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‘There Are No Bad Sources, Only Incompetent Reporters’

There is no democracy without efficient institutions and too many journalists passively accept this, says Portuguese investigative journalist and "troublemaker" Rui Araujo.

There is no democracy without efficient institutions and too many journalists passively accept this state, says Portuguese investigative journalist and “troublemaker” Rui Araujo.

This is the latest in our “Secrets of the Masters” series of interviews with great investigative reporters. 

Share with us a story or investigation that you pursued and the impact it had.

O Estado do Crime (The State of crime) was aired on TVI in June 2010. It is a story about fraud, corruption, money laundering and environmental crime.

It involved tons of hazardous waste produced in the North of Portugal by Siderurgia Nacional Maia (National Steel Works) over a 20-year period (1976-1996) that were illegally deposited, from May 2001 to February 2002, in the disused mines of Sao Pedro da Cova by the Portuguese public firm Urbindustria/Baia do Tejo (associated to the private consortium, Terriminas-Vila Rei).

This operation was illegal on a number of fronts. The formal request presented to the Ministry of Environment (DRAOT-N) to use the old mines was based on a number of lies. For one, the waste was described as “innocuous”.

The dumping of the waste started in May 2001, but the official government authorization for the operation was only issued in November 2001. Furthermore, it was done without the knowledge of the mine’s owners.

In 2010, the Secretary of State of the Environment, Humberto Rosa, granted me an interview. He strongly denied my allegations – based on the government’s own confidential documents – that the waste was toxic. He did not comment on the fact the operation carried out by the State was absolutely illegal.

After my report was aired, the Minister of Environment, Dulce Passaro, asked a publicly owned laboratory, LNEC, to analyze the waste. The scientific conclusions of the study were scary: it confirmed the waste was highly dangerous and that the landfill and surrounding waterways were being polluted.

The story made headlines in the Portuguese press.

The Prosecutor-General’s Office ordered a criminal investigation. The investigation is still going on. The final conclusions might not lead to a trial.

In March 2011, the Ministry of Environment (CCDR-N) admitted the waste of Sao Pedro da Cova was “very dangerous”. The Ministry decided it was necessary to transfer the material to a treatment centre and also to upgrade and protect the environment at the landfill site, and monitor groundwater quality.

Despite the statements, once again no action was taken.

In December 2011, I decided to do a follow-up of the incredible affair.

I asked to interview the Prime Minister of Portugal, Jose Socrates. He happened to be the Minister of Environment when the operation was “approved” in 2001. Socrates has been connected to other scandals, allegedly involving both corruption and money laundering.

The prime minister’s press attaché, Luis Bernardo, a former journalist who had worked for my own company, called a deputy director of my television station. He also had an “informal” meeting with one of our cameramen at the official residence of the head of the government.

My cameraman colleague told me he was asked to let Bernardo know what my questions would be. A second secret reunion between the two men was scheduled. It took place on a Sunday afternoon in front of a closed restaurant near my workplace.

I told Bernardo by e-mail he was playing a dirty game. He denied any interference, calling me a liar and a manipulator. I did not get the interview with Socrates.

I decided to present a complaint to the Conselho de Redaccao (an institution designed to promote and to protect ethics in the newsrooms). The majority of the members of the Conselho de Redaccao made clear in their conclusions that the Press attache of the prime minister was just doing his job.

In any case, I did a second story on crime within the State and the affair Sao Pedro da Cova. It was titled “Abutres” (Vultures).

The more than three hundred and twenty thousand tons of hazardous waste remains illegally and untreated in the old mines, as it has done for the past eleven years.

The Portuguese State spent already millions of euros for nothing. The money was spent to pay the transfer of the toxic waste. According to the initial project there were 97,500 tons in Siderurgia Nacional Maia. Portuguese tax payers paid the transfer of 321,614 tons +  50,000 tons still left in the industrial compound. Conclusion: 97,500 tons became 370,000 tons. The final price represents this amount.

Not a single public officer has been convicted. The Portuguese government has not implemented its own resolutions and obligations.

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

All journalists by nature ought to be investigative journalists. The only difference is that some of us – the troublemakers or the hunters – are given more time to do our job.

In my case it was a natural evolution, driven by a sense that the true practice of investigative journalism in Portugal is pretty low. News is considered a product, not a service. Many journalists passively accept this state of affairs but I am determined not to be one of them.

There is no democracy without efficient institutions, and the Portuguese institutions – at least to my mind – are ineffective. This is all the more reason, in my humble opinion, to continue to investigate and to report.

What methods, techniques and tools have served you best as an investigative journalist?

I like to meet regularly with my sources. I prefer to investigate criminal affairs before the authorities do.

For example, one chief of the Portuguese drug enforcement agency (DCITE) stole 100,000 euros that had been seized by her own police department.

She was arrested after my story was published by Portuguese weekly Expresso. She was accused, and sentenced 7 years in prison by the criminal court. In that article I also exposed a DCITE cop who was a convicted drug dealer. Police did not know it or did not want to know it when the guy has been hired. He was transferred to another department.

I use exclusively a sketchbook for each story (contacts and transcripts) – not a computer. Never. There are no safe communications.

First of all, I collect important documents. I do it informally. It is crucial to do so in Portugal.

Then, I present formal requests to the institutions – often for the same documents. For instance, it took me 5 months and 2 legal complaints to the Commission to Access Administrative Documents (CADA) before I got a couple of IRS records I already had on misconduct and the peculiar affairs of public companies.

Finally, I do the interviews.

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

None. Investigative journalism is essentially a question of perseverance, method, sweat, and good sources.

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

The priority in a story has always got to be the public interest. I concur with the advice given by the investigative reporter and fellow ICIJ member Bill Birnbauer: “Be unsatisfied. Be strategic. Be proactive. Be open-minded. Keep digging,”

In my questioning I normally start with the light artillery – the easy questions – and then I fire off the heavy ones. Two steps.

Since transparency is purely theoretical in many countries, the best way to conduct research is – as another ICIJ member, Phillip Knightley, says – never to take a “No” for an answer.

Last but not least, never lie to your sources and always protect them. There are no bad sources, only incompetent reporters.

I have started a new investigation on corruption in the government. It concerns two senior politicians. The problem is not how to get the documents that prove the corruption, but how to disclose this specific story. Promiscuity and cowardice are not vain words in today’s news business…

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

In Aikido we say: “the biggest victory is the one that you achieve against yourself”. I respect that basic rule in journalism too. I don’t need to defeat people, but I have the obligation to inform the citizens.

I never go up against defenseless people.

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?

 The story must be relevant in terms of public interest and/or social impact.

What is the biggest single threat to investigative reporting and what advice can you give to others?

The economic powers – journalists should not forget that there can’t be a democracy without a free press. Passivity is not a solution.

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

Don’t be afraid – ever.

This is the latest in our “Secrets of the Masters” series of interviews with great investigative reporters. Read previous installments on our Resources page.

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