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‘Everyone can be an investigative journalist. Everyone!’

Inga Springe describes the challenges of creating the first investigative journalism center in the Baltics, as well as her groundbreaking investigations into organized crime and economic inequality.

Inge Springe is the founder and director of the Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism. Her stories for the center, which is also known as Re:Baltica, have resulted in action against public officials and helped bring about changes in Latvian economic and tax policy.

Your work in Latvia explored topics including organized crime and corruption. What were some of the most significant stories that you discovered?

In autumn 2011, together with colleagues from Balkan countries, Russia and the Ukraine, we published a project called The Proxy Platform. Re:Baltica, the center which I direct, worked on a part of the project related to a Latvian bank’s involvement in money laundering schemes and murky business offshore.

The Proxy Platform project was divided into several parts. Colleagues from OCCRP discovered that several Latvian banks were used as hubs to channel stolen taxpayer money from Russia and the Ukraine. We took a deeper look at a company called Tormex’s bank account in one of Latvia’s banks – Baltic International Bank. As the investigation showed, this company was used to channel “dirty” money from all around the world. Even Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel used this account.

Along with a colleague from Germany, Graham Stack, I researched an offshore services company called Overseas International Services. The company was based in Latvia’s capital Riga since the mid 90s, and its services were used by individuals from Russia and the Ukraine. The interesting point was that the nominee directors for these offshore companies (mainly registered in New Zealand, Panama, UK) were Latvian people. The most famous of them was an old and impoverished pensioner named Erik Vanagels, who appeared as a nominee director in at least 300 offshore companies.

During our research, the International Overseas Services was shut down. You read the story here.

Our latest and most successful project was about social inequality in Latvia. For the first time we used statistics and examples to show why Latvia is such a poor country.

According to Eurostat data, Latvia has the highest GINI coefficient in EU (the GINI measures income inequality). We calculated the incomes of bottom 90% of Latvia’s society, top 10% and top 1%. The richest households made seven times more than the average among the bottom 90% of the population. You see the info graphics here.

Our research also showed that Latvia’s tax and benefit system is built to advantage wealthy people rather than small wage earners. For example, someone who owns a company could “save” money by registering his/her car on a company’s name. In such a way the company owner could “optimize” on VAT tax, fuel and repairing costs, while poorer people have no such option. To prove this, we got the data for all registered cars in Latvia in 2009 and 2010. We filtered out how many brand new BMW cars had been registered in Latvia. The result showed that 80% of these brand new BMW were registered in a company’s name and not in a physical person’s name.

The project received huge publicity and the prime minister announced reduction of social inequality as a priority for 2013.

 What were the results of your publishing these stories?

After several years of talk and promises, for the first time there has been a big effort in government recently to reduce the tax burden on a people with small wages. We believe this will help a lot to encourage people to stay in Latvia instead of leaving the country. I assume that this project was also successful because people are tired and really want changes. So there were all the conditions in place to hit the target – to create some movement among decision makers in Latvia.

As founder of the Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism, what have been the greatest challenges in setting up an organization dedicated to investigative reporting?

The greatest challenge for me still is lack of good journalists who can do deeper analyses, write in a non-fiction style (which is undeveloped in Latvia), speak in English, and, most important – to have passion for a job they are doing! At the beginning I thought I would just hire a journalist, and they would give me a great story after several months. I had never led people before that.

But to my surprise I was wrong. We have very few good investigative journalists in Latvia and they are overwhelmed with their jobs.

Funding is also a challenge. Compared to the US, former Soviet countries like the Baltics don’t have traditions of charitable donation. In addition, we are part of the EU, so we are not eligible for large international funds anymore. The EU spends a lot of money for media, but to “write about” the EU, not to do investigative journalism.

Another challenge was that it took time for other commercial media to understand the idea of non-profit investigative journalism organization. They were cautious at the beginning, but recently many of them have approached us with offers to collaborate.

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

Desire to find answers to all questions. I always wanted to go as deep as possible to learn every aspect of the issue. It is exciting to discover the things that someone tries to hide, and it’s especially great if there are all the conditions in place to make changes to improve the situation. Sometimes (most often) it takes years for much-needed changes to be implemented in real life.

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

It’s harder to get people’s attention. Because of the vast variety of information available, the audience is more demanding and distracted at the same time. Just because there is more information available, it doesn’t mean that people are more informed.

For journalists (including investigative journalists) it means that we have to be creative in thinking of how to deliver a message in a more attractive way. Very few people are ready to read long form stories of printed text nowadays. The reading of a journalistic piece should be like a kind of game – with pictures and graphics involved.

On the other hand, it’s easier for journalists to find information and sources. Very often I use social networks such as Twitter and Facebook to find information or people I need for my stories.

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

I have done several projects that used data. Before the last parliamentary elections in Latvia, my students and I analyzed the donors of the ruling political parties. We merged several databases – data of political donors, the business register, and the state procurement database. This allowed us to see if the companies owned by political donors have won state tenders. The result was quite interesting. To show a summary of the results, we made an interactive infographic.

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

More and more often I use social networks. Instead of hiding on what I am working, I say it out loud to the public. I don’t go into detail, but I might announce that we are going to do research on the effectiveness of the health system in Latvia. I say: if there are people who have things to say or could help us as experts, you are welcome. I have gotten good results with this approach.

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

Be open and honest to people. I never lie about my aim when I approach people. If I know that they might not like the result, I warn them about that. If I can’t reveal the source of certain information, I say that to people instead of lying or pretending. I believe that a good reputation is the most important thing for an investigative journalist, otherwise you lose trust and that means you lose sources and information.

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?

Clearly stated facts. There are two important skills for investigative journalist: 1) ability to find information; 2) ability to write the story or produce the film in an easy, understandable way. I have seen several well done research projects which were written in a very complicated or boring way. And people just don’t read it! It’s a waste of time and a big tragedy at the same time.

Making a story work doesn’t depend only on the journalist or the topic of the project. There should be also willingness to change the situation by decision makers. I had been writing about an influential and corrupt Latvian State Revenue Service officer for many years, but nothing changed because he was supported by the ruling political party. Four years after I wrote the story, the political situation in the country changed, and he was removed from his post and later accused of corruption. This example always encouraged me to keep going even if I don’t see the result immediately.

What advice would you give to young, emerging, investigative reporters?

Everyone can be an investigative journalist – this is what I keep saying to my students. Everyone! The main thing is just to have passion, a real desire and interest in what are you doing. The skill will come over time. The second rule: start with a small  topic which is close to you. Don’t try to overthrow a president of the country with your first research. Most probably you will fail. Have patience and the result will come. 


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