The Panama Papers would not have been the same without cross-border journalism. Find out more why it matters so much to cooperate.
In the past few years, the number and profile of transnational investigations has risen sharply, leading to substantive regulatory and political changes. A few examples demonstrate this: the 2016 Panama Papers leak, which showed how the world’s rich and powerful exploit offshore tax havens, led to a string of corruption investigations and dozens of new laws that clamp down on tax evasion. The Russian Laundromat investigation from 2014 revealed how western banks were complicit in a vast money-laundering scheme. And last year, the New York Times’s investigation into how EU farm subsidies bankroll oligarchs and right-wing populists in eastern Europe led to promises for tighter anti-corruption rules by the bloc’s new agricultural commissioner.
None of these stories would have come to light had it not been for the efforts of cross-border investigative journalists. Such journalism is needed more than ever to find solutions to increasingly complex problems like climate change, financial crises, transnational crime and global pandemics.
Some aspiring or newer reporters might think that the scope of the stories outlined above is out of their reach. How could anything I do bring down oligarchs and powerful politicians? The good news is that the collaborative world of cross-border journalism allows you to share ideas, data, skills and insights that go far beyond what you may be able to achieve on your own. You can pitch your ideas or show your data to fellow journalists at international conferences such as Dataharvest or GIJC, or simply drop a line to an investigative centre in a country to which your leads take you. There is little to lose and a lot to gain by trying out cross-border investigative journalism.
This chapter is aimed at local or national reporters thinking of expanding their stories across state borders. We will draw on our experiences as cross-border journalists to answer the questions: What’s the point of international journalistic collaborations? What are its benefits? And why is this approach needed more than ever in today's complex world? We will point out the main advantages and disadvantages, while giving you tips on how to mitigate risks and refrain from repeating our mistakes in a Q and A section. Four case studies detailing lessons learned from our own cross-border investigations are included at the end, as well as two interviews with experienced investigative journalists.
Advantages of cross-border collaboration
- It’s fun. You get to know and work with people from outside your own social and geographic bubble, and travel extensively. You come to see how local or very specific issues have cross-border or even global implications.
- You grow personally and professionally. You develop new skills, such as reporting in a foreign language, working in a different cultural environment, learning to analyse data, and also become familiar with different journalistic approaches. Moreover, without even realising it, you become a project manager, since cross-border investigations require constant communication with international team members, as well as self-discipline. In short, cross-border collaborations allow more room for personal and professional development than local stories do.
- Your stories can have a greater impact. You may reach a bigger, broader and sometimes more specific audience than you otherwise would, and the impact of your investigation could exceed what you could achieve on your own.
- You form strong professional bonds built on mutual trust. Cross-border investigations often take months or years to finish, so you get to know your colleagues well, including their professional strengths and weaknesses. Whenever you need critical information from their home country, you know where to turn to for advice.
In late 2019 Czech Television, a public broadcaster, approached our newsroom at investigace.cz with a request to dig deeper into the workings of a retail platform called Discount Club. This platform offered medical products that promised to heal everything from varicose veins to deafness. Its marketing was aimed primarily at the elderly, a socially vulnerable group who believed the allegedly miraculous products would help them. This turned out to be a wishful thinking: the overpriced products were fake.
At the same time, the fraudsters behind the scam were hiding behind a web of companies and offshore firms with obscured ownership. As a result, no one could be held to account. Despite thousands of victims and evidence of fraud, the perpetrators remained unknown to Czech law enforcement, and regulatory bodies were unable to untangle the complex international network of companies behind the scam. I persuaded my editors we should do it ourselves.
After initial research, I started looking into a Panama-based company called Direct Group that allegedly ran the retail platform Discount Club. In cooperation with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project’s Investigative Dashboard (OCCRP), we came across information that indicated that a Polish businessman from a small village was behind the company. This assumption was corroborated by official records from company registries in Panama, Singapore, Malta and Estonia. At that point, I realised that the story had huge cross-border potential and asked a Polish journalist, Daniel Flis, who helped with the research, to work with me on the story.
