The journalist running for president in Ukraine
Dmytro Gnap being interviewed by another television station in 2017. (Photo credit Cheryl L. Reed)
Nine days after the Investigative Reporters and Editors organization bestowed its highest honor on Ukrainian reporter Dmytro Gnap and his colleagues, Gnap announced he was quitting journalism to run for the presidency of Ukraine.
âIâm really tired from this absolutely crazy situation where we are exposing dozens of corrupted officials and nothing happens,â Gnap said during an interview in Kiev on July 3, a few days after his announcement. âNo one went to jail. Not a single one.â
Gnap and his investigative team spent years producing stories about the shady business deals of politicians, including reports that linked President Petro Poroshenko to offshore ac countsâ"with little to no effect. Gnapâs team at Slidstvo.info, an investigative reporting NGO backed by Western grants, along with the Organized Crime and Corruption Report Project, won the IRE Medal for best investigative journalism for their 2017 documentary âKilling Pavel.â In the 50-minute documentary, Gnap, the lead reporter, presented evidence that Ukraineâs secret police may have played a role in the car bombing of Ukrainian journalist Pavel Sheremet.
âIf I was an investigative reporter in Canada, Belgium, or Sweden, I would work to old age because the systems in those countries work,â says Gnap, 40, who is married with three children, ages 4 to 16. âBut Iâm living in Ukraine. Iâm Ukrainian. I donât want to keep waiting for someone to come and change our country and establish justice. We have corrupted officials. We have very weak public services. And someone needs to change this.â
Gnap compares his decision to that of witnessing a robbe ry on the street. As a journalist, he could decide to film the robbery, call for help, or intervene himself. âIâm not going to keep filming the robbery of my country,â he says.
Dmytro Gnap in Kiev just days after he announced he was running for the presidency of Ukraine. Photo: Cheryl L. Reed.Sign up for CJR's daily email
Gnap has entered a crowded presidential contest where at least eight expected contenders are old faces on Ukraineâs political stage. Yulia Tymoshenko, who co-led the Orange Revolution of 2004 and was the countryâs first female prime minister, has a slight lead in the polls. Nearly half of the respondents said they definitely wouldnât vote for the current occupant.
Ukraineâs presidential election, which will take place in March of 2019, is the first regular election since the Euromaidan Revolution ousted President Viktor Yanukovych in February of 2014 and quick elections put Poroshenko in power three months later. Poroshenkoâs popularity has since waned as critics say he has been slow to make reforms and fix Ukraineâs many social problems. A June survey showed 76 percent of those polled believe the country is going in the wrong direction under his leadership.
Gnap wants to capitalize on that dissatisfaction by uniting the opposition democratic parties of several former journalists and activists now in parliament. He plans to run as the single liberal opposition candidate on an anti-corruption platform that promises to clean up government. In addition to extensive reforms, Gnap plans to strengthen the countryâs anti-corruption bureau, remove corrupt judges, reform the countryâs secret police and help local governments break monopolies that overcharge peopleâ"all issues that Gnap, as a journalist, reported on for years.
Gnapâs biggest challenge is getting the word out about his campaign. In the lates t political poll, released in early August, Gnap didnât even rank.
âThere is no problem for me with those polls,â Gnap says. âTymoshenko, Poroshenko, and others have been for many years in Ukrainian politics. Tymoshenko since 1996. Poroshenko since 1998. I started my political career a month and a half ago.â
Though he has been a television journalist for nearly two decadesâ"and is well-known among investigative journalists in Eastern Europeâ"his reports are shown on small independent media platforms. Most Ukrainians get their news from mainstream television stations, which are owned by oligarchs and politiciansâ"competitors who are unlikely to give Gnap an audience. Not a single major television station in Ukraine covered Gnapâs announcement that he was running for president, he says.
Gnapâs campaign is also being run by a former journalist, Vladimir Fedorin, who was the chief editor of Forbes Ukraine until 2013 when a crony of Yanukovychâs b ought the media outlet and implemented censorship. âRadical reforms are impossible without a real political process,â says Fedorin, who also runs a free market think-tank in Ukraine. âUkrainian political life needs disruption, needs new leaders who wonât tolerate business as usual of cronyism that steals opportunities from the whole nation.â
Gnap and Fedorin say his grassroots campaign will emulate the internet-focused campaigns of former President Barack Obama and French President Emmanuel Macron. Like those upstarts, Gnap, with his direct gaze, charcoal and silver hair, unlined face, and booming voice knows how to charm a television audience.
