When Ukraine’s president resigned and fled his palace in 2014, Ukrainians discovered tens of thousands of documents, some of which reporters retrieved by diving into icy water. Journalists made a pact: Preserve documents now, write later.
This fall, Lens cofounder Karen Gadbois and reporter Charles Maldonado spent 10 days in Ukraine to learn how journalists there do their work and what challenges they face. That included meeting with journalists who had pieced together shredded documents.
Gadbois and Maldonado toured nonprofit newsrooms in Lviv and the capital city of Kiev. Both news sites are called Nashi Groshi, which means “our money.”
“They share a name. They share a mission. They share an ethos, but they are all independent of each other,” Gadbois said.
The trip was the second part of an exchange program sponsored by the International Research and Exchanges Board, which brings journalists to newsrooms in other countries. In June, Ukrainian journalists visited The Lens and attended a national investigative journalism conference in New Orleans.
Reporters traded stories of corruption, compared their access to public records and chatted about cultural differences. (Ukrainian reporters wondered how bars could be within a block of KIPP McDonogh 15 School for the Creative Arts in the French Quarter.)
“Their roads are like New Orleans streets — and these are the highways,” Gadbois said. “It’s a very old country. It’s a very new country. There’s a lot of complexity there.”
Journalists in Ukraine have reported blatant cases of corruption. For example, they described how they discovered that a public official had built a mansion on public land.
A strong Ukrainian tech community, in addition to government laws about transparency, has enabled vast public access to state records. For example, a recent law requires Ukrainian politicians to disclose their wealth.
One man created a service that curates public records from different sources, enabling users to check property records, driver’s licenses and various kinds of government permits. News sites can use it for free; others must pay, Gadbois said.
They created those tools without a free press, Gadbois said. “The need for journalist oversight is strong, but in the past journalists were controlled by the state.”
The Nashi Groshi newsrooms are funded through international state departments, including the U.S. government. Many of these governments require certain levels of transparency for countries that want to join the European Union — sometimes more than their own, Gadbois said.
Ukrainian reporters were surprised by what they deemed legalized corruption in the U.S. They were especially surprised that The Lens has had to sue the city of New Orleans to get access to government records.
The Lens is suing to get access to the city’s purchasing database, which includes contracts and records of spending. The city has claimed that it must remove private information before releasing the database and it can’t do so — effectively shielding the records from public view. Gadbois said the Ukrainian journalists struggled to understand how the city could mishandle data like that.
Nashi Groshi has focused on making government contracts available to the public. “They’re mining those contracts,” Gadbois said.
By placing contracts online, Nashi Groshi reporters hope journalists at smaller news outlets can dig through them.
“They see themselves as a service as well as a news agency,” Gadbois said. “I think we do, too.”