After weeks of digging deeper, we established that the scam spanned four continents and had swindled money from thousands of victims in at least ten countries in the EU alone. We decided to uncover the scammers’ operations in Czechia and Poland, compare the victim's experiences, and scrutinize how official bodies were handling the issue. The maximum version of our story was to uncover and describe how the whole system worked internationally.
We started interviewing dozens of victims, experts, state and EU officials, customer rights NGOs, prosecutors and police representatives. In parallel, we tracked down digital traces the fraudsters left behind online through open source intelligence techniques. Putting together the piece of the puzzle, we identified key companies and their roles, and described how they operated in our countries as well as how the scheme worked, starting from advertising to sales, logistics and customer care. After the story was published in Czech, Polish and English in various online and print media it received significant attention from victims, law enforcement and regulatory bodies as well as from the legal team of the perpetrators.
This investigation is a good example of a story that directly calls for cross-border cooperation, as the core of the scam was evidently international. Had I worked on it by myself in Czechia, I could describe the misery of the deceived pensioners, local legislative shortcomings, and state bodies’ inefficiencies—in short, not much more than what Czech Television and other media had already reported. Turning the story international, by collaborating with the OCCRP and Daniel, allowed us to show how many countries the scam operated in, follow the paper trail in foreign company registries, describe the scheme’s global workings and, most importantly, identify the real perpetrators, as well as compare national perspectives. As the scammers have operated mostly from Poland, Warsaw-based Daniel had the knowledge, skills and insights to report on a professional level that I could never have reached as a Czech with a hired local fixer. In short, this all would not have happened had I worked on it by myself.
Our collaboration was generally smooth, thanks in part to our prior experience with project-based cross-border journalism: we drafted hypotheses and the story outline together, divided the workload, and set up a timeline. We established communication (weekly and ad-hoc Jitsi calls, Slack for sharing new findings and for chatting daily, Google Drive for sharing documents and drafts) and fortified ourselves with patience for sudden changes in deadlines due to work for our respective newsrooms, which have different focuses, working cultures and audiences.
We faced three big challenges in our investigation. First, there was a difference between the time we could dedicate to the project. I could set aside more hours for this project than could my colleague, so I had to take the lead both in coordination and drafting. Second, internal communication with editors in our newsrooms got complicated as their support for the time-consuming investigation gradually ebbed away. Third, the form and timing of the investigation’s publication were complicated due to various differences in our newsroom’s priorities as well upcoming presidential elections in Poland. However, I think we managed to overcome these challenges thanks to our enthusiasm for the project, shared opinions about investigative journalism, and clear and honest communication between the two of us. Importantly, in the end we both agreed the final piece was worth the effort, which is not necessarily always the case (badly planned or executed cross-border investigations can turn into a disaster). The positive result thus left the door open to future collaborations.
The investigation “Online Crooks: Catch Us If You Can” can be accessed in English here.
Disadvantages of cross-border collaboration
Having said all the above, it doesn’t always make sense to work on international collaborations. They can be particularly complicated, and require a lot of time and organisation. Below are some things to consider before you decide to take a story cross-border:
- Cross-border journalism takes time—sometimes a frustrating amount. A lot of effort and energy goes into coordination and self-administration on top of research and reporting.
- The outcome is more difficult to predict compared to when you work alone or in a small group where routines are well established. And that’s not even considering issues like language barriers, different time zones, etc. The pay is often minimal.
The initiative for this project came from Israeli journalist Hagar Shezaf, who reached out to me at a Dataharvest conference in 2016. She had worked together with tech correspondent Orr Hirschhauge in Israel and on the West Bank (the Palestinian territory governed by Israeli martial law). The two colleagues had documented and published stories on how Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) used social media platforms to identify young Palestinians with a “terrorist profile.” IDF soldiers would then apprehend the presumed terrorists based on their profiles before any terrorist action or criminal offence had taken place and no such intentions could be proven—a concept known as predictive policing.
Hagar and Orr reached out for European contacts for several reasons. They knew that European authorities and police bodies had demonstrated an interest in predictive policing and wanted to learn how those methods worked in the West Bank. There was a certain twist in the fact that the West Bank is run by Israeli martial law, meaning the armed forces had fewer legal restrictions than inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Innovations in policing on the West Bank could therefore be tested as in a laboratory before they were introduced inside Israel's pre-1967 borders or elsewhere, including Europe.
