Arab reporters learn to "follow the money"
There’s a buzz of excited voices and tapping on computer keyboards. Hunkered over their computers in concentration or discussing ideas, the around 25 participants of the three-day “Follow the Money”-workshop at the 2012 ARIJ conference are putting into use their newly acquired skills on how to dig up information on possibly corrupt politicians and businessmen
By Lena Odgaard
“Look at LinkedIn or Facebook – these are great first places to look for possible information,” says trainer Paul Radu, Executive Director of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) based in Romania.
A participant, Riad Kobeisi head of the investigative unit of Al-Jadid TV in Lebanon, is searching through databases like OCCRP, ‘Investigative Dashboard‘, andLexisNexis. Online databases he didn’t know existed but which he is certain will be valuable in his future work.
Though Kob has been doing investigative reports since 2008, he says the workshop has made him more aware of the procedure of building a strong hypothesis as well as finding the solid information to back it.
“Mainly, I have learned how to research – there are search engines for off shore havens and registration places. I didn’t know I could access this specialised information,” says Kobeisi. He adds they have also discussed how and when to confront the top officials and business directors they are investigating, and how to anticipate their reaction so they as journalists can get them to expose themselves.
Documents – and structure – are key
Already at the opening of the workshop, trainer Drew Sullivan, an advisor to the OCCRP from the USA made it clear that documents are the “key, heart and soul” in investigative journalism.
“Not gossip, rumours or hearsay – we don’t rely on people sources, only to provide colour. I need documents. They can lie too but at least they are consistent,” he said.
Sullivan explained to the reporters that there is a long list of public records which can be obtained by journalists such as original registration of companies, minutes from board meetings, annual financial reports, trade licenses, insurance registration, NGO reports etc.
“You download it, scan and put it in a searchable database,” said Sullivan emphasising the importance of a systematic approach and advising the reporters to use search engines specifically for their own hard drives such as Google desktop.
Still, other methods such as direct observation – going out and actually looking at the business under investigation to see if it even exists – and talking to people, are also important. Especially if there happens to be an affronted ex-wife, he said.
Investigative stories go across borders
In the conference room, a group of the participating reporters are looking into a Lebanese minister who they suspect of having hidden assets abroad. Trainer, Paul Radu sums up their findings so far and concludes:
“Our story is already cross-border, because we also found that this guy had businesses in Syria and we found connections in Egypt. It’s important to follow all the information and names but that will take time. Don’t loose yourself. You can search forever without getting anywhere – you need to focus,” says Radu.
According to Sullivan most of the big-scale stories now goes across borders. The value of the ARIJ conference training is therefore not only in the skillset learned but also in the building of relationships with researchers, editors and investigative reporters in other countries.
“It’s only through networking and sharing skills that we can actually reveal corruption scandals,” he said: “It might be difficult to get information in your country – but the truth is, that it’s not just about your country. If you can’t find it in your country maybe you can find it in a neighbouring country”, says Sullivan while emphasising that investigative reporting is a skill that takes years of experience before being really good at it. And it also takes a certain personality:
“You have to have a certain disrespect for authority – let people in power piss you off. That’s the motivating factor that keeps you going; Why do people in power get to drive fancy limousines when people are starving?”