This article is originally published by Kyiv Post.
In November 2014, I published an investigative story about the public procurement deals of Social Insurance Fund – a state agency that operates billions of hryvnias. The investigation was supported by Objective Investigative Reporting Project.
Until recently, one of the fund’s functions was to buy services from children summer camps and later distribute the places in the camps to the children of the taxpayers at a discount price.
The problem was that in 2014 the fund was ordering the services through intermediary firms, which made the deals quite expensive and hard on the pockets of the regular Ukrainians who fill the fund with their taxes.
In the Dnipropetrovsk local department of the fund, whose activities I investigated, the intermediary firms added about Hr 1,000, or 15-25 percent, to the price of each camp placement as they bought the services from the camps and sold it to the fund.
The management of the camps said they didn’t pay the firms to represent them - meaning that the intermediaries’ fees were covered by the fund.
Could the agency avoid additional spending and worked with the camps directly? It could. To do so, it could have banned the intermediaries from participating in its bids, leaving them open only to the camps.
This is my position. As a journalist and a citizen, I have a right to make it public - the right given to me by the Constitution.
My position is shared by the Anti-Monopoly Committee of Ukraine. It checked the fund’s activities and in January reported its findings.
The committee fined several intermediary firms for Hr 4 million for their coordinated anti-competitive actions adding additional, needless costs.
It discovered that over Hr 20 million from the state budget were paid to several companies for the consultancy services - a misuse of the money that were meant for buying the camp placements.
Soon, the Security Service of Ukraine looked into the fund’s schemes, too. It started criminal investigations involving several directors of the intermediary firms, and said that the firms’ actions in the bidding led to Hr 25 million of the state budget money being wrongly spent.
The fund didn’t object to the actions of the Anti-Monopoly Committee and the Security Service. However, they really didn’t like my story.
Interestingly, the fund’s officials refused to share their point of view when I was reporting for the story. They turned down the interview requests.
To get access to the income declarations of the Fund’s top officials and the bid proposals of the participants, I went to court. I filed two lawsuits, demanding the information that has to be public, and won both. And then, I won the appeals. But the Fund still hasn’t provided the information.
In its defamation lawsuit, the Fund asked the court to make me refute several quotes in the story. The law can suffice such demands only when the quotes contain the information that is false.
For almost a year, I’ve been trying to make the fund answer one question: what was false in the story? I corresponded with the plaintiff, but I’ve never got the answer. Which isn’t surprising: All the quotes in the story were based on audio records or documents.
At the hearing on Nov. 17 came the last proof that the fund had nothing to say about the falsehood of the story.
My lawyer, Yevheniy Bondar, asked the plaintiff a simple question: What facts does the plaintiff consider false?
Both Ukrainian laws and the European Court define that the journalists, like any other citizens, have a right to freely express their thoughts - even if someone finds those thoughts unpleasing. Any attempt to deny this right or to demand a refutation, is an attack on the freedom of speech.
A more precise answer to the fund’s claims can be found in the Decree No. 15, ruled by the Supreme Court of Ukraine on Feb. 27, 2009, “On the Judicial Practice of Lawsuits for Defamation Lawsuits, And Lawsuits for Protection of Business Reputation.”
It rules that only spreading of false - and not negative - information is a violation that can make the court meet the defamation claim.
Just imagine, for one moment, that there was a practice to demand refutation for any “negative” information in the journalistic stories. What a paradise it would be for many heroes of the publications.
Apparently, the court realized the absurdity of the plaintiff’s demands. On Dec. 1 it rejected the Social Insurance Fund’s claim.
Will the fund file an appeal? I suppose, it will. So it’s too early for me to say I’m done with these trials with the fund.
But the authorities are not done with the fund either. Today, Kirovsky District Police Department in Dnipropetrovsk continues the criminal investigation that is based on the facts from my story.
Another investigation is led by the tax police in Kyiv. They suspect that two firms that I mentioned in my investigation were part of a money-laundering scheme.
Olga Yudina is an investigative reporter living and working in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine. She can be reached at email@example.com.