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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Editorial: Why we choose to publish stories about misconduct in the Ukrainian military

by The Kyiv IndependentDecember 8, 2022 1:49 am
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Editorial: Why we choose to publish stories about misconduct in the Ukrainian militaryIllustration: Karolina Gulshani

Editor’s note: Editorials are articles that present the opinion of the editorial team of the Kyiv Independent. 

On Nov. 30, we ran a story that was, in a way, unique.

It was an investigative piece focusing on alleged misconduct in the International Legion, a special military unit created for foreigners who volunteer to fight for Ukraine. You can read it here.

It was the follow-up to an investigation into the Legion we ran in August. This time, there were new allegations: apart from endemic abuse, they included the misappropriation of weapons. 

Publishing the first story made us one of the only media outlets in Ukraine to run a critical story about the Ukrainian military during Russia’s full-scale invasion. But after publishing this follow-up story we became, to the best of our knowledge, the first Ukrainian media outlet to write about Western arms allegedly going missing in Ukraine.

Stories like this don’t appear in the Ukrainian press for a reason.

There is a popular view that Ukrainian media shouldn’t write about contentious topics like corruption or misconduct in the army during the war, as it can undermine the West’s trust in Ukraine, or Ukrainians’ trust in their army and government. Proponents of this approach advocate for self-censorship and postponement of all criticism until “after the war.”

We want to explain to our readers why we’re taking a different approach.

We believe that war is not a reason or an excuse to compromise on one’s principles and values. If anything, a time of great sacrifice and hardship is the time to prove the strength of one’s core beliefs.

Journalists serve the public interest. The public deserves to know the uncensored truth and people have the right to draw their own conclusions. 

It is our responsibility to provide information that is, to the best of our knowledge, truthful. It is also our responsibility to provide context, and to make sure that people know the nuances so that they can make informed judgments. 

The Kyiv Independent runs – true to its name – on the principle of editorial independence. This means that every decision about the content we publish is made inside the newsroom of the Kyiv Independent, based on our values and journalistic expertise, without any external influence. 

These decisions are made by the people whose names and faces are on the Team section of our website, and by no one else. Our readers know who is responsible for every word the Kyiv Independent publishes, and we firmly believe that this is how good journalism is done.

When we learned of the serious allegations against the commanders of the International Legion, we decided that pursuing an investigation to uncover the truth of these accusations would serve the public interest. 

We believe that shedding light on the alleged theft in the military doesn’t hurt Ukraine, stealing does. We also believe that exposing misconduct in the military or government helps Ukraine, not hurts it.

We also don’t think that Ukrainian journalists should sweep important stories under the rug to make sure Ukraine looks great in the eyes of the world. That’s not what good journalists do or should be doing. We work to be the honest voice of Ukraine, not to sugar-coat Ukraine’s reality.

We also believe that airing these allegations gives Ukraine the chance for positive change. If officials address the issues we raised in the story, reform the Legion and oust bad actors, it will become stronger and more effective. It can lead to better conditions for the people serving in the Legion, and even save their lives. 

While there was no public reaction from Ukrainian officials to the first story we ran, our reporting for the second one prompted at least one state agency to start an internal investigation into the allegations.

We also had a special duty to our readers. In the early days of the invasion, we ran a story about the launch of the Legion, adding instructions on how to apply to serve in it. This story was read by more than 120,000 people. We helped popularize the Legion and get people to join it. We had a responsibility to tell the public if things went awry.

Importantly, we knew that before talking to journalists, the soldiers who accused their commanders of abuse had first filed written complaints to the higher command and government offices. It is only after what they perceived as inaction on behalf of the authorities that they decided to make the accusations public.

We also want our audience to know that we approached this story very responsibly. Instead of just publishing the allegations that were brought to us, we spent months cross-checking the testimonies and verifying our findings. When we finally published the story, only the most solid allegations made the cut – the ones that were backed up by at least two independent sources and were supported by other indirect evidence.

We were careful to leave out the details that weren’t essential to the story and could potentially be used by Russian forces to gather intelligence about the Legion, such as the exact locations where weapons were allegedly going missing, or names of the commanders who aren’t public figures. 

At the end of the day, publishing this story was also a test of our editorial independence and devotion to the public interest. We believe that we passed it with dignity.

But there is another reason to publish stories like these.

In this war, Ukraine is fighting for its future. It is fighting for the right to live by the values of the free world – values antithetical to those ruling today’s Russia. 

Freedom of speech is one of these values. And when so many Ukrainians are dying to defend it, we would be ashamed of ourselves if we weren’t exercising this right. 

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