#ReportIt: Five years of impunity – what the murder of Pavel Sheremet means for journalism in Ukraine
On 20 July, 2016 Pavel Sheremet, a journalist working for online investigative newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda and Radio Vesti, was assassinated in a car explosion.
Pavel Sheremet, 44, was a Belarusian journalist who was imprisoned by the government of Belarus in 1997 and had been working outside of Belarus for a long time. He previously worked in Russia as a TV host and journalist before moving to Kyiv around five years before he was killed.
Five years on, the perpetrators and masterminds behind Sheremet’s assassination remain unpunished, as the official investigation by the police has been without any result. In contrast, an investigation by Pavel Sheremet’s friends and colleagues at investigative TV programme Slidstvo.info and Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) has been much more revealing, though impunity remains.
We spoke with Anna Babinets of slidstvo.info, who is leading the investigation project.
ECPMF: Five years since the murder of Pavel Sheremet and five years of impunity now. What moment made you start your own investigation on the crime? What did you expect from that?
Anna Babinets: It directly started within the first two hours after the explosion of Pavel Sheremet’s car. Me and my journalist colleague Dmytro Gnap decided immediately to figure out what happened.
We are journalists, investigators and friends of Pavel. We couldn’t just wait and do nothing.
We started to talk to people, found out where the car was parked the night before, and we collected all the available material from the CCTV camera surveillance from restaurants, shops and hotels nearby, to find out if it was a car bomb, who placed it there, how and when. We did that for two months directly after the attack, but it wasn’t that easy to get the video material, especially from organisations and banks. Other journalists joined our team and helped us collect and analyse the videos. We finally had some findings, but we couldn’t publish anything in the first two months in order to not disturb the police’s investigation. But within only three or four days when we started our investigation, we already found material showing the person who placed the bomb under Sheremet’s car.
We didn’t expect to publish a documentary or anything, we just wanted to check how the police worked on that case and follow our journalistic instincts, to be there and check what happened, to have our own results and to share it with people.
Three suspects arrested – but growing scepticism
ECPMF: What’s the current status of your investigation? And what’s the official status of the police? Which key questions remain unanswered?
Babinets: We still don’t have the answer who killed and who ordered the murder of Pavel Sheremet. Our investigation is still to inspect, to review and to check the police’s investigation, if they do their job right or wrong. We still don’t want to publish small findings and scandalise it.
Our responsibility is to find out where police are making mistakes or are lying or publishing disinformation, and then publish our own results from our investigation.
But in the end, it doesn’t matter if it’s the police or us or other journalists who find the perpetrators and masterminds behind the murder and bring them to jail.
The official investigation by the police is already finished, they presented three suspects who allegedly placed the bomb. But from my perspective as a journalist and of many other people, there is not enough proof that these are the right people who committed the crime. We read a lot of documents that were not included in the criminal case, and there is not enough strong proof against these suspects. A lot of facts published by the police aren’t true, we checked that. People in the Ukraine don’t trust in the police arresting the right people for that murder. The case is still at court, and we still don’t have a decision. But the police have to investigate two cases: who did it and who ordered the murder.
In the case of ordering there is absolutely nothing.
In our investigation, we can say that we found the killers.
Increased trust in journalists’ work
ECPMF: What does it mean for the public sphere, when the investigation of journalists has more to reveal than the police?
Babinets: The main finding in our story was that we found the person who was next to Pavel’s house for hours the night before. This person is a former official security service agent of the Ukraine. We don’t say that this person was necessarily involved but it was really suspicious. The police never interrogated him before our documentary. We published our story nine months after the murder. The police admitted that they failed in the investigations, that happens not that often for the police to be honest. Normally, they insist on being right, and especially, that journalists are wrong.
But we found cars and people and talked to them, whereas the police didn’t. Maybe they didn’t want to interrogate them or didn’t want to include these people in the case, as the person was connected to the security service. So, the police offered us to cooperate with them after they admitted that they had failed. We declined because we didn’t want to sign a non-disclosure agreement, because we are journalists. We want to share our findings with the people and don’t want to sign any official documents that would have forbidden that. But we shared some non-sensitive information with the police.
After we published the story, Ukrainian journalists and activists started to question the police and people didn’t know how they could trust the police any longer, because they were doing their job so poorly.
We knew that nine months were a very long period for a criminal case to not be solved by then. It would have been very important to interrogate the person of the security service immediately after the murder, not only nine months later when our investigation revealed it.
Many people concluded that they couldn’t trust the police on this issue and that they trust journalists more in this case and it’s still like this.
