Outriders Meetup in Sofia: Cross-Border Investigations

On March 14th we have hosted an Outriders Meetup in Sofia where we have talked about cross-border, investigative journalism. Our speakers included Simon Bowers from the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists (yes, the ones who won a Pulitzer for the Panama Papers Investigation!), Saska Cvetkovska, a co-founder of the Investigative Reporting Lab in northern Macedonia and a director on the board of OCCRP, and Ludo Hekman from Lighthouse Reports. As OCCRP’s motto says “It takes a network to take down a network”, and so we got together and discussed what are the benefits and challenges of cross-border collaboration. Below comes a summary of what our speakers talked about along with the links to their talks. Enjoy! Thank you to Boryana Dzhambazova and Camelia Ivanova from the European Journalists Association in Bulgaria and the Generator in Sofia for help with organising the event! Ludo Hekman, Lighthouse Reports “…It sounds a little bit like a love story”.

  • To explain how the Lighthouse Report does cross-border journalism Ludo talked about our project #EUarms
  • Usually, if you sell arms, there is some control over this process, e.g. licenses
  • There are also European regulations that say that you can only sell arms under certain conditions, these are eight conditions which governments need to enforce to sell weapons to a given country
  • If the country doesn’t observe human rights and has a history of violent repressions, you must not provide them with guns
  • The monitoring process works only before the arms are being shipped, once they are sent to a given country, you can’t control it anymore
  • We have decided to check if the European governments know where their arms end up as we have proof that their arms from Europe are spreading all over the globe
  • To put the pressure on governments, we have decided to streamline what we find out via national media
  • However, the research is being conducted in specific teams in different countries
  • Our methodology is: open data and open information we can find online + setting up temporary teams (10–15 people) + working in sprints at boot camps offline, together in the same place
  • We have managed to push publications in Germany, Italy and soon in the Netherlands
  • There are now people all over Europe working on the same topic; we are hoping this pressure will help us in fostering some change
  • Cross-border tips: define a collective goal
  • Cross border tips: rigid structures
  • Cross border tips: true dedication
  • It sounds a little like a love story 😉 ^^, but it is essential to be together when you are writing a story together
  • Get a nice mix of skills: journalists, educators, investigators, techies, international affairs experts

Saska Cvetkovska, Investigative Reporting Lab Macedonia, OCCRP “It takes a network to take down a network.”

  • Only working together can bring us closer to a meaningful, political change
  • OCCRP — a network of investigative reporters and editors located across the globe, in 34 countries
  • We are working together to ensure global accountability of governments
  • A case study of Wardog Millionaire (yes, movie-inspired)
  • Information War in the Balkans — we have investigated the former minister of Defence in Macedonia and what was his role in the so-called fake news operation started by the conservatives in the US during the elections in 2016
  • By founding out whose assets increased during the propaganda war
  • It is how we have ended up in a very small place in northern Macedonia, a town where there used to be one state-owned factory which was then criminally privatised and now there are only a few people there, and they are very poor
  • We found a small factory which used to produce ammunition and is currently producing something no one wants to name
  • We found out that ammunition was probably smuggled from Albania to Macedonia, to this little factory, with the involvement of neighbouring countries and then redistributed to Africa — where gangs can use it for their internal wars. It is old Chinese ammunition which can’t be used by armies.
  • How did we do it?
  • Five countries, six reporters, four researchers, four editors, seven fact-checkers + a tech team
  • Every single OCCRP reporter checked out our assumptions and led to their countries in a week
  • Money moves borders faster than people
  • Local journalism is what makes the big global stories
  • Connect for a significant, meaningful change!

Simon Bowers, ICIJ “Stories aren’t packaged up with a bow for you to tell.”

  • I am going to talk about journalists’ collaboration using the examples of Panama Papers and the Implant Files
  • Panama Papers: 1,4 terabytes of leaked off-shore data, it was incredibly messy
  • We had 200 journalists, 50 publications on board
  • We started for looking for names we recognised and some structured behaviours
  • There were many names of companies names and many directors names and we felt frustrated by it
  • We have decided to set aside our data and… bought running shoes from a shop
  • We followed a money trail from a recipe of Nike shoes — from one company to another
  • Wherever myself or my colleague journalists based in Europe bought their Nike shoes from, we figured out that we were essentially giving the money to the same company which had on offshore account to the Bermudas
  • The European Commission has announced an investigation into Nike tax structure
  • Implant Files: artificial hips, pacemakers, etc. — the level of testing that goes into testing these devices is very low
  • In this case, a lot of data was hidden from us
  • A Dutch journalist took a plastic net of mandarines, and she sold it to a medical company as a surgical mesh to prove her point. It got certified. She secretly filmed all this.
  • She came to us and pitched this story and asked us to work on it on a European scale
  • We have looked into a wireless pacemaker which is a significant, exciting innovation. They said it would last 19 years. Unfortunately, it only lasted three years. It was dangerous to remove, so she had to have a conventional surgery and an old pacemaker. It wasn’t just her case. We have looked into how it was tested — over 90 days by 33 patients.
  • The data we have managed to gather has never been displayed in such a form across Europe
  • We were invited to give a summary of our findings to the European Parliament, and they are now reconsidering their take on the transparency of this information
  • If a problem is reinforced in each jurisdiction, it becomes tough for politicians to ignore. The power of synchronised reporting is always much better than that of a single story.