The office of President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Feb. 14 that it was taking investigative journalists to court over a report that the office says is deceptive.
On Feb. 13, Schemes, an investigative project of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Ukraine, published a story that said Zelensky could have secretly met with a top Russian security official in January.
Journalists reported, citing their anonymous sources, that Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia’s Security Council and one of the country’s most senior officials, traveled from Moscow to Muscat, Oman’s capital, on Jan. 8, when Zelensky was there on an unofficial visit. While the journalists didn’t specifically claim that Zelensky and Patrushev had met, the report implied it.
The presidential office vigorously denied that such a meeting took place. It called the report “a clear manipulation of public opinion” and compared it to Russia’s information warfare against Ukraine.
“When Ukrainian journalists do that, it goes beyond the definition of free journalism,” Zelensky’s office said in a statement.
Moreover, the statement also addressed Suspilne, a government-funded independent broadcaster that airs Schemes, calling its attention to the fact that “it airs false information which is a direct manipulation of public opinion.”
Journalists said that they stood by their report and its importance for the public, and reiterated that they didn’t claim that the meeting took place.
Should the suit go forward, it would be the first occasion ever when the Ukrainian presidential administration sued journalists for defamation, according to Lyudmyla Pankratova, a media lawyer with the Regional Press Development Institute.
“The outcome of this case will depend on the journalists’ defense,” Pankratova says.
But Miller, a Kyiv-based law firm that represents clients in defamation suits, said that the case doesn’t look promising for the presidential office because the report didn’t feature a direct claim that the meeting between Patrushev and Zelensky took place.
“Value judgments don’t have to be proved or rebutted,” the firm said in a statement. “We predict that the court would reject the claim of the president or his office.”
Did they meet?
The report in question focused on Zelensky’s visit to Oman in early January. The trip was mysterious. It wasn’t announced until a photo surfaced online of Zelensky with his family in a resort hotel in the Middle Eastern country. After that, Zelensky’s office said it was a private trip, but that it included meetings with local officials.
On Jan. 8, when Iran shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane over Tehran, killing 176 people on board, Zelensky’s office said he would immediately return to Kyiv. However, the president flew back some 15 hours after the crash. The office said that Zelensky had to wait for a charter plane he booked to be allowed to fly out of Oman.
Because of the secrecy and the president’s delayed return, rumors circulated that Zelensky could have held secret meetings in Oman.
“From the beginning of the Oman story, it was the presidential office that hasn’t been saying it all, has been concealing information, and, either on purpose or not, has been spreading disinformation,” Schemes responded on Feb. 14.
Citing their sources, Schemes’ journalists claimed that Patrushev flew to Muscat on a charter plane from Moscow on Jan. 8 at 1 a.m. According to Schemes, Zelensky left Muscat for Kyiv on the same charter plane at 18:30 p.m.
Some three weeks earlier, on Dec. 20, 2019, Kharkiv Mayor Hennady Kernes and his friend Robert Tedeyev visited Moscow for, they claimed, a dentist visit. Schemes reported that the two met with Patrushev in Moscow. The two denied that the meeting took place, saying that they were in Moscow for personal reasons and haven’t met any Russian officials.
Tedeyev is a cousin of ex-Ukrainian lawmaker Elbrus Tedeyev. Andriy Yermak, Zelensky’s chief of staff, served as an aide to lawmaker Tedeyev between 2006 and 2014.
Yermak, who has been curating the administration’s foreign affairs, including relations with Russia, accompanied Zelensky on his trip to Oman. Yermak said he never met with Robert Tedeyev, and claimed Schemes journalists were lying.
The journalists could not find out why Patrushev flew to Oman on a charter plane, nor could they confirm that he met with Zelensky. Yet they emphasized the fact that Patrushev and Zelensky were in Muscat at the same time. Muscat isn’t known as a frequent travel destination for Russian or Ukrainian government officials.
Patrushev’s office didn’t answer Schemes request for comment. Zelensky’s office said that the president didn’t meet with Patrushev and that it will sue the journalists if they publish their article, which it considered slander.
Kyiv Post journalist Bermet Talant contributed to this story.