillance and intimidation

Smear campaigns accuse civil society activists and investigative reporters of dodging military service

Most aspects of life in Ukraine have been changed by two years of full-scale war, including the intimidation tactics used against activists and journalists who say they now face growing pressure from influential people discomfited by their investigations.

Over the last decade, prominent anti-corruption campaigner Vitaliy Shabunin has been harassed, slandered, sprayed with green antiseptic and pelted with cake, and his house in Kyiv was burned down in a suspected arson attack.

Now he is under investigation for allegedly evading military service, a slur that he says has become the weapon of choice for those who want to silence civil society and undermine its key role in safeguarding democracy during wartime martial law.

“Why are they attacking us? Because we are fighting them so much in so many spheres. In procurement for reconstruction, in the ministry of defence, in the most sensitive areas for them,” says Shabunin, who is head of the board of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre, a leading Ukrainian non-governmental organisation.


The state bureau of investigation (DBR) recently opened cases against Shabunin for allegedly dodging an army call-up and forging a document. He says both claims are nonsense, because he joined Ukraine’s territorial defence force a day after Russia’s full invasion in 2022, and the document in question is produced electronically and cannot be faked.

The claims against Shabunin were initiated and amplified by Telegram social media channels that target journalists and campaigners who report on high-level corruption, while staunchly defending president Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his allies.

These channels, many of which are run anonymously, have also urged the DBR to investigate why the army has not drafted other civil society figures, including Oleksandr Salizhenko, chief editor of political transparency watchdog Chesno, who has an exemption from military service because he has been undergoing cancer treatment.

In January, two men came to the Kyiv apartment of Yuriy Nikolov, co-founder of the Nashi Groshi (Our Money) investigative media outlet that has exposed corruption in the defence ministry and other major government agencies.

Video posted shortly afterwards on Telegram showed them banging on the door, shouting abuse and pinning up notices calling Nikolov a traitor and demanding that he join the military. The visit came shortly after he compared Zelenskiy to a draft-dodger for failing to take responsibility for telling the public bad news about the war.

Amid public outcry, police detained two suspects, but Nikolov says they were quickly released from custody and the charges against them were soon downgraded from obstructing journalistic work to hooliganism, which could only lead to a fine.

“The police aren’t looking for whoever ordered this and paid for it. They should follow the money, but they aren’t doing that,” says Nikolov, who last month won Harvard University’s Louis M Lyons Award for conscience and integrity in journalism.

“I’m sure that people connected with the authorities ordered it, because we are depriving them of huge sums of money. We are making them poorer, and they want to go on eating well and dressing well,” he adds.

“The authorities are covering up for the organisers. And with that, they are sending a signal that you can go after journalists in Ukraine.”

Civil society is also waiting for results from an investigation into secret surveillance by members of Ukraine’s SBU domestic intelligence agency on journalists working for Bihus.info, a leading investigative news outlet that often exposes corruption among officials.

The journalists’ calls were wiretapped and covertly recorded footage was posted online, showing some of them allegedly taking drugs at a new year’s party held by Bihus.info at a hotel near Kyiv. Attached to the video was the message: “After this, can you trust these investigations … if they are made when [the reporters] are high?”

Chief editor Denys Bihus condemned the drug taking but then turned the tables on the SBU. His team conducted their own investigation that revealed how about 30 undercover SBU operatives had visited the hotel before the party and installed hidden cameras in the rooms that the journalists would use. SBU staff returned afterwards, booked the rooms previously rented by the reporters, and removed the equipment.

As with the attempt to intimidate Yuriy Nikolov, the Bihus.info case backfired on the authorities. Ukrainian and international rights groups and western officials denounced spying on the press, and the head of the SBU, Vasyl Maliuk, had to address the issue in parliament and in a meeting with ambassadors of G7 states in Kyiv.

Maliuk said the SBU was determined to “protect democratic values, one of the key pillars of which is freedom of speech” and vowed that press independence “must be 100 per cent ensured”.

Zelenskiy sacked the head of the SBU unit that allegedly carried out the surveillance on Bihus.info, and described pressure on journalists as “unacceptable”.

