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Seeking a path through the fog of war: an interview with Ukrainian investigative journalist Yanina Korniienko

This interview is between AOAV’s Executive Director, Iain Overton and Yanina Korniienko, a 28-year-old investigative journalist from Ukraine. We discuss Yanina’s career, her motivations and inspirations, her investigative work exposing corruption in the Ukrainian business sector, and the impact of the invasion on her journalistic approach.

Yanina Korienko:
Yanina Korniienko: investigative reporter, Slidstvo.Info.

Iain Overton: Could you introduce yourself, sharing your age and professional title?

Yanina Korniienko: I’m a 28-year-old investigative journalist hailing from Ukraine. I currently work for the Slidstvo.Info project, a Ukrainian investigative project focusing on high scale crimes, political corruption and war crimes.

Iain Overton: How long have you been a reporter?

Yanina Korniienko: I’ve been an investigative journalist for nearly seven years now. I find this field incredibly rewarding and challenging.

Iain Overton: Did you study journalism at university?

Yanina Korniienko: Interestingly, I didn’t study journalism as such. My academic background is in political science and sociology. However, these subjects provided me with a good foundation for my career in journalism.

Iain Overton: What sparked your interest in investigative journalism?

Yanina Korniienko: The spark for me came from observing the work of famous Ukrainian journalists during my youth. Their dedication to seeking the truth, to dig deep, to expose corruption and illicit activities truly inspired me. I realised the power of journalism, the ability to bring about change, and I felt a deep pull towards that.

Iain Overton: Could you share a bit more about who these journalists were?

Yanina Korniienko: I was most inspired by Georgiy Gongadze, a brave journalist who was tragically executed in Ukraine. Other notable figures include Sergii Leshchenko, Alexander Akimenko, Anna Babinets, and Natalia Sedletska. Their groundbreaking investigative work has been instrumental in shaping Ukrainian journalism, and their accomplishments have greatly influenced my own work.

Iain Overton: A lot of their work revolved around exposing corruption, Russian influence, and state failures. When you first started your career seven years ago, what was your main area of focus?

Yanina Korniienko: My initial focus was on exposing corruption within the business sector, especially the intertwined relationship between government and business. I delved into the tobacco market, uncovering illegal channels between the president’s administration and the tobacco mafia. It was a thrilling start to my investigative journalism career.

Iain Overton: Can you share how you went about conducting these investigations?

Yanina Korniienko: I had the opportunity to work closely with an experienced editor. We used traditional investigative methods – poring over documents, tracking the ownership of Ukrainian tobacco distributors, and conducting interviews with insiders. Our work revealed that Russian businesses were the force behind Ukrainian tobacco distributors. It was quite an exposé.

Iain Overton: It sounds like this would involve vast sums of money. Would you say it was a multibillion-pound industry?

Yanina Korniienko: Yes, indeed. The scale of the operation was enormous, especially given the post-2014 context when Ukraine was at war. It was scandalous to find out that Russian businesses continued to wield significant power in Ukraine during such times.

Iain Overton: It sounds like a complex situation – the coexistence of Russian-sponsored separation and invasion and Russian economies operating within Ukraine. Was this common knowledge? Or were you revealing new information?

Yanina Korniienko: At that time, the presence of Russian businesses in Ukraine was common knowledge and not entirely surprising. However, the startling revelation was that the owner of the business in question was financing the Russian military industry. This generated significant emotional responses considering Crimea had been annexed and the war started in Eastern Ukraine.

Iain Overton: How do you separate Russian influence from the corruption within Ukraine?

Yanina Korniienko: That’s a challenge, given the complex geopolitical landscape of Ukraine. My objective is always to find the truth and expose corruption, regardless of its source. I strive to maintain my focus on exposing corruption within our nation, even when the influence of Russia is intertwined.

Iain Overton: Does your work mainly focus on Russian corruption in Ukraine?

Yanina Korniienko: I’ve conducted investigations on a broad range of topics. While I have done a significant amount of work on Russian corruption in Ukraine, I have also carried out investigations on corruption within Ukraine, even without a direct Russian connection. Recently, I worked on a project where we exposed corruption involving Ukrainian politicians and oligarchs.