In general, people don’t trust the police, but in the case of killing Pavel they absolutely mistrust the police, and that’s because of our story, because we showed that it’s possible to work more carefully to find important details. But the Ukrainian police didn’t provide enough evidence against the suspects, it looked like a political monument, when they had to solve the crime, because at that time a new president was in charge. Within a few months they solved the crime.
At first effective influence, followed by resignation
ECPMF: How does this imbalance affect your journalistic work? How has this experience influenced your views of the press’ watchdog role?
Babinets: During this investigation it looked like journalists were very powerful. But this is not normal. It was maybe the only case in the last 13 years with an impact like that and we had the feeling that our work really has an influence. But that’s not normal in Ukraine. Usually, the police or prosecutors or others say that journalists don’t understand what’s going on. This time it was different.
ECPMF: Five years of impunity now – do you think the police and prosecution services have done everything possible to solve the murder?
Babinets: No, because there is no result. When we interviewed the people, one of our main questions was: Have the police ever interrogated you? In many cases they didn’t. We are journalists, so we don’t have all these rights that the police have. We can find people that may talk to us, may lie to us. We even find people that are not related to the case. But if the police may have reacted more quickly maybe they could have found the right people to advance the investigation. And we see that they could have done much more.
ECPMF: Do you think the case will be solved soon?
Babinets: This is a big question, because we see that there is a very big mystery coming along with that murder, it might be a political murder, it might be the security service from his mother country Belarus, or Russia or Ukraine, most likely they were involved in this. Because Pavel was a very famous and an important person in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. I think there is something in Pavel’s past that may be why the other countries are involved in this. I see that there is a very big political influence and it will be solved when the political situation has changed for the better. Then the crime may be solved.
For example Georgiy Gongadze’s murder was solved after 17 years. The authorities back then were involved, and the murderers are in jail now. It depends as well on the political situation if the crime will be solved.
Is Ukraine safe for journalists?
ECPMF: Do you feel safe while doing your work in recent years?
Babinets: Sometimes no, but mostly yes. When we are talking about Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, countries from our region, Ukraine is in a very good position. There is democracy, journalism and freedom of speech. We are here in a much better situation.
But of course, a lot of things aren’t comfortable, when we publish about politicians, about crimes, of course we know that it could end bad.
We sometimes feel in danger, I care about my journalists as editor-in-chief in my agency. Mostly I care about the young people who do investigation, so my work now is mostly to predict what will happen next after publishing, always thinking about dangers and about the risk of our stories. So yes, there are many dangerous things around journalism in Ukraine, not only for investigators. There are still attacks, but we know that this is a part of our work and not only the case in Ukraine, if you consider Daphne Caruana Galizia from Malta or Ján Kuciak in Slovakia.
We investigators are always a target for people who are not happy with our work. We don’t feel completely safe. But we can work and publish really important stuff.
Aspirations for more impact
ECPMF: Do you have the feeling that your investigation has an impact on what the society is aware of e. g. freedom of press?
Babinets: Yes, I feel an impact compared to twenty years ago when I started working as a journalist. Back then journalism was absolutely ignored by authorities, it was pro-Russian, the Ukrainian government and the parliament absolutely ignored journalists and their work. Now, I feel that what we do has an impact. But again, we always want more impact, especially young journalists who don’t know the former times when journalism was an absolute underground activity. We want more, sometimes we see that the criminal systems that have been built up for years are very strong compared to our small attempts to destroy it, which is not enough. Now, our work is to bring very important things to civil society and organisations.
What we find and collect is used by activists and this can change something in a constructive way.
Firing people after we revealed a story doesn’t solve the problem. We have to work long and hard and without activists a change would not be possible. So, we have an impact, but it’s not our sole impact but needs to be multiplied by others.
The need for international pressure
ECPMF: Is there anything you would like to add?
Babinets: I think that it’s very important when we are talking about the murder of Pavel Sheremet that the international organisations and structures have to remind the Ukrainain authorities that it’s important to solve that case. Because on the national level there is not enough pressure for solving the case, even if the arrested suspects are the right people.
Still the big question remains: who were the masterminds behind the murder?
It’s very important that international communities remind the authorities that it’s not only Ukrainian journalists who are waiting for answers in this case.
About our interview partner
Anna Babinets works as editor-in-chief of SLIDSTVO.INFO, an investigative agency based Kyiv, Ukraine. She also works as regional editor for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
Anna Babinets is specialised on discovering high scale corruption, money laundering schemes and crimes. She is part of the Panama Papers team – several stories about the Ukrainian president’s Petro Poroshenko offshore companies were written by her. She is one of authors of the documentary “Killing Pavel”. The documentary was awarded with the DIG Award (Italy) and the IRE Medal (USA) in 2018.
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