I was asked to join the project as I had some experience in reporting on justice and home affairs—the EU jargon for policing and anti-terrorism measures. Jennifer Baker, an experienced Irish tech reporter based in Brussels, joined for similar reasons.
Our goal was to find out to what extent the Israeli experience in predictive policing was gaining ground in the EU. Could we prove our original headline: “Facebook arrests—soon based on an account near you”? Yes we could. But for different reasons, this message was not received with the interest we had expected and thought it deserved.
It should be noted that the basic documentation in Israel and on the West Bank was done in 2015-2016 when “social profiling” was not yet as established an issue as it has become since then. It should also be noted that the concept of predictive policing was not an Israeli invention, nor were the techniques and computer programs used. We nevertheless thought that the full-scale application of these techniques on the West Bank, and the interest for such problematic tactics shown by European authorities, would be of interest to European audiences. That was where we were proven wrong.
Our research had received funding from the Journalismfund. We could document that our assumptions were based on facts. There were no attempts to question our conclusions. Nor were we accused of biased reporting. But we failed—or perhaps were less successful—in connecting the European and Israeli/Palestinian aspects of the story.
Despite our shortcomings, the Israeli weekly Haaretz published an extensive version of the piece in Hebrew and English on their website and in their paper. But in both versions the European connection was played down, and focus was put on the Israeli side. The piece in Haaretz was picked up by the London-based news website, Al-Araby. We do not know if it was covered more broadly in other Middle Eastern media outlets.
European outlets showed little interest in our piece. It was seen as a Middle East-story, a conflict area already covered at length. Finally the website EUobserver.com published a version with the two angles knitted nicely together as intended, with reporting added by staff member Nikolaj Nielsen.
Although we were able to prove our assumptions, and had good and balanced reporting from the field, and we could point at attempts to integrate predictive policing in European jurisdictions, the impact of our story did not match the time and energy we put into it. Then again, that feeling was not unfamiliar to any of us involved, or to anyone engaged in investigative journalism.
A summary of the investigation, with links to published articles, can be found here: https://www.journalismfund.eu/how-israel-jails-palestinians
Q&A: How to launch a cross-border investigation
For those who decide to embark on this journey, we’ve answered common questions that crop up during cross-border investigations.
Q: What topics should I focus on?
A: Cross-border investigations often take months, if not years, to finish. Because of that, it's important to think not only about a story’s potential impact, but also about your personal motivations and current knowledge. Does the story really interest me? Do I feel passionate enough about it to work on it for many months or even longer? Do I have insight into, for example, the illicit trade of sea mammals, or would I have to learn everything from scratch? Do I have the will and capacity to study the reporting subject in great detail? Do I want to focus on science, or rather, international politics or healthcare issues? In short, an honest evaluation of your own capabilities and interests will help you identify what to focus on.
Q: Is there really a cross-border angle to my investigation?
A: The simple answer is: if it involves actors from different countries, a significant connection between two or more countries, or some kind of activity which has an impact on different countries, it's a cross-border story. Having said that, there are different types of stories: some explore the same topic in different states ( for example, data protection in EU countries or international online scams), others deal with a problem which has its source in one place but has effects elsewhere (an oil-spill that affects an entire region), while others still analyse a problem in one country while drawing on solutions from others. Also, you may have an inherently international story if you cover a multinational firm or institution, such as big tech corporations or the United Nations.
Q: How to start a cross-border investigation?
A: There are, as usual, multiple ways. And they are not so different from investigations at a local or national level. For simplicity’s sake, we can divide them into four categories: paper trail (documents), people trail (human sources), Internet (online research and databases) and fieldwork (getting first-hand information). Most good cross-border investigations combine several of these approaches. What differs is the international dimension. Ask yourself: do I have data for other countries involved in the planned investigation, do I know local investigative reporters I trust and could cooperate with, do I or my partners have access to foreign archives, experts, and other sources? Is there a major international interest in the topic I plan to cover? Will I be able to pitch my idea to colleagues or donors?