Iain Overton: Shifting to recent times, how did you react when the war came to Kyiv last February?

Yanina Korniienko: We were mentally prepared for it. When the war broke out, our team adapted our focus to deliver the most crucial stories at that moment. We divided our efforts – some continued investigative journalism while others started reporting directly from the war front.

Iain Overton: So you’ve essentially using some of the same skills that you deployed in your anti-corruption measure, you are now employing them to analyse Russian military activity? Was it a similar sort of methodology that you were deploying?

Yanina Korniienko: No, it’s completely different. So I think now we have part of a team who still working on scene investigations and part of a team. I personally work more on stories about corruption; for example, the last story we’ve done, it was about the cleaning business in Ukraine. And we revealed that this business is connected to Russians. And these people who work in these cleaning companies, they have access to every governmental building in Ukraine. It’s more investigation of like Russian beneficiary owners or Russian connections through different companies, and other ways how they can be connected.

Iain Overton: During your investigation, did you discover any real-life consequences of government cleaners working for a Russian-owned company?

Yanina Korniienko: Our focus was more on the potential risks rather than proving specific information leaks by cleaners. It’s difficult to attribute any leaks solely to them, as there are Ukrainian workers employed by these cleaning companies. However, during times of war, it poses a significant risk to have Russians with potential access to government buildings. While we couldn’t prove it definitively, we did raise concerns to Ukrainian governmental authorities about these risks.

Iain Overton: Did your findings have any impact? Were there any changes in contracts?

Yanina Korniienko: Yes, some changes were made. I need to verify the current status as a few weeks have passed since then. However, at the time, some authorities expressed their intention to review and revise the contracts. Others provided legal responses, stating that everything was done in accordance with the law and proper procedures.

Iain Overton: How would you describe yourself now? Are you a war journalist or an investigative journalist focusing on corruption?

Yanina Korniienko: It’s a difficult question. We can no longer simply be classified as corruption journalists, nor are we solely war journalists. It’s something in between. We engage in war investigative journalism, where we explore various aspects connected to the war, including corruption, crime scenes, and more. While it’s not our primary focus, we can’t ignore it because it’s an integral part of what we do.

Iain Overton: Warfare today involves not only physical combat but also information warfare. Traditionally, war journalists focus on reporting from the frontlines, highlighting physical destruction. However, your work goes beyond that. You investigate the hybrid nature of war, including corruption, disinformation, and influence, which affect the entire country rather than just the frontlines.

Yanina Korniienko: Yes, that’s correct. A significant portion, the majority of our stories, centre around war crimes, while my personal focus this year has been shifting towards international corruption. For example, I conducted a major investigation last year on the kidnapping of journalists in occupied territories. We worked to identify the perpetrators, understand those responsible, map out the locations, and gather testimonies for publication. These investigations are a combination of reporting and investigation, as we also need to establish communication with people in occupied territories, ensuring their safety. We work with photographers, scene investigators, and engage in criminal investigations. Additionally, we visit villages and suburbs where crimes occur after the territories are liberated and safe to access. We search for evidence on the ground, such as soldiers’ discarded documents or equipment. We collect testimonials from locals and cross-reference them with information about Russian soldiers. Our aim is to build a story not just about a generic national army committing crimes, but about specific individuals responsible, such as a particular Russian soldier. These are the fundamental stories we undertake. Currently, we focus on shorter stories rather than extensive ones. People respond well to them. We even call some of the Russian soldiers we manage to find if they are still alive and we have their phone numbers.

Iain Overton: So, you also give the soldiers an opportunity to respond?

Yanina Korniienko: Yes, in my most recent story, which was about the killing of a man who was delivering food to a poor family during the occupation, we were able to identify the specific soldier responsible. His family recognised him, and his surname was visible on his uniform. I called him and asked if he believed he would face punishment for the murder. His response was dismissive, saying, “Who will punish me?” When I mentioned the Ukrainian authorities, he replied with profanity. This kind of reporting resonates with our audience the most because it evokes emotions and connects with their experiences. When we write about corruption during the war, people sometimes struggle to understand its significance as it seems distant. However, murders and tragedies happening close to them are things they can relate to.

