Investigative journalism is essential for Ukraine reconstruction and anti-corruption

Service members of the 92nd Separate Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces take part in artillery drills at a shooting range in an unknown location in eastern Ukraine, in this handout picture released December 17, 2021. Picture released December 17, 2021. Press Service of the 92nd Separate Mechanized Brigade/Handout via REUTERS  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.

Estimates of the cost of rebuilding Ukraine range from $100 to 750 billion. As seen in post-cold war Europe, and more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq, anti-corruption programs are often not prioritized nor adequately funded during reconstruction. This dynamic has contributed to sprawling corruption and, in turn, wasted money, disenfranchised citizens, and fertile ground for continued conflict. Rebuilding Ukraine is not just an opportunity to help the country recover from a devastating war but also opens a door for innovation in building anti-corruption mechanisms from the ground up.

Investigative journalism has a critical role to play. Any consideration of the anti-corruption aspects of Ukraine’s reconstruction should include a central focus on funding an expansion of independent investigative journalism capacities. Supported by just a small fraction of reconstruction funding, journalists can mitigate corruption by reporting on financing, procurement, project execution, and other subjects.

The lessons of fighting corruption in recent reconstruction efforts lead to that conclusion. Corruption risks run high when investments are large and distributed quickly. No nation is immune. For example, as one of the authors pointed out at the time, the Trump administration inadequately prioritized anti-corruption efforts under its multi-trillion-dollar COVID-19 relief act (which included elements analogous to reconstruction). That failure contributed to the loss of tens of billions of dollars.

Ukraine’s previous struggles with corruption are likely to add to the challenge in its reconstruction, but the country’s vibrant ecosystem of journalists can be a key part of the antidote. Past struggles with corruption should not be used as a basis for denying reconstruction aid, especially when solutions to the problem are at hand. The investigative reporting sector, working together with anti-corruption NGOs, offers a foundation for independent oversight that can be built upon during this crucial period of reconstruction. Other independent stakeholders can join them at the anti-corruption table. For example, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, both volunteers and veterans, have recently mobilized to protect their country, representing a powerful new social force. These are assets that now must be marshaled and built up.

Eisen and Blumenthal’s work through the Leveraging Transparency to Reduce Corruption program shows that strong commitments to exposing wrongdoing can mitigate petty and grand corruption. This is done through multiple avenues, which must include investigative reporting. Indeed, when considering hidden politically oriented corruption, investigative journalism is among the most important tools in the anti-corruption tool kit. Those who care about Ukraine want to see every reconstruction dollar used as effectively as possible and do not want to see corruption risks used as an excuse not to invest in the nation’s future. Accordingly, prosecutors, courts, policymakers, and regulators must also work to dismantle the structures that enable corruption by improving laws, increasing transparency, and investing in enforcement. But it is investigative journalists who often start the process with the information they reveal.

In our view, the reconstruction of Ukraine must prioritize anti-corruption, which means also prioritizing investigative reporting. Others stressing the centrality of an anti-corruption plan include the German Marshall Fund, the RISE Ukraine coalition, and Anti-Corruption Action Centre (AntAc). Some of the proposed principles and best practices emerging from these efforts and decades of scholarship in the field include:

  • Both international and Ukrainian stakeholders should adopt a high bar for transparency in all aspects of the reconstruction funding process from the very beginning, including publishing early stages of decisionmaking around recovery and reconstruction priorities as well as the governing structure for recovery and reconstruction. Stakeholders should also disclose funding and procurement data and require beneficial ownership disclosure by all contracted entities, including offshore companies.
  • Aid provided should support and ensure Ukraine’s implementation of nationwide transparency practices. In the near term, the government should return the obligation for the state officials to fill out electronic asset declarations and fully restore public databases (asset declarations, property registries, procurement, etc.) that have curtailed during the war.
  • In addition to adhering to “open contracting” and beneficial ownership transparency practices, donor countries, international financial institutions, and other procuring entities should adopt explicit standards for how they will collect, verify, and screen ownership information. It is essential that they define and respond to conflicts of interest and politically exposed persons—essential policies given past patterns of corruption in Ukraine and relevant neighboring countries.
  • Reconstruction must also invest in independent media and anti-corruption civil society organizations on a scale commensurate with the challenge at hand. Solid and professional external accountability mechanisms are critical to the credibility of the process; there is no replacement for these independent groups.

A Plan to Activate the Power of Investigative Journalism

Some stakeholders in Ukraine’s reconstruction are concerned that corruption scandals could threaten the political will needed to sustain international support for the country’s future. These concerns should not be used to justify a short-sighted strategy that shies away from investigations that may reveal wrongdoing. A highly professional cadre of reporters and activists working at a top international standard would be a protective measure rather than a destructive one: Their efforts contribute to an anti-corruption ecosystem that is vital to advancing good governance throughout Ukraine’s reconstruction period and beyond.