In short, there’s more planning involved in cross-border pieces than in local ones, as you need to collect more data, interview more sources (in different countries and languages), and form an international team. You often need to allocate more time for research, analysis and reporting, as well as prepare a more convincing pitch—cross-border investigations are expensive, so your editors or potential donors will ask many more questions.
Q: How do I write a convincing story pitch?
A: A good story pitch is key, especially if you’re applying for funding at donor institutions. After initial research and a brainstorm, list all the questions you have about your topic and select the most intriguing ones. Based on them, form a hypothesis. It shouldn't be more than two sentences, which are comprehensible to everyone. You should then be able to identify what critical information is needed to prove your hypothesis and have an idea of where and how to obtain such information. Define a “minimum” and a “maximum” version of the story while staying realistic: for example, if you are reporting about an online scam, the minimum version of your story could compare victim’s experiences and explore how different authorities in different states are tackling the issue; a maximum version could aim to describe how exactly the organised crime group operates on a global level. You should mention why the story is relevant to the audience. List possible challenges (including safety, security, legal or financial issues) and briefly describe how you plan to mitigate the risks. Based on such a well-prepared pitch, the editors or potential donors should be able to decide whether to greenlight your project.
In 2018 I started working on a project to investigate the use of chlorpyrifos, a little-known but hazardous pesticide that was then widely used in the European Union. I conducted my investigation with Nils Mulvad, the head the Investigative Reporting Centre in Denmark, and with journalists from Knack in Belgium, Le Monde in France, Dagbladet in Norway, Newsweek in Poland, Ostro in Slovenia, El Confidential in Spain and The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting in the US. Our investigation was supported by a grant from Journalismfund.eu and was published on the 17th of June 2019 in eight different European outlets, including the French daily Le Monde.
Less than six months later, chlorpyrifos was banned by the EU. Our investigation, which had triggered a swift political reaction, thus had the maximum impact we could have hoped for.
Though we can never be sure how much our investigation alone influenced legislators, the producers of the pesticide certainly blamed us for the ban. A representative from one of the firms that produced the pesticide described how the EU “bowed to pressure from NGOs and the media.”
Even if our story had an impact, we stood on the shoulders of scientists who had warned of the dangers of the pesticide back in 1998. Academic peer-reviewed studies showed that chlorpyrifos damages the brain of foetuses and new-born children, directly undermining results from studies paid for and conducted by the agrochemical industry which had shown no such effects. In addition to the work of scientists, NGOs devoted to health and the environment had collected a substantial amount of data on the chemical’s residues in food all over Europe. Finally, we were riding a wave of legislative discussions concerning the insecticide: during our investigation, the American Environmental Protection Agency came close to banning the substance, before the Trump administration walked back on that proposal.
To go about our investigation, our team decided to request data on chlorpyrifos residues in food samples collected by national authorities. The data we got were compared with annual reports compiled by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA). The quality of the national data we got varied quite a lot, but we learned that the NGO Pesticide Action Network Europe had already done a lot of the work, and with their help we could double check the relevance of our figures with the official data from EFSA.
This cross-verification helped us reach two further conclusions: that the EU-driven reporting system called Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) was of questionable value because alerts about hazardous food samples found in one country were sent out after the same samples had reached retailers (and consumers) in other countries. Second, we showed how the system of approval—known in EU-circles as the “comitology process”—is difficult for outsiders to follow. It allows decisions to be taken in an opaque manner where it’s difficult to find out who is accountable and on what grounds decisions of approval or rejection are made.
Frustrated by the lack of transparency in the comitology process, I decided to conduct a spin-off investigation after our original piece was published. I cited the Aarhus convention— a set of rules to safeguard transparency in environmental matters—to chase up the Swedish Chemicals Agency and EFSA. After an appeal, EFSA decided to release information rejected in my first request. The Swedish authorities and courts have proved to be more stubborn. I filed a complaint against the Swedish government to the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee (ACCC), a UN-body in Geneva, where the case is pending.
Yet another follow-up led to the recently finalised investigation of Illegal Pesticides with financial support from the Journalism Fund and a Reporters in the field grant from the Robert Bosch Foundation in Germany.
