By the Editors September 22, 2014
Cross-border crime and corruption have ballooned in recent years, in tandem with globalization. According to United Nations estimates they now generate around $870 billion in profits a year for criminal organizations.
These illicit networks are ripe for investigative coverage, and yet, investigative journalists often struggle to cover them. They may lack the resources, funding, or country expertise to follow the money across borders and into other jurisdictions, or to sniff out the trails of dummy companies that human trafficking, narcotics dealing, weapons smuggling, and political corruption often leave in their wake. Public information about companies, deals, and transactions may be accessible only in formats that are difficult to decipher or held by obscure public agencies that require local knowledge to navigate. A lack of coordination between police and prosecutors in different countries doesn’t help.
The Investigative Dashboard, a relatively new online research aid and tool, aims to help investigative journalists tackle this problem by compiling public records worldwide and offering a global network of research experts. Paul Radu, executive director of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, developed the concept in 2010 with South African publisher and champion of investigative journalism Justin Arenstein, when the two were at Stanford as John S. Knight journalism fellows. It was launched soon after with funding from the Open Society Foundations and has received additional financial support from Google Ideas. Since the ID’s launch, journalists have used it to write stories that have won more than a dozen international awards, forced the resignations of heads of state, and led to arrests, indictments, and seizures of funds.
Radu tapped Miranda Patrucic, a veteran investigative journalist from Bosnia, to act as the lead researcher for the Investigative Dashboard, and to manage the project. Covering Business spoke with Patrucic about how the dashboard works, some of the stories it has helped journalists to uncover, and what’s next.
Q: How did you build the Investigative Dashboard database?
Miranda Patrucic: We spent months doing the research, figuring out what kinds of records were available in which parts of the world, in which language, how we would access it, who we would need to talk to and so on. We ultimately put company information from more than 400 business registries and gazettes in 120 jurisdictions into one big list, which you can find on the Investigative Dashboard. And we collaborated with different hackers to try to scrape some of the data from business registries for Luxembourg, Switzerland, Panama, UAE, Romania, Spain, and some others. This is now published and searchable on the ID website.
Q: What does the searchable database allow a reporter to do?
MP: In most countries, it is very difficult to look for what kinds of companies a person has, because they may only allow searches based on company name, or in some cases you have to know the registration number. That makes it very difficult to try to track down a person, to figure out if a politician or a businessman owns a particular company. So by scraping the official gazettes—these are public records—we made them searchable by name, by country, or nationality of the person.
Q: What is one of the biggest stories the ID helped to unravel?
MP: One of the big stories I worked on was TeliaSonera. Reporters from the Swedish public service television channel SVT came to me and they said, ‘We need help tracking down this company that got $320 million from TeliaSonera, which is the Swedish telecom operator, to get a telecom license in Uzbekistan.’ And the work that I did and the reporting they did resulted in our being able to prove that it was a bribe to Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistan’s president. She is a formal suspect in Sweden. The CEO of TeliaSonera was forced to resign. Some other employees of TeliaSonera are being investigated. After the Swedish investigation there were 10 more countries that initiated an investigation into the case.
Another major story, written by reporters from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, was about Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer from Russia, who worked for the Hermitage Funds, and died in a Russian prison after uncovering a $230 million fraud allegedly committed by Russian officials. One of our stories basically tracked down the banking records of some of the Russian companies that got the stolen tax money. We were able to prove that a son of the head of the tax office used some of the money to buy an apartment in New York, which was seized by prosecutors there.
Q: Is the help of the research desk free?
MP: Basically we have a web page where reporters can create an account, and once their account is approved they can file a research request. In many cases, if the media organization is from a developing country, we have a budget, we do the research and get the records for free. The only thing we ask them to do is to explain what are they looking for. The more details they give us about the research they need, the more we can help.
Q: What’s next?
MP: We are trying to build a network of research librarians, people who will be volunteering their time and any of the databases to help reporters. So there will be two parts to the ID research desk: One will be a professional cadre of researchers, people who are hired by us, and the other part will be people who are volunteering their time.
Q: Are there certain countries where records are especially difficult to access?
MP: In the gulf countries of the Middle East, records are almost impossible to get. But in Tunisia and Morocco, you actually have very good records online. In some other places you have no records online, but you do have official gazettes. Our local partners will spend some time scraping and uploading these documents, trying to put the information in one place for the whole Middle East, which will be an amazing resource when its done. Asia is difficult as well. You have very little information in Asia that is available online. Even with the U.S. business registries, you may get very little online, and have to have a person go and pick up the records.
In Montenegro, sometimes we wait for weeks or months before we can get something. Online databases may get you names, but nothing else. To get the real records it takes weeks and months. It depends. When you’re doing a story, dealing with someone who is involved in fraud or money laundering, the information you can get online is not enough: you need annual reports, copies of passports, full incorporation records, contracts and so on, and in many cases that information is not available online and you have to go and get them offline.
Q: Do you have the funding you need to support this project for the long-term?
MP: So far, Open Society and Google Ideas have been very supportive and have recognized the importance of ID. And our local partners have their own sources of funding. But it’s going to be a challenge. All the funders are looking to make it sustainable, so we are trying to figure out whether to take on commercial work. But then we would have an ethical dilemma: what if someone was looking for the same information that a reporter was looking for? You’d probably have to have two sets of stats. Also, how do you know who your client is? Is he a lawyer for a criminal, and he wants to investigate a rival? Or maybe it’s the World Bank and they’re good guys. We need to make ID sustainable in the long run because the project has made a difference in many parts of the world.
This entry was posted on Monday, September 22nd, 2014 at 12:14 pm. It is filed under Featured, industry news, Q&As, Tools & Resources and tagged with Google Ideas, Gulnara Karimova, Investigative Dashboard, John S. Knight, Justin Arenstein, Miranda Patrucic, OCCRP, Open Society Foundations, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Paul Radu, Sergei Magnitsky, TeliaSonera. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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