Donors should allocate a percentage of the total reconstruction budget toward investigative journalism. Our assessment of the relevant reconstruction precedents suggests the cost of corruption ranges as high as 30% of total investment. Why not dedicate a tenth of that number, or 3% of total reconstruction funds to anti-corruption efforts to implement the expansion of independent investigative journalism in the country? As experts in anti-corruption and investigative journalism respectively, we do not find it unreasonable for Ukraine to build a fivefold increase or more in its capacity over a period of years: growing from its current 40 to 50 journalists to a total of 200 to 300 and providing the support they need to succeed.

While this is an ambitious goal, we base it on our experience as scholars and practitioners, which includes a long study of what has worked to mitigate corruption and conversations with the existing investigative journalism sector in Ukraine and elsewhere. We see the opportunity for individuals to join the field and for existing investigative journalist practitioners to welcome them, as well as the capacity in Ukraine and internationally, including the United States, to support the expansion and efforts on the ground.

Implementing this admittedly bold plan requires resources to ramp up investigative and independent media capacity and productivity, including to:

  • Hire and train 200 to 250 investigative reporters and 20 to 30 investigative editors at major news organizations, independent outlets, and other nonprofit organizations in Ukraine (and across borders, as detailed in the next section). This training will include best practices in identifying significant anti-corruption threats.
  • Support independent media outlets to strengthen their organizational capacity and financial reserves so they can survive legal, commercial, and political threats.
  • Build out laws, standards, and practices to introduce an advertising-based model for independent media free of political and oligarchic influences.
  • Expand capacity in regional and smaller markets within Ukraine to bring strong independent reporting to places with more limited accountability.
  • Train non-investigative reporters to examine the thousands of rebuilding projects that will move forward.
  • Provide reporters with updated equipment such as new routers, laptops, cameras, software, etc. to improve security and efficiency.
  • Hire data experts and add local and regional databases to Aleph, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP)’s global data archive for investigative reporting.[i]
  • Expand research capacity and access to databases for Ukrainian journalists.
  • Build technological tools for identifying corruption patterns and red flags including in procurement data and rebuilding projects.
  • Translate and present materials by radio, audio, video, and other means to maximize their reach and impact, and train reporters in these skills.
  • Deliver specialized training in forensic accounting and cryptocurrencies—essential to covering the most likely corruption threats—as well as on ‘follow-the-money’ and OSINT strategies.
  • Work with national and regional universities to train thousands of citizen journalists who could monitor reconstruction in their local communities and work in collaboration with investigative reporters and civil society groups.
  • Build investigative newsrooms in war-affected areas, staffed with experienced reporters and build up local capacity.
    • These final two efforts, in particular, could involve volunteers and veterans who have mobilized in the face of war.

Working only in Ukraine will not address the transnational nature of corruption. Work must also be done regionally, bringing in independent media from multiple countries to cover the cross-border elements. Accordingly, we must tackle the transnational realities of corruption:

  • Hire and train journalists and editors in key neighboring countries, including Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Serbia, Russia, and Belarus, and provide them with the resources (training, security, data support, etc.) as listed above.
  • Support dedicated reporting on the broader international elements of reconstruction, including a) the activities of foreign companies seeking, receiving, and implementing contracts and b) follow-the-money alliances between Ukrainian journalists and journalists covering the offshore infrastructure where illicit finance thrives.
  • Continue to ramp up work to expose Russian assets, which have been identified as a potential source of reconstruction finances, building on OCCRP’s Russian Asset Tracker.

Investigative journalists and civil society organizations must also leverage one another to amplify impact. To link investigative journalism to civil society advocacy to realize its full potential, we should:

  • Ramp up the activities of the Global Anti-Corruption Consortium around Ukraine’s reconstruction and its transnational elements. It is a partnership between OCCRP, where two of the authors work, and Transparency International that brings together the one-two punch of investigations and advocacy. This proven model, prioritized by the United States in its Countering Corruption Strategy and Summit for Democracy commitments and supported by the U.K., Denmark, and others as well, has led to dozens of legal actions, more than $400 million in seized assets, and fines, and extensive reforms around money laundering, golden visas, environmental protections, etc.
  • Bring several Ukrainian and international NGOs into the GACC, such as TI-Ukraine, the Anti-Corruption Action Center, and others, to receive special access to OCCRP and partner investigations and act on their findings, and build their dedicated legal and advocacy capacity to:
    • Develop investigative findings into submissions for authorities to take legal, sanction, or asset seizure actions.
    • Push for change in the rules and practices that enable corruption by Ukrainian and international governments, donor agencies, companies, and other entities.

Strengthening investigative journalism and its ability to work with civil society is only one part of the functioning anti-corruption plan for Ukraine’s reconstruction. Many other elements must be put in place for that plan to work. But even within the anti-corruption ecosystem, particularly during urgent and expensive endeavors such as reconstruction, investigative journalism is too often neglected and underfunded. In this case, it can be a critical piece of the solution and deserves close attention and, in our view, support.


[i] Disclosure: Two of the authors work for OCCRP, and several of its activities are mentioned in this piece.