Documentation including background and links to the published articles on Chlorpyrifos can be found here: https://www.ir-d.dk/chlorpyrifos/. The follow up investigation on the illegal pesticides trade can be found here: https://www.ir-d.dk/illegal-trade/
Q: We need money for my project. Where do we get funding?
A: There are lots of funding opportunities available for a variety of cross-border projects. These include The European Cross-Border Grants, The Money Trail Grants or investigation support schemes provided by IJ4EU. Some grants, such as The Cancer Journalism Grant, have a specific focus, while others are less specialised. The Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) maintains a regularly updated list of grant opportunities as well as fellowships. Additionally, if you’re a freelancer, you can pitch your idea to different publications and, if they like it, you can agree on a budget for your research.
Q: How do I put together an international team?
A: Networks such as the Global Investigative Journalism Network, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Journalism Fund or Bosch Alumni include hundreds of reporters, data journalists, photographers and illustrators whom you can connect with. Once you reach out to people who have written stories on the topic you want to explore, there’s a good chance that they will want to collaborate on a cross-border story, especially if you present them with a convincing pitch. At the very least, they can point you in the right direction and share contacts and databases with you.
Q: How do I keep in touch with my team members?
A: Often, journalists are involved in several projects at once and have limited time available, so it’s difficult to synchronize schedules. What helps is to know from the start how much time each team member can spend on this project: Do they have a specific day of the week available? Will they work one hour a day? Will they do most of the reporting in three weeks? Encourage each member to schedule in a time to work on this project together at least once a week. Ideally, there should be a dedicated coordinator of the investigation or a designated journalist who will lead the team and can set up a team schedule.
During your first discussions, find the communication channel which best fits your needs. Will it be a Slack channel? Will you have weekly Zoom meetings? Is it easier on WhatsApp or Telegram? Will you send email updates? No matter what you choose, make sure everyone feels involved.
Q: Everyone is involved in the discussions. When is it too much?
A: As the conversations on the project go deeper, some team members will need daily or weekly updates. Others, such as the graphic designer, will intervene at a certain stage of the project. A possible solution for the people in the latter category is to keep them updated so they are able to ask questions or make suggestions, but to let them know they can participate at their own rhythm.
One evening in 2016, I met my friend Michael Bird—a British journalist who moved to Romania 20 years ago—for a beer. At the time, Michael was the editor of TheBlackSea.eu, a platform covering stories in Romania, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Turkey and Russia. I was working for a cultural platform called Scena9, but I was also a member of the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism, and I had worked with Michael before.
Much like in our other meetings, we discussed projects we were involved in and potential story ideas on which we could collaborate. I told Michael that a few years ago I did a story about the situation of young detainees in Romania and I was still thinking about doing a follow-up story. At that time, Romania had one of the largest inmate populations in Europe (it has decreased in the last couple of years) and some of the most crowded prisons on the continent. The rate of recidivism in Romania was high, at 80%. The European Court on Human Rights condemned Romania for inadequate detention conditions and inhuman treatment of prisoners.
We debated the causes of this situation for a while. Was it because of social problems? Was it because the Romanian system is failing to rehabilitate former inmates? Was it because other EU countries are sending Romanians convicted abroad back to their home country? The official reports didn’t provide many answers. Michael and I decided to further investigate this situation and try to get access to inmates and officials, but we knew this would be a time-consuming and costly project.
We decided to apply for a grant from the Journalism Fund, but that meant that we needed to have a cross-border approach. We decided to investigate the situation of Romanian inmates in other EU countries, and to compare their situation to that of inmates from other nationalities. At the time, the EU and national authorities across member states didn’t provide any information on the nationality of foreign inmates, so we started asking for data. After receiving data from eight countries (Sweden, Denmark, UK, Italy, Holland, Germany, Estonia, Spain), we found out that Romania had the highest total number of detainees in each of those countries.
Because we knew that Romanians represented one of the largest migrant populations in Spain and Italy, we decided to contact journalists from both countries. I knew Feliciano Tisera, who was working for an online platform in Madrid, and Michael knew Cecilia Ferrara, a freelance journalist in Rome. We had in mind a sort of case study: finding and interviewing inmates or former inmates in Spain and Italy, then going to the places where they used to live in Romania, and studying the social and economic environment there.
