Illustration: Smaranda Tolosano for GIJN
The lives of all Ukrainians — including journalists — can be divided into “before” and “after” February 24, 2022. Prior to the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the journalist Valeriya Yegoshyna focused on investigating high-level corruption for Schemes, an investigative news project that is part of Radio Liberty’s Ukraine service.
But when the war came to Kyiv, she pivoted, and now focuses on investigating allegations of war crimes committed by Russian forces on Ukrainian territory. One of her investigations, How Volunteers Buried Civilians en Masse in Izium, which she worked on with colleagues at Schemes, is a finalist for the 2023 Global Shining Light Award, a prize for investigative journalism carried out under threat, or in perilous conditions.
With her co-author, project editor Kira Tolstyakova, Yegoshyna traveled to the eastern city of Izium soon after the occupying Russians were pushed out by a Ukrainian counteroffensive. While collecting testimonies from local people, they came across the so-called “diggers” — volunteers who searched for the bodies of the deceased and buried them in mass graves. During interviews, they learned that the volunteers had photographed those they had taken from the rubble or unearthed from the yards of private houses.
The next step was to try and find out who was responsible for these civilian deaths. They analyzed all the documents they could find on the Russian forces in Izium and compiled a list of units that were stationed in or passed through the area. Additionally, they analyzed phone conversations between Russian troops — intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence services — that discussed the atrocities committed.
For our latest 10 Questions column, Yegoshyna discusses her career trajectory and how her investigative focus has changed since the Russian invasion, the challenges of working in a war zone, and her feelings about the current status of investigative journalism.
GIJN: Of all the investigations you’ve worked on, which has been your favorite and why?
Valeriya Yegoshyna: Actually, almost all of my investigations are favorites for me. I think it’s primarily because my editorial team always allows me to focus exclusively on what interests me.
I don’t know if it’s my personal or professional luck, but in 90% of my investigations, there is an impact. Investigations should not only inform but also lead to change. Before the full-scale invasion, I had one favorite topic — I conducted a series of my own investigations into corruption and abuses within the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). I have a special connection to them because, as a child, I dreamed of becoming an investigative agent.
In the end, a twist of fate meant that I started investigating the SBU myself. I wrote pieces about the mismatch between the standard of living and the income of a high-ranking SBU official, as well as the activities of the head of internal security at the SBU. The situation changed after the full-scale invasion, and now I take the greatest pride in my investigations of war crimes.
GIJN: What are the biggest challenges in terms of investigative reporting in your country?
VY: In a state of war, access to information that was previously publicly available has been shut down. This necessity is understandable for the state, but as investigative journalists, it becomes more challenging for us to expose potential abuses of power, corruption etc.
However, the good news is that we are actively seeking alternative sources of information to uncover the truth. Based on my personal observations, resuming anti-corruption investigations after the full-scale invasion was the right decision. Ukrainian society has become even less tolerant of corruption, and as a result, the authorities are more responsive to investigators’ findings.
I was involved in two major anti-corruption investigations recently. The first focused on road reconstruction, while the second one was about corruption in the procurement of food for the Ministry of Defense.
Another problem that affects not only investigative journalists but all citizens are Russian drone and missile attacks. Our colleague from Radio Liberty’s Ukraine service, producer Vira Hyrych, was killed in her own flat, when it was directly hit by a Russian missile. Our team, along with other colleagues, investigated this incident and sought details about the shelling. We broadcast the film “Vira” on the anniversary of her death.
According to the Institute of Mass Information, 66 journalists have been killed since the start of the full-scale war. Among them, 10 were killed while performing their professional duties, while 56 died as participants in combat or as a result of Russian shelling or torture.
GIJN: What’s been the greatest hurdle or challenge that you’ve faced in your time as an investigative journalist?
VY: In the nine years that Schemes has been operating, we have encountered numerous challenges, including wiretapping, surveillance, court battles, online attacks, and discrimination, including gender-based discrimination.
Before the war, I was solely focused on investigating high-level corruption and had no experience researching war crimes. Now, the biggest challenge for me, as I now understand it, is simply keeping myself mentally well. During one of the trips to the territories in the East I was shown photographs of a woman’s body who was clearly of my age and had the exact same hairstyle as mine. I looked at those pictures and realized that she simply had the misfortune of living under the Russian occupation. It could have been me in her place. So personally, the biggest challenge for me is to go through everything I’ve seen, not break down, continue working, and do my job.
GIJN: What is your best tip or trick for interviewing?
