On January 16, a little-known news outlet called The People's Truth posted recordings of private phone calls between several Ukrainians discussing the purchase of drugs such as marijuana, MDMA, and methamphetamine along with surveillance video that showed them using the narcotics at a vacation lodge.
The people depicted all worked as camera operators for Bihus.Info, a Kyiv-based independent investigative news outlet that has produced some of the hardest-hitting reporting on corruption among the Ukrainian elite over the past decade.
Uploaded to The People's Truth YouTube page with the misleading title The Other Side of Bihus.Info: They Snorted Meth, Swallowed MDMA, Smoked Dope And Then Drove To Investigate, the video was clearly meant to discredit the news outlet, Ukrainian journalists and media watchdogs said.
Two days earlier, unidentified men tried to force their way into the home of Yuriy Nikolov, chief editor of Nashi Hroshi, or Our Money, an online news site known for its deep dives into government spending. They demanded Nikolov enlist in the military to fight against the Russian invasion.
The incidents are the latest in a series of pressure campaigns targeting Ukrainian journalists, raising concerns about a systemic problem. The onslaughts originate mainly in anonymous accounts on social media sites such as Telegram, making it difficult for victims to identify the perpetrator. Media outlets and watchdog groups suspect government involvement, including from Presidential Volodymyr Zelenskiy's administration.
Daria Zarivna, senior adviser to Zelenskiy's chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, rejected any notion of a connection to the anonymous Telegram channels.
The two incidents come at a critical moment for Zelenskiy, who is trying to convince the United States and Europe to keep military and financial aid flowing as Ukraine seeks to hold back the invading Russian forces and drive them out of the country. Zelenskiy has repeatedly argued in Washington, Brussels, and other Western capitals that his nation is on the front line in the global battle between democracy and authoritarianism.
A spending package that includes some $61 billion in mostly military aid for Ukraine has been stymied in the U.S. Congress for three months. While domestic issues in Ukraine are not the main stumbling block, some Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives have highlighted what they say are concerns about corruption and the state of Ukrainian democracy.
"We as a state are defending democracy, defending values. We are like a democratic David fighting against the evil Russian totalitarian Goliath. And yet we have such things happening here that contradict the values we uphold," Oksana Romanyuk, director of the Kyiv-based Institute for Mass Information, told RFE/RL.
Denys Bihus, the founder of Bihus.Info, said a review of the videos and phone calls posted by The People's Truth indicates that his employees had been under surveillance by as many as 30 individuals for several months, if not longer.
He said someone installed the surveillance camera in the room a day before his employees arrived at the vacation lodge for a company party. He said he suspects Ukraine's intelligence services were behind the surveillance. Law enforcement authorities have opened an investigation into the incident.
Nikolov also accused the state of being behind the intimidating visit to his apartment, calling it "the government's response to [my] criticism of the president."
Nikolov broke one of the biggest stories of 2023 in Ukraine when he reported that the Defense Ministry had been buying eggs for troops at inflated prices. The corruption scandal raised fresh questions about how Western aid was being spent and prompted Zelenskiy to fire several top officials.
Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, a deputy from the opposition party Holos and chairman of the free speech committee in Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, told RFE/RL that the wiretapping and surveillance of Bihus employees were "definitely illegal actions" and called for an investigation.
Mediarukh, or Mediamovement, an organization comprising journalists and media experts, called the events a "clear violation of the right of journalists to privacy" and said they undermine Ukraine's democratic credentials.
During his nightly commentary on January 17, Zelenskiy said that pressure on journalists was "unacceptable."
Hours earlier, Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) said it opened an investigation into the actions that targeted Bihus.Info. But some journalists and media analysts and advocates are demanding more action.
Romanyuk called on Zelenskiy to personally oversee the investigation into the incidents. For decades, government critics have said Ukraine's justice system doesn't work when it comes to investigating and prosecuting alleged crimes by powerful people.
In its October 17 statement, Mediarukh noted that other outlets, including Ukrayinska Pravda, NV, Tsenzor, Vavilon, and Liga.net had also recently faced pressure.
Some of those cases involved personal attacks on journalists via anonymous Telegram channels that Ukrainian media experts charged are linked to the presidential administration.
The People's Truth, which published the compromising information about Bihus.Info, appears to be a fake outlet, according to experts, and the biographies of its editorial staff appear to be made up. Until a few months ago, it hadn't published anything on its YouTube page in five years.
Romanyuk told RFE/RL the media attacks appear to be systemic. She said the situation smacked of the days of Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, when many reporters were pressured during the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests that led to his ouster.
Mykyta Poturayev, chairman of the parliamentary committee for humanitarian and information policy and a member of Zelenskiy's Servant of the People party, agreed with that assessment.
"This has not happened in the country for a long time. This has not happened since the time of Yanukovych," he told RFE/RL.
Free Media Concerns
Long before the current spate of pressure campaigns against journalists, there had been concern about the state of media freedom under Zelenskiy, a comic actor who co-owned a successful television production company.
Since he announced his presidential bid on national TV on December 31, 2018, Zelenskiy has often kept his distance from prominent Ukrainian media outlets, preferring to get his message to the public via social media.
He rarely holds press conferences with local reporters. He comes off as combative when asked tough questions at such events. Days after journalist Yuriy Butusov got into a heated argument with Zelenskiy at his 2021 press conference, law enforcement opened an investigation into one of Butusov's social media posts. Butusov called it retaliation, something the authorities denied.
Zelenskiy has also clashed with tycoons whose television stations were critical of his leadership. In 2021, as his ratings declined, Zelenskiy shut down three television stations believed to be owned by Viktor Medvedchuk, a friend and associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin's who was later detained on suspicion of treason and sent to Russia in a prisoner exchange. The stations, which bashed Zelenskiy, were accused of being Russian mouthpieces.
Months later, Zelenskiy pushed through parliament a controversial bill that could force the handful of billionaires who largely controlled the nation's media to sell those assets if they wanted to participate in political life. While the tycoons' dominance of the nation's media has been widely bemoaned, many experts voiced concern that the law could be selectively applied.
Following Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022, the presidential administration used martial law to gain influence over key media assets.
Four leading stations owned by tycoons began cooperating with two state-owned channels to produce round-the-clock content -- partially state-funded and created with government input -- that they all shared. While the unified programming helped citizens in the early days of Russia's invasion, some experts fear it is turning into a public relations tool for Zelenskiy, who could seek another term once the war ends and elections are resumed.
Bihus.Info reported last year that some of the government funding for the unified TV programming was being subcontracted to a company owned by Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a former member of Zelenskiy's presidential administration and production company.
Nonetheless, Ukraine rose to an improved position in the 2023 annual ranking of nations by press freedoms as determined by Reporters Without Borders, jumping from 106th place to 79th.
With national TV channels mainly engaged in sharing war-related programming, the field of investigative journalism in Ukraine has been largely left to shoe-string outlets like Bihus and Our Money, making their survival critical for the nation's progress on talking corruption and strengthening democracy.