As investigative journalism becomes more dangerous, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) ensures that even a journalist’s death will not kill important stories, says managing editor Ilya Lozovsky.
DW: What is the main goal of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project?
We feel very strongly that one of our main missions in looking at organized crime and corruption is to focus attention on journalists who are threatened because of their work in that area. And unfortunately, we've had to do this a few times recently with the murder of Jan Kuciak in Slovakia.
He wasn't employed by us, but we were collaborating with him when he was killed, so we had our suspicions that his death may have been linked to his work for us. After he was killed, we did two major projects following up on his work, completing some of his reporting and looking very closely at what happened to him and at the investigation. One of the projects is called "A murdered journalist’s last investigation," and the other is called "Unfinished Lives"; each of them has multiple stories.
We also did the Daphne Project - about Daphne Caruana Galizia, the journalist who was killed in Malta while following up on the Panama Papers. The idea is to immediately assign many journalists to the place where someone was killed, because we want to show what they don't want you to know. These are not crimes of passion, they are business calculations (as crass as that sounds) and we try to change this by showing that if you kill journalists, you're not going to kill the story. We're going to send 50 more into the region, we're going to find out everything about you, we're going to publish everything we have as soon as we can, just to show that we're not intimidated.
"When you see connections between organized crime, such as the mafia, to local officials or potentially to senior politicians, this is always the most dangerous area."
How do these collaborative groups work, following up on the investigations of those journalists who've been murdered?
There is an organization in France called Forbidden Stories that we have worked with in the past and this is exactly their mission: to do in-depth journalism relating to murdered journalists or those under threat. We work with them and we're huge believers in collaboration.
All of the major stories we've done were only possible because we’re a trans-border, cross-national network. That's the best way to look at these stories; since they so often involve financial flows across the whole world, it's the only way to do the actual investigation. Whenever someone ends up in trouble or killed, threatened or jailed, it's usually at the nexus of organized crime and corruption. And when you see a lot of connections between organized crime, such as the mafia, to local officials or potentially to senior politicians, this is always the most dangerous area.
Corruption and organized crime are the two parts of our name: We’re the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. But we often find that they’re the same thing or very tightly interlinked, because in countries with a weak rule of law, where they have captured judicial systems, organized crime tends to thrive and it is often connected to those in power. They'll enable it and profit from it. And those are the most sensitive areas for journalists.
That's the case in Serbia where we have KRIK, one of our strongest member centers. Earlier this year, we published a story with them, showing the president's brother meeting in a restaurant with a very scary senior figure in the organized crime scene. Of course, there's plausible deniability which is how they always do it — the president will say I'm not responsible for my brother's social life, but he is the dark enforcer. He's the one who has these dirty jobs.
Currently, almost every investigation has some kind of overlap between organized crime and Russia. Of course, Russia has long been recognized almost as a modern day kleptocracy because, as per our reports, the same people in power are the ones who are stealing, committing fraud and laundering money.
When we speak about the dangers investigative journalists are facing today, one of the greatest risks appears to be online. We saw, for example, in the case of Daphne Caruana Galizia, that there was a closed Facebook group devoted to harassing her in the years before her death. In other cases, people are using spyware to infiltrate journalists' phones in order to find their contacts. How does OCCRP respond to that?
One reason Drew Sullivan, our editor-in-chief, likes to call us a platform is because we don't just do our own reporting, we provide services for our members and one of the major services we provide is security. That includes assistance with both physical security and with a lot of trainings. We also have a very aggressive tech team that helps everyone secure their sites. That's one of the key things we provide.
And of course there are other forms of support beyond digital safety such as physical and legal assistance if needed. We also provide data and research services, but I would say that security is one of the priorities. We have to be as diligent about it as we can.