But getting access to prisons was very difficult. Our requests for visits were denied, and responses were delayed, so we decided to focus on the situation outside prisons and on the potential sources of criminality. Together with Feliciano and Cecilia, we visited Roma settlements near Naples, Rome and Madrid, and interviewed victims of human trafficking, NGO representatives helping migrants, and authorities investigating criminal networks involved in child abuse and theft. We also visited Călărași, a town in southern Romania where about half of the Roma ethnic population has emigrated to Italy.
In parallel, we worked on a data story, putting together and analysing the information received from 25 of the EU countries, on the composition of foreign inmates in each state. We discovered that when we looked at the number of criminals as a percentage of their expat population, Romania did not come in the top spot—that dubious honour belonged to Lithuania. So we co-opted two Lithuanian journalists to help us understand the sources of criminality among this group. Also, we needed a data analyst and a graphic designer to create a website where we would put our stories and numbers. Finally, we contacted an illustrator to help us create covers for our articles.
During this project, we had to adapt quickly to new situations. When we were denied access to an institution, when a source was afraid to talk with us or when a hypothesis didn’t prove accurate, we found a new approach, we contacted new people and discovered new angles for our story. The crucial fact here was that we were in touch with the entire team, we permanently knew what they were able to obtain and what they could not. Permanently adapting our strategy, finding a Plan B, C, D and E helped us shape a series of stories which was better than what we expected when we started the project.
Despite the challenges and adjustments, despite working in a team of 9 people (6 journalists, 1 data analyst, 1 graphic designer and 1 illustrator) we finished the project in time and within the €8,500 budget provided by the Journalism Fund. The quality and transparency of the sources of our data (we created a separate article on the methodology we used) led to publications across Europe to quote our findings.
A presentation of the project and links to the stories published in different languages on different platforms are available here.
Q: How do we deal with conflicts inside the team?
A: If you’re the initiator of the project and the leader of the team, you might have to deal with situations in which one of your colleagues is frustrated by the quality or quantity of work or with delays in the workflow. You need to act as a mediator and initiate discussions inside the team. Make sure everyone knows what is asked of them, keep a clear schedule and negotiate delays. For more information on how to resolve conflicts in cross-border teams, read this article in our series, and this one on how to deal with ethical dilemmas.
Q: Something happened while we were reporting that has dramatically affected our plans. How do we go on?
A: It’s always best to be ready for the unexpected from the start. Initially, strive to follow your Plan A, which is the maximum story, the best version you think you can provide with the data you have. However, always keep a Plan B, which is the least you can do with the data you have. The result may not be spectacular, but it can be a solid story. Also, ask yourself if the major event that ruined your Plan A can become a part of your story. If you’re working on a story about gambling addiction, for example, and a global pandemic hits, you could change the angle of your story to look at the effects of the pandemic on the industry and its players.
Q: We did a lot of reporting, and collected tons of data. How do we put it together?
A: If you’re editing the story yourself, agree with your colleagues on a list of main findings. These findings can become separate stories or chapters in a single major story. Make sure the story is interesting in each of the countries involved. And don’t forget to fact-check, fact-check, fact-check—read more about how to do this in cross-border teams in this article in the series.
Q: We finally have a story. How do we amplify our story for bigger impact?
A: Before publishing, agree on a strategy for promoting your story in each country. What are your most interesting findings? Do you have any striking quotes or figures? Who are the most important stakeholders? Can some of your sources and interviewees promote the story on their own communication channels? Do you need special visuals for Facebook or Instagram? If you will be asked to do interviews on your story, who will talk about what? Answer all of these questions together before your piece is published.
Interview with Cecilia Anesi
Cecilia Anesi is the co-founder of the Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI), a centre for investigative journalism based in Italy and part of the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project Network (OCCRP). In 2020 IRPI launched the platform Irpimedia, where Cecilia works as a staff reporter.
Cecilia, in 2019 you started investigating a malware used by the Prosecution Offices in Italy to spy on alleged criminals. You ended up publishing a series of investigations that exposed a system with links to Slovakia, Switzerland and Malta. How did the investigation start?
