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‘Open up as much dialogue with reporters in other countries as possible’

Paul Radu shares how he tracks down the money across borders.

Paul Radu of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project walks his talk when it comes to sharing information and know-how. Here the Investigative Dashboard creator shares how he tracks down the money across borders. Secrets of the Masters” series of interviews with great investigative reporters. 

What are the most important tools of the trade that you, as an instructor, pass on?

What I try to do when I train journalists all over the world is to convince them of the usefulness and of the beauty of cross-border investigative journalism. I always share cross-border investigative tools with them: databases, software that can be used to retrieve, structure and analyze data as well as techniques for initiating a cross border investigation and for managing an international investigative team. In the past few years I have also tried to contribute to enhancing cooperation between investigative reporters and hackers. Initiatives such as the Investigative Dashboard and handbooks I wrote on how to follow the money across borders are my attempts to igniting more transnational cooperation.

What are the dynamics of conducting cross-border investigations? How do you pull off such projects successfully? Share with us a recent story or investigation that you pursued and the impact it had.

The people are the key to a successful, efficient cross-border investigation. As a cross-border investigative editor, I always rely on the creativity of the investigative project’s team. In order to stimulate creativity, editors must be able to present a complete picture of the matter to be investigated, must be able to coordinate and take into account each individual idea. The editor designs a flexible foundation for the cross-border investigation and must be able to accommodate the ideas coming from the team during the reporting process. The editor must also be able to leverage information and know-how across the investigation’s collaborative space so that all participants benefit and accumulate know-how.

In the Balkans, our recent investigations into the offshore industry led to an array of criminal businesses to be disrupted and to prosecutions to be initiated because the investigative team was able to pinpoint to the people responsible for the establishing of offshore company structure involved in crime. This project is still having effects and it is successful because it opened up the doors into a hidden world. But the main thing is that projects like this have been built on prior experience of the investigative team. They have all hit walls when trying to investigate rigged privatizations, corporate raiding, corruption in the highest governmental levels or organized crime as they have always run into offshore type companies used in such criminal deals. The editor and the team both understood the need to get very creative in order to break windows into a world of secrecy.

Sometimes projects build up on training and promotion of cross-border investigative reporting skills. It was the case with a team that was created ad-hoc in Cairo last year when I trained Egyptian reporters into tracking down the money across borders. I gave these reporters sets of data containing all the Egyptian-owned companies in Switzerland and the United Kingdom and this was the start of an investigative series “The Hunt for Egypt’s Money” that involved reporters in Egypt, Azerbaijan and Romania and led to cronies of the former regime being indicted for money laundering and fraud. This series is an example of the power of data exchanges. Data from one geography has different value in other geographies and investigative reporters should play with it in order to give the public an accurate, complete picture of phenomena affecting their lives and emptying their pockets.

As I write these lines I’m in a hotel room in Mexico City talking on Skype with a reporter in the Caucasus who is investigating a corrupt mineral resources deal.

What is the path that led you to investigative journalism in the first place?

I used to read lots of travel/adventure books when I was a kid and I have always dreamt about exploring lands and meeting people all over the world. Some of these books have been written by journalists and that led me to the belief that journalism might be a way. I’m also curious by nature and I believe people should keep on learning all lifelong.

What methods, techniques, and tools have served you best as an investigative journalist? Please illustrate with an example.

Mining data through national and international registries of companies proved to be a very efficient way to follow the money across borders and to document corruption and criminal activities in governments of many countries. The Investigative Dashboard (ID), a web place where research tools and databases are aggregated and where researchers assist journalists in finding corporate data from all over the world, proved to be a highly efficient tool in uncovering organized crime and corruption. Examples are numerous: one of them involved the ID helping Egyptian, Azeri and Romanian investigative reporters to track down the assets of the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. ID researchers and reporters from these countries combed through records in Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Spain, Panama, Azerbaijan, Romania and the British Virgin Islands in order to track down how Mubarak’s cronies hid billions of dollars.

How has the increasing importance of digital and online media (especially the immediacy factor they emphasize) impacted the quality and practice of investigative journalism?

I trust we’re leaving a new era in investigative journalism. The Internet and the digitization of information made data more accessible than ever before. Digital media fulfills a role that couldn’t be fulfilled by traditional media: it allows much more interactions between media consumers and media makers and also allows for these roles to be interchangeable. What I’m saying is that the digital investigative reporter is much more of a facilitator of good information for the public than the traditional investigative reporter working for a newspaper used to be. Online journalism can establish new, higher, levels of trust and collaboration through the postage of documenting material, through crowdsourcing and through sharing of know-how.

Do you employ a lot of data-based methods in your investigative reporting? If yes, what kinds of data do you use and how?

I’m using lots of databases as databases represent access to a wealth of information. I don’t think meaningful investigative reporting nowadays can be performed without database access. This is why I established the Investigative Dashboard as a place that allows journalists to access databases that offer corporate information. I’m using all kinds of data in my reporting: national registries of companies, national court records, hacker generated databases, scientific and technology databases, social media generated databases and combinations of all the above or all sorts of international commercial and non-commercial databases.

Talk about your approach to stories. Is there anything unusual about the way you conduct your research or choose your themes?

I’m always trying to judge the stories according to the potential impact they might have. It is important, I believe, to take into account the long-term impact of a story. Stories are archived on the web and may have impact long-term. I also think investigative reporters should treat all stories as follow-ups to their previous work. Cross-border journalism is about building on and improving prior experiences so that with each new story we can deliver more and more useful information.

What do you consider some of the most important lessons you have learned over the years?

I believe in sharing information and know-how. Unfortunately, many journalists are very secretive about their methods and refuse to share much but I found out, over the years, that sharing methods and information leads to better journalism. Sharing is very rewarding for me as I benefit from it directly in the long run. There are many stories that I was able to work on because a journalist approached me with information just because at some point I was sharing my methods with him or her. This is why with both the ID and Rise Project in Romania I’m posting video tutorials explaining various advanced investigative reporting techniques. This has already paid off as reporters got in touch with me and my colleagues over their findings and this led to new stories.

What are the key elements that make an investigative story truly “click”? What do they have to have and what should they not be missing?

Connecting to your readers and building a community around your investigative reporting is very useful and rewarding. It’s always good to explain in a simple manner why your investigation is important and to engage the readers and viewers in seeing how the wrongdoings they read about are affecting them directly. It is also important, I trust, to visually represent complex business connections and to layer the investigation. First layer: a simple visual and narrative, second layer: the documentation, third layer: how you did it and so on. I think such layering can add trust and transparency to the investigative process.

What is the biggest single threat to your investigative reporting and what advice can you give to others who might be facing the same obstacle?

I believe, besides threats from mobsters and crooked politicians (both physical and legal), the main threat confronting investigative journalists is self-sufficiency. Journalists must keep on educating themselves and must keep on building bridges between themselves and people in other walks of life.

What tips would you give young, emerging, investigative reporters?

Keep on learning and try open up as much dialogue with reporters in other countries as possible.

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