The YanukovychLeaks Team, 2014
About the Investigation
Fleeing a popular uprising against his corrupt misrule and pro-Moscow policies, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych departed Kiev in early 2014. At his estate outside the city, he left behind thousands of documents that his staff had tried to destroy by dumping into a nearby reservoir. Aided by volunteer divers and activists, an impromptu group of journalists rushed to the scene and systematically rescued what amounted to 50,000 once-secret documents. Sensing the importance of what they had found, the group quickly formed the YanukovychLeaks investigative project, preserving the documents, posting them online, and launching a series of hard-hitting reports on the disgraced leader’s corrupt practices and abuse of power.
The team rescued nearly 200 folders of documents with details on the former president’s activities. There were records of millions of dollars in questionable financial transactions, details of surveillance of pro-Western activists, and examples of such largesse as a US$53 million chandelier supply contract for Yanukovych’s mansion.
The stories from the YanukovychLeaks project — both by the team and by other media that mined the documents — substantially changed public opinion in Ukraine, led to numerous investigations and prosecutions, and became the basis for official efforts to recover money stolen from the Ukrainian government.
On a practical level, the documents recovered by journalists have served as the basis for investigations into various schemes that are believed to have cost the state US$38 billion. Whether these investigations will lead to indictments is not yet clear, but officials have recovered as much as $187 million.
While Yanukovych has professed his innocence, the stories created a stark record that his administration engaged in pilfering public coffers and widespread cronyism. Even in his Russian speaking power base, Yanukovych and his party have been permanently discredited and the public is far less tolerant of corruption. Anti-corruption legislation is moving through the parliament that for the first time in Ukraine’s history, will require public officials to declare their expenditures, incomes, and the kind of presidential “gifts” that the YanukovychLeaks team documented.
YanukovychLeaks also had a dramatic effect on the media in Ukraine. Like Watergate, which motivated a generation of American reporters, the project has helped define a new generation of Ukrainian journalists. Aggressive, motivated, and distrustful of authority, they are holding the new government to a higher standard. Citizens have higher expectations of media, and the government better understands now it must treat journalism with more care than it has in the past.