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18 February 2014

No chickening out for activists subject to intimidation in Kiev

“I don’t hide behind the title ‘journalist’ any more,” says Tetiana Chornovol. “My investigative reporting is just one of the weapons I use in my battle against Yanukovych and his clan.”

By Lucy Ash

Tetiana Chornovol specialises in exposing the murky world of Ukraine’s top officials. As an investigative reporter for opposition websites, she has a reputation for unorthodox methods and daring stunts. On Christmas Day 2013, she was dragged out of her car, beaten up and almost killed in an attack most Ukrainians believe was linked to her work as a journalist.

When I arrive at her house on the outskirts of Kiev her three-year-old son is racing around the front room on a scooter. Chornovol’s mother, Natalia, watches him nervously. “He’s fearless and Tetiana was just the same as a child,” she tells me. “She climbed up the highest fences in our village and scared her granny witless.”

Now 34, Chornovol is still fearless and still climbing fences. As we drink tea, she shows me photographs she took secretly a couple years ago of the palatial residence outside Kiev occupied by the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Wearing a camouflage jacket, she hid in the forest nearby, waiting for the right moment. Then she shimmied up the wall Lara Croft-style, using a plank and a rope, right over the heads of the security patrol.

Before she was caught, she smuggled out some images of a gold-plated barge where he’d throw parties. Just one of the imported crystal chandeliers there costs £60,000 – almost the equivalent of Yanukovych’s official annual salary. “The worst thing,” she says, “is that we don’t have a hospital in Ukraine for children with cancer – the government says it lacks the funds.”

The president’s estate is just one of many lavish residences built by the ruling elite. Chornovol believes a new mansion south of the capital is for the president’s eldest son, Oleksandr, but she could find no official documents for the building. So, a few months ago, wearing a plastic helmet, she crawled through a hole in the fence. She managed to blend in with the workforce and grab a blueprint from the construction office. “Crudely speaking, I stole it,” she admits. “But since all that property is being built with stolen government funds, I felt I had the right.

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“The security service probably said if these plans reach the public, everything would have to be rebuilt,” she says. “I think this was the reason they went for me.”

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Whatever the case, Chornovol is not short of enemies. The night before she was attacked, she had published a blog featuring pictures of what she says was the out-of-town residence of the interior minister.

Five men are in custody for the attack on Chornovol but few believe that whoever ordered the attack will be brought to justice. The prosecutor general’s office says she was a victim of road rage, a theory Chornovol dismisses as “absurd”.

Some are uncomfortable with her close links to the Fatherland party of the imprisoned former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. In the October 2012 election, she ran unsuccessfully for parliament as a candidate of the party in western Ukraine.

“I don’t hide behind the title ‘journalist’ any more,” she says. “My investigative reporting is just one of the weapons I use in my battle against Yanukovych and his clan. I’m also very active socially.” She has been on the front line of the mass protests that have rocked Kiev since November last year.

“I would be much more active if I wasn’t a mother,” she says, but her children motivate her, too. “I can’t give up because I know that this is for their future, about what sort of country they’ll grow up in.”

Lucy Ash’s profile of Tetiana Chornovol will feature in the BBC Radio 4 series “Europe’s Troublemakers”, which runs from 17-21 February (1.45pm)