Iain Overton: By focusing on specific incidents, you humanise the stories and make them relatable. It’s not just about distant bombings; it’s about shedding light on individual atrocities.

Yanina Korniienko: Absolutely. These stories also reveal that those Russian soldiers understood the nature of their actions. Their social media presence often reflects anti-Ukrainian sentiments, which we can trace back years before the war. It shows the mindset of the individuals who participated in this conflict.

Iain Overton: Why do you think they harbour such hatred toward Ukrainians?

Yanina Korniienko: I believe it’s the result of years of surrounded information, shaping their mindset. Some of them grew up with this ideology. Additionally, there’s an imperialist mindset ingrained in literature, songs, poems, and other cultural aspects. For a long time, many Ukrainians turned a blind eye to this danger. It’s something we should have addressed earlier, but now we can see how this imperial influence played a role.

Iain Overton: When you expose specific soldiers for war crimes, do you ever worry about potential retaliation? Are you concerned for your own safety?

Yanina Korniienko: It’s something that crosses my mind, of course. Working in such a dangerous environment and exposing individuals who may have committed war crimes carries inherent risks. However, I firmly believe in the importance of our work and the need to shed light on these atrocities. Instead of dwelling on fear, I focus on the impact we can make. It’s a challenging and risky path, but one that must be taken in the pursuit of truth and justice.

Iain Overton: How has the war impacted you?

Yanina Korniienko: Absolutely, it has had a profound impact. Our lives have altered significantly. Every day carries the potential threat of death, which reshapes our priorities. I find myself being more straightforward in conversations, and overall, life is less comfortable than before the war. It’s as if the world has changed. Also, the emotional toll is substantial. Many journalists are emotionally distressed, yet some are in denial. This is why I collaborate with certain charities. They help me address my issues, even when I can’t perceive them myself. Our planning horizon has also shortened to just a few months due to the uncertainty.

Iain Overton: Could you tell me about your typical workday?

Yanina Korniienko: Officially, it’s from 11 to 18, but in reality, it feels like a 24-hour job. It depends on the story and the deadlines, some of which are not set by the editor but by the rapid pace of events. Some stories are deeply personal, involving victims, which makes me constantly think about work. I live and breathe my work; it’s become my way of life. Being in the centre of historical events is exciting for any journalist. I feel connected and involved.

Iain Overton: So you view yourself as part of the nation’s defence?

Yanina Korniienko: Yes, in a sense. However, it’s crucial to maintain the distinction between journalism and activism. We are not propagandists and we don’t fundraise for the military, though that’s difficult. Personally, I can contribute, but it has to remain separate from my journalistic role.

Iain Overton: How much sleep do you manage each night?

Yanina Korniienko: Ideally, I need eight hours. But, due to air alerts and the proximity of my residence to factories and military units, I often sleep in the corridor. It offers a level of safety and minimises the disruptions to my sleep schedule caused by air alerts. If an alert is anticipated, I prefer to sleep in the corridor rather than waking up in the middle of the night. That helps maintain my emotional stability.

Iain Overton: I’ve noticed fewer taped windows than I anticipated.

Yanina Korniienko: While taping may offer some protection, I’ve read that it’s better to leave windows open. This way, they won’t shatter into harmful fragments in case of an explosion nearby.

Iain Overton: On a more personal note, do you know anyone who has been killed in the war?

Yanina Korniienko: Mainly soldiers, who were civilians before the war. It’s people I’ve met before at different events or conferences. For instance, Roman Ratushnyi was a young activist who was tragically executed.

Iain Overton: In your experience, have you noticed a pattern in how Russian forces target media personnel?

Yanina Korniienko: Absolutely. We collaborated with Reporters Without Borders for a year on this topic. The pattern typically begins with home searches, followed by coercion to collaborate. If journalists resist, they are intimidated, taken captive, or imprisoned. The similarity in their stories makes it clear that the same could happen to any of us.

This article was edited on the 7 July for clarity and precision.

The travel for this article was generously funded by a Justice for Journalists Foundation Grant. All editorial control remained with AOAV.