âI have some romantic goals,â he admits, âof showing the Ukrainian people that changes are coming and that people outside the political system are finally coming to power.â
Journalists as politicians in Ukraine
Gnap isnât the first journalist in Ukraine to enter politics. Mustafa Nayyem, a Ukrainian investigative journalist credited with starting the protests that led to the Euromaidan Revolution in 2013-2014, was elected to Ukraineâs parliament in 2014 along with two other noted investigative journalists, Sergii Leshchenko, and Iegor Soboliev. Gnap is in talks with those ex-journalists to form a new independent political party.
Soboliev, who for 18 years worked in various TV and online platforms, says he left journalism because âI was deeply disappointed that after our investigations there were no proper punishments or even improvements.â
Journalists turned politicians arenât without controversy. In the summer of 2016, critics questioned how Leshchenko could afford to buy an apartment for $281,000 when the average monthly salary in Ukraine in 2016 was about $200. Leshchenko said he earned the money from various sources, including Western grants he received for his investigative stories.
Yevhen Fedchenko, director of the Kyiv-Mohyla Acad emy School of Journalism and a former board member of Hromadske TV, called Leshchenkoâs explanation âdubiousâ and says heâs disappointed by the journalists whoâve entered parliament. âWe lost some good journalists but never got new MPs capable of making changes.â
Fedchenko has been a critic of Gnapâs journalism, calling him a politician in a piece in CJR last year. The two have not spoken since. âEverything Dmytro was doing before now was more related to his politics than journalism,â Fedchenko says. âIt would be more just if he would call it what it is and not masquerade political activism as journalism.â
In the past four years, many of Gnapâs investigative pieces focused on business dealings of President Poroshenko and his friends, causing some critics to claim Gnap was partisan. Gnap insists his reporting was never biased.
âConcentration on corruption could make some people think you are an activist,â Gnap says. âBut Slidstvo focused not only on corruption but on criminal cases and social problems. We made some mistakes and we had some weak points in our journalism and we tried to fix them and to improve our work.â
He shrugs at Fedchenkoâs criticism that he had political ambitions all along. âHe produced a correct forecast. Now is he interested in being right or changing Ukraine?â
Whispers of political ambitions
As far back as 2014, Gnapâs colleagues and friends teased him about his presidential ambitions after he made a fiery speech at the Euromaidan protests, accusing opposition leaders of having betrayed the people of Ukraine. One friend even made T-shirts that said, âGnap for Presidentâ and created a campaign poster from Barack Obamaâs famous Hope photo, replacing Obamaâs face with Gnapâs.
âIt was a running gag, I am afraid, among the Hromadske team that Dima will run for president,â said Katya Gorchinskaya, CEO of Hromadske TV, the cable and on line news platform that Gnap helped start in 2013. âIt was an open secret that he had political ambitions. Itâs a shame to lose his skills and knowledge, but this process is extremely common in Ukraine and you can more or less predict it at every election cycle.â
Hromadske, which means public in Ukrainian, started just before the Euromaidan Revolution â"known in Ukraine as the âRevolution of Dignity.â The online platform benefited from a young audience who donated thousands of dollars to keep Hromadske going as it live-streamed violent clashes in which more than 100 people, many of them civilians, were killed.
âThe 2 million to 3 million people who supported and participated in civic protests during the Revolution of Dignity, those are our supporters and we can count on them,â Gnap says.
Gnapâs core audience are middle-class social media users, from 24 to 40 years old, he says. He currently has over 82,000 followers on Facebook. Gnap supports LG BT rights, thinks that abortion should be legalized, and believes Ukraine should stop providing free services because it opens up too many opportunities for corruption. An atheist, he wants to reduce the power of the church in Ukraine. And he thinks English should become the official second language. While those stances may win him votes from a younger, more modern generation, they are unlikely to make him popular with older, religious Ukrainians, nostalgic for the comparatively well-run Soviet Union, who depend on the government for their pensions and medical care.
When critics argue that Gnap doesnât have the experience to run for office, he points out that the most corrupt politiciansâ"including Yanukovych who is accused of stealing billions from the countryâs treasuryâ"had decades of experience. âExperienced professionals have brought Ukraine to poverty and corruption,â he says.
If his bid for president fails, Gnap says heâll run for parliament next yea r. âI want to sacrifice my life for this. I decided to change my comfortable life as a journalist for fighting for real change in Ukraine. This is just the start.â
RELATED: In a time of war, investigative reporting in Ukraine is a tough sellHas America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today. Cheryl L. Reed is an assistant professor at Syracuse Universityâs S.I. Newhouse School of Communications where she is working on a sequel to Poison Girls.Source: Google News Ukraine | Netizen 24 Ukraine