The Prosecution Office in Naples was investigating a malware used by Italian Prosecution Offices to legally spy on alleged criminals. However, Naples investigators figured out that the data were sent to an Amazon server in the United States, instead of being stocked in the cloud of the Italian Prosecution Offices. This means that the data were potentially made accessible to people outside of the Prosecution Offices.
I read about it and was attracted by the story. I thought: this is really interesting, this might be a giant data breach. So I decided to look further into the matter and started cooperating with Raffaele Angius, an Italian colleague and expert on digital security.
Together we realised that there was an ongoing investigation of another Prosecution Office, this time in the Southern Italian region of Calabria. That’s because the company that sold the malware to the Prosecution Offices was Calabrian—the wife of a Calabrian cop owned it.
Raffaele and I found out that there was a local journalist from Calabria, Pablo Petrasso, who was closely following this investigation and publishing updates about it regularly, so we got in touch with him too and the three of us started looking into the matter.
How did the investigation go cross-border?
The private company that sold the malware to the Prosecution Offices, and was stocking the data in an Amazon server, was secretly owned by a cop. Our Calabrian colleague knew that this cop was close to a local pharmacist who had business interests in Slovakia. I had some experience consulting the Slovakian company register, which is open source, so I looked up the names of the cop and the pharmacist. That’s how I ended up finding a company owned by both of them. Since we wanted to know more about the scope and the size of the company, we contacted our colleagues working at the Jan Kuciak Investigative Journalism Centre (ICJK), the first centre of its kind in Slovakia, and asked them for help.
What was the outcome of this cross-border collaboration?
We spent almost a month together trying to follow the money. We started digging deeper in Italy too. And what we found was like a matryoshka. The Slovakian company was tied to an Italian company co-owned by the pharmacist and other offshore companies in Switzerland and in Malta. The scope of this whole operation was, officially, the building of a touristic port in Calabria.
At some point we were working together with colleagues in Malta, Switzerland and Slovakia. What the Slovakian colleague noted is that the Slovakian company had been opened through an accountant, who had died. He knew this accountant because he was a very colourful character who had been involved in some investigations before. Obviously, we couldn’t talk to him, but our Slovakian colleague talked to his secretary. She confirmed that the company in Slovakia was opened to build a port.
The port was never built, but the company was used to move money. So in the end, the guys who sold malware to Italy’s Prosecution Offices and stored their data in the US were also involved in a port that was never built in Calabria.
Without the help of the Slovakian colleagues we would never have been able to follow the money and unveil so much.
You already knew trustworthy colleagues in Slovakia. How can young journalists wanting to work on an investigation find such colleagues?
Finding colleagues you can trust is the key to a solid cross-border investigation. There are networks you can subscribe to or reach out for, such as the GIJN or the OCCRP. In Italy, there is us at IRPI. But there are also grants, like the Robert Bosch Stiftung’s Reporters in the Field or the Journalism Fund. They can also help you get in touch with trustworthy colleagues. It’s way better to ask, instead of just contacting a random colleague you don’t know.
Once you have found a partner, I would always advise you to exchange information via encrypted tools like PGP or Signal, for example.
From your personal experience: what are the difficulties one can expect while working on a cross-border investigation?
I don’t think there are particular difficulties other than the ones you experience when you work in a team. Of course, the language can be a problem. But, nowadays, young journalists should all speak pretty good English.
Usually, when I work on a project involving another country, I always try to travel there for one week, to spend some time on the ground with colleagues. Working together for a couple of days can help the investigation proceed faster. But that’s not always possible. Today it’s even harder, because of the pandemic. But if you already know the colleagues or get good advice from someone who knows them and has worked with them before, things become easier.
Why is it important to work cross border?
Let’s not make the mistake to think that we know everything. Clearly, we don’t. So don’t be ashamed to talk to colleagues around the world and ask them for help. They know their countries; they can put things in a context you might not even have thought about. One example is an investigation I did on the Calabrian mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta, in Argentina. I had some court records and a lot of details, but much of the information wasn’t clear. So I got in touch with a colleague working for La Nación, one of Argentina's leading dailies. He knows the country much better than I do, so he helped me put things in the right context. We ended up discovering things that not even Italian authorities knew.