VY: Over the years of our work, we have gained extensive experience in interviewing subjects of anti-corruption investigations, and the main advice is that interviews are one of the methods for verifying information. I encourage all colleagues to give the antagonists of a story a chance to speak up. Sometimes they provide crucial additional information and, ultimately, serve the main purpose which is actually improving the material.
When it comes to interviewing people who have suffered from war or experienced occupation, my main advice is to show empathy. It is crucial to sense when to stop and not press the interviewee too much. It is essential for investigative journalists working on the topic of war crimes to understand their responsibility and maintain their humanity.
GIJN: What is a favorite reporting tool, database, or app that you use in your investigations?
VY: There is a whole list of tools, such as satellite imagery search programs for data analysis, as well as Planet. As for investigations into the activities of Russia and its citizens, there is a whole range of easily accessible online sources, and hundreds of databases, for example, on the Russian military.
GIJN: What’s the best advice you’ve gotten thus far in your career and what words of advice would you give an aspiring investigative journalist?
VY: The most valuable advice has been the super-niche tips. For many years, there was a problem finding data on property owners who registered before the digitalization era. What proved to be very helpful was not so much advice but rather questions from editors like, “What is preventing you from doing this?” Usually, after some reflection, you realize that you are the one creating the obstacles. It could be a lack of experience, creativity, or courage. So, my advice for beginners will always be this life hack, which can be purely psychological: from the beginning, be confident that nothing hinders you. Embrace this mindset, carry out the investigation, and everything will work out.
GIJN: Who is a journalist you admire, and why?
VY: I admire all Ukrainian journalists, including my colleagues from Schemes: we started doing investigations literally from our phones in bomb shelters in the early days of the full-scale invasion. I also admire the journalists who work on the front lines, who work in the field. I admire regional journalists who haven’t left their cities and have become even more valuable sources of information in the midst of the large-scale invasion. I believe that regional journalists are highly underestimated by major media outlets.
GIJN: What is the greatest mistake you’ve made and what lessons did you learn?
VY: I have been fortunate; I can’t recall any specific mistakes. However, there is one story that is perhaps more philosophical. I deeply regret that I didn’t find the torturer of one of my sources before he, unfortunately, passed away.
Immediately after the occupation of parts of the eastern territory of Ukraine, my colleague and I went there to gather stories. While collecting testimonies from the victims, we recorded interviews with a man who had been captured and tortured by Russian soldiers four times. It was very difficult for him to recall those experiences, but towards the end, he added that if he hadn’t escaped after the fourth time, we wouldn’t be meeting. That statement struck me deeply, and I became passionate about finding the Russian soldiers who had tortured people in the town of Balakliia.
I worked on this for nearly six months, and eventually, we were able to identify several Russian torturers operating there. We published the investigation. However, my source did not live to see it. His health apparently couldn’t withstand the consequences of the torture. It’s been several months now, and I still wonder if we could have acted faster.
GIJN: How do you avoid burnout in your line of work?
VY: Perhaps all investigative journalists experience burnout at some point, as when you want to do a good job, you invest yourself fully. Consequently, there may come a moment when you feel depleted.
When I lose motivation, culture helps me. My husband is a writer, so we have thousands of books at home, which I read in the hallway during air raid alarms. During challenging periods, I simply reread his poems and think, that we will burn out somehow later, but for now, there is still much work to be done in the field of anti-corruption and investigating war crimes.
GIJN: What about investigative journalism do you find frustrating, or do you hope will change in the future?
VY: I have had several complex, multi-level, difficult, and important investigations that struggled to reach a wide audience and major media outlets, which disappoints me.
Conversely, our new subgenre of investigations, which my colleagues and I came up with accidentally while sitting in the editorial office in a bomb shelter, has gained significant recognition. This just involves us listening to intercepted conversations of Russian military personnel by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), and involves the rapid identification of Russian military personnel. Such stories have gained wide publicity but were made quickly and easily. When I recently started travelling abroad again, I was asked several times, “Are you the journalist who identified the Russian military personnel talking about the rape of Ukrainian women?” I didn’t invest as much effort into this investigation, so I’ve been disappointed that major media outlets do not pay enough attention to truly important and in-depth investigations.
Mariana Motrunych is a journalist, communications specialist, and GIJN’s Ukraine editor. She was previously an analyst at the National Ukraine Agency on Corruption Prevention. She has worked at the independent newsroom Slidstvo.Info and on the anticorruption TV program Nashi Hroshi. In 2017 she received a Thomson Foundation Young Journalist Award.