The pressure remains, however, forcing senior figures in politics, the security services and the military to answer questions from a Ukrainian society that detests abuse of power – seeing it as a defining characteristic of Russia’s regime – and western states that provide the nation with vital economic and military support.

Ukraine’s top military commander, Oleksandr Syrskyi, ordered an investigation last Sunday into whether a journalist with investigative news outlet Slidstvo.info was given a draft notice as punishment for a recent report on the finances of a senior SBU officer. The case emerged after CCTV footage apparently showed military officials being told to approach the journalist by a man who was later identified as an SBU employee.

Syrskyi expressed “respect and recognition” for the work of journalists and said they had “shown themselves to be loyal patriots” during the war.

“The armed forces of Ukraine condemn any violations by military officials. In response to material published by public organisation Slidstvo.info, I have instructed the commander of the ground forces … to conduct an official investigation. Appropriate decisions will be made based on [its] results.”

Civil society leaders trace the problem to Zelenskiy’s office, where they say the president fails to grasp the role or importance of non-governmental experts and public oversight, and some powerful officials still prefer to work in the shadows, shunning calls for more accountability and transparency.

“If you ask how many meetings the office of the president has had with NGOs, how many consultants from NGOs they have invited in – the answer is none,” says Vita Dumanska, the leader of the Chesno organisation.

“NGOs might meet [US president] Joe Biden when he visits Kyiv, or a European leader or a top EU official, but the office of the president seems to be closed to them.”

Olha Aivazovska, the head of political monitoring group Opora, has met at least four Ukrainian presidents during more than 20 years in civil society that began in her student days, when she was excluded from university for her pro-democracy activism.

“But I have never had a meeting with Zelenskiy. And no one else from civil society has had a meeting with him,” she says.

“They cannot understand us because we are not about business,” she says of Zelenskiy and his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, who met the former comedian when they were both in the media industry and joined his election campaign team in 2019.

“Both the president and Yermak do not trust civil society because they cannot manage us, they cannot influence our daily work and they don’t trust our motivation.”

Tension between the president’s office and civil society is growing at a time when the former wields immense power after two years of martial law, and the latter provides crucial checks and balances while elections are postponed for security reasons and the need for unity during wartime has muted the nation’s usually spiky political debate.

Shabunin does not see an autocratic streak in Zelenskiy, but fears that some people around him may enjoy exercising power without normal democratic oversight or accountability.

The concerns of civil society usually focus on the unelected Yermak and his dozens of deputies and advisers, the most influential of whom may be Oleh Tatarov, who has responsibility in Zelenskiy’s office for overseeing Ukraine’s law-enforcement agencies.

When allegedly spurious cases are opened against activists, as with Shabunin, or high-profile incidents are kicked into the weeds, as with Nikolov, critics often suspect the hand of Tatarov, a lawyer with decades of behind-the-scenes political experience.

“He is very professional. He understands the criminal courts, the structures, the institutions. His people are at the top of law enforcement and the prosecutor’s office and the secret service. He can solve problems and deliver results. But I can’t see the results he is delivering for the country,” says Shabunin.

Tatarov denies any wrongdoing, has never been convicted of any crime, and a bribery case against him was closed on procedural grounds in 2022. A current shake-up of the presidential administration looks unlikely to dislodge him, even though an associate and former presidential adviser, Artem Shilo, was arrested this month for allegedly embezzling some €2.3 million from Ukraine’s state railway company.

“For the president, for me, we have zero tolerance of corruption,” Yermak told Politico in a recent interview. “I don’t do anything illegal. We have a strong anti-corruption mechanism now. If anyone is guilty, they go to prison.”

Aivazovska hopes Zelenskiy will have a Damascene moment on Ukraine’s long path towards EU membership, and realise that he and civil society should work together to achieve the national goal of accession.

Shabunin believes the sort of travails that he and Nikolov have faced recently can ultimately benefit their country, by making the West demand better from its ally.

“Western partners should always stress to the government that they are helping Ukraine because it is a democracy – because democracy is fighting with autocracy,” he says of the war with Russia.

“They should make clear that officials here shouldn’t even think about touching the media and civil society. That way, in the end, these stupid attacks will help us protect democracy in Ukraine.”

  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily - Find the latest episode here