Interview with Marta Orosz: Meet the Project Leader of the Grand Theft Europe Cross-Border Investigation
Marta Orosz is an investigative business journalist who worked at CORRECTIV, a German non-profit investigative journalism outfit with about 20 staff members. Since October 1 she works for Business Insider, an financial and business news website owned by the German publishing house Axel Springer. Back in 2019 she headed an investigation which came to be called “Grand Theft Europe,” on the largest ongoing VAT fraud in Europe. The investigation involved 35 editorial offices from 30 countries. Prior to that she researched the cement industry and free trade agreements. Together with Stern magazine she published stories about sexual abuse on WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk).
Q. Where did you get the idea for a cross-border journalism story like Grand Theft Europe?
Marta: I don't think there is one single idea or source of inspiration for a cross-border investigation—at least that has been the case for me.I work in a field that lends itself well to cross-border investigations: the world of business and finance does not know borders. You might come across a story and realise that it’s not just for a local audience, but that some other countries might also be interested in the topic.
Another scenario for cross-border investigations generally occurs when a newsroom is sent leaked documents, which are of relevance in several countries. It makes sense to invite colleagues from other countries to work on the story, if you're willing to share the results of whatever comes out of it.
Q. You were the project lead of the investigative cross-border story Gand Theft Europe, which was published in 2019. Can you tell us about how you formed the team and what the work-flow was like?
First we got in touch with colleagues from other countries, who we worked with earlier or knew through conferences. There was barely any country in Europe, which did not lose money through VAT fraud, so our plan was to have newsrooms from every country of the European Union, plus Switzerland, Norway and the UK. That made it more challenging. We called the Arena for Journalism in Europe organization, which is in charge the Dataharvest conference and as such, have an impressive network of journalists all over the world. They were very helpful in directing us towards the right newsrooms and people for this project.
Trust is really important in cross-border teams, and so we devoted some time to look up the newsrooms, the journalists, and how they've covered different stories in the past. We wanted to make sure that we have similar values and approaches to reporting.
Q. What are some important values besides trust when it comes to cross-border collaboration?
There was one more thing that we did, which I think is very important for cross-border investigations, and that’s preparing a nondisclosure agreement or any binding written agreement to avoid misunderstandings or last-time changes of plan. The NDA should be signed by everyone involved in the project, and should cover things like the publication date and how you're handling sensitive documents, and make sure that no confidential information or documents will be made available for third parties. If everyone is willing to sign such a document, you have somewhere to turn to in case of breach of trust. It also demonstrates that people are committed to the job.
It's just as important to establish encrypted, secure communication channels with colleagues. Communication is key and it needs to be safe and secure, as well as simple enough for everyone to use, because very often during reporting, you need to ask and answer questions in a short period of time. If you’re sharing confidential documents, you also have to make sure that the online servers are secure. In the Grand Theft Europe case, the media outlet I was working with, CORRECTIV, invested in creating a secure website which could be accessed anywhere.
Q. What would you tell younger journalists about why cross-border investigative journalism is particularly interesting?
The more newsrooms work on a story, the bigger traction it can get and the more stories will come out of the investigation. So I think the benefits are pretty clear.
I would like to encourage newsrooms to invest more in such projects. Even if a reporter would be out of office for a couple days because they are exchanging ideas with colleagues from other countries, on the long-term this just adds to the quality and scope of their stories-
Newsrooms should also be open to taking more cross-border story pitches. Cross-border investigations are long-term, and involve costs and other resources. So newsrooms have to do a cost-benefit analysis and consider if they are going to give their reporters the time and money they need to pursue this project, even if they don’t know for sure what they’re going to get out of it. Most of the time, the benefits outweigh the costs, but that’s not always clear to newsrooms or editors.
Q. For you personally, why is it worth working on a cross-border investigation?
I speak four European languages fluently and another one fairly well, so for me it has always been natural and inspiring to work together with people from other countries. I’ve always enjoyed meeting other reporters and learning from them. I find it very enriching, both professionally and personally, because even after the project is finalised, it's always great to stay in touch and help each other out.