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USAID Media Program in Ukraine helps investigative reporters expose and shut down a corruption scheme targeting Ukrainian sailors

Prior to the summer of 2020, all Ukrainian sailors had to take exams every five years to renew their documents that allow them to work at sea. In order to reduce the risks of corruption during oral exams, Ukraine’s government introduced a computerized system of examination in February 2021. However, the measure had the opposite effect, as officials were able to demand bribes from Ukrainian sailors in exchange for passing grades in the computer system.

In March, 2021, Internews partner Bihus.Info investigated and produced an episode of the USAID Media Program-funded YouTube show “Unscammed” about this corrupt scheme. The team of investigative reporters had been regularly receiving information from citizens about corruption in the sailor qualification system. Bihus.Info social media followers asked journalists to pay attention to the issue and added reporters to sailors’ messenger groups. Sailors recognized that the system was corrupt before computer tests were introduced, although it had been voluntary to give a bribe for a passing grade. After the new system was introduced, however, corruption reached catastrophic levels and left sailors in a hopeless situation. 

Despite the fact that registration was supposed to be free-of-charge, Bihus.Info exposed the fact that corrupt officials were abusing their control over grading on the online system and demanding bribes of between $4,000 and $10,000 (depending on rank and the number of needed certificates) for a passing grade through a network of agents. Sailors had to submit their documents to register for tests through the Sailor’s Office portal. They had to study at so called “club” educational centers recommended by officials. In order to expose the corrupt exam system, investigative reports organized an experiment with two volunteer sailors: one who paid a bribe through an agent, did not go to classes at any educational center, randomly selected answers in all 75 multiple choice questions, and finished the test within 15 minutes. The other sailor, who had 13 years of work experience and refused to pay a bribe to an agent, went to all classes at a studying center he chose himself and took his time during the examination. The former examinee passed, while the latter failed.  

 

The investigative report by Bihus.Info sparked a heated public discussion, reaching 86,500 views and 9,700 shares, likes, and comments. Following the report’s publication, the National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NACP)  asked the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Maritime Administration to carry out a risk assessment to address the problem. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) announced that it had investigated and blocked the corruption scheme. According to an official statement, the SBU’s investigation revealed that “in fact, the state register was owned by third parties. That allowed attackers to illegally issue approvals for seafarers.”

Finally, in July 2021, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a new law that simplified the procedures for sailors in need of approval documents for work at sea. Following these legal changes, the new electronic system of tests will now only be required for sailors receiving documents for the first time or those who want to receive qualification documents of a higher degree. Documents for current sailors will be extended online automatically if they have work experience. The Bihus.Info team believes that the new rules should significantly reduce corruption risks when certifying documents for seafarers.

Photo: Screenshot from the “Sea of Bribes” episode of the YouTube show “Unscammed” by Bihus.Info