Swedish investigative reporter Fredrik Laurin knows that power corrupts, but also that resistance in the form of journalism can have effect. In this Q&A he shares how his team identifies good investigative stories, and the value of constant networking.
Share with us a story or investigation that you pursued and the impact it had.
TeliaSonera is Europe's fifth biggest Telco. It used to operate mainly in Scandinavia, one of the most mature telecom markets in the world. The result was declining profits and the solution became expansion in one of the few underdeveloped markets in the world, the former Soviet republics in Eurasia. In these countries, many of which have become personal fiefdoms of their ruling families, TeliaSonera prospered and became the market leader in almost every country east of the Bosporus. But they also had to cope with some of the most oppressive and corrupt regimes in the world.
When we started taking a hard look at TeliaSonera's operations it was obvious that they could not have managed this feat without bribing high and low and accepting that the regimes could tap the most valuable source there is if you want to control your people: the telephone networks.
The rest was just hard work for almost a year and many, many encrypted email exchanges and Skype conversations with human rights groups, journalists, opposition politicians and people within the company to prove where the security services had connected their fiber optic links to maintain their around-the-clock surveillance and to understand how the business deals with the dictators and their cronies had been set up with offshore companies and Swiss bank accounts.
In the end the company admitted that they had allowed the security services full access to their networks and databases and that they could reign freely in the company´s systems without a court order or search warrant even being asked for.
The chairman and the CEO had to resign when we showed how they had paid the daughter of the Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov US 500 million to get licenses in the Uzbek market.
What is the path that led you to investigative journalism in the first place?
I think I have always wanted to be a journalist. It probably has to do with the fact that my father was a journalist at Handelstidningen, the main daily in Gothenburg where I grew up. I can still remember when he went to Chile just six months before the coup in 1973 where the democratically-elected president Allende was overthrown by what became a brutal dictatorship under General Pinochet. My mother was a Spanish teacher and Chileans who had been given asylum in Sweden were invited to our house for dinner.
We lived in the shadow of that coup, and the dictatorships in Spain, Greece, and Portugal and in the Eastern bloc countries.
I think that growing up during that part of our history with Swedish ideals of peace and solidarity where even our PM openly protested the US policy in Vietnam has formed my values.
I know from experience, my own and others, that power corrupts, but I also know that you can protest that, and that resistance in the end can have effect. Journalism has always felt like one of the tools that can make that happen.
What methods, techniques and tools have served you best as an investigative journalist?
The connectivity that came with the Internet, and the support that computing power gives a journalist. Those two tools, and constant networking -- with high and low, colleagues, people in common and sources all over the world -- are the things that have been most important tools for me in my profession.
How has the increasing importance of digital and online media (especially the immediacy factor they emphasize) impacted the quality and practice of investigative journalism?
The plus is that anyone can be a journalist. And crowdsourcing thanks to the web, the blogosphere and the ease and low cost of interconnection between people due to the emergence of email and IP-telephony has fundamentally changed the conditions for journalism for the better.
The minus of that development has been that the finance model of classic journalism has crumbled when everyone can have their own printing press and that a lot of the information available today is of much less quality than the one that was available before.
But less is not more in this case. The world and journalism has gained from the developments during my 25 years as a journalist and will continue to do so if just the little problem of how we are going to get paid for our work in the future can be solved.
Have you employed a lot of data-based methods in your investigative reporting? If yes, what kinds of data do you use and how?
Databases in some form, if just a search in our main dailies' text databases, is almost always a foundation for our work. And in the course of research there is almost always some kind of database that is being tapped or designed to get the job done.
Talk about your approach to stories. Is there anything unusual about the way you conduct your research or choose your themes?
We, because I usually work in teams, either in my small freelance group of three reporters with Joachim Dyfvermark and Sven Bergman, or in the international networks that I try to maintain, usually start by a helicopter view of the problem at hand. What is the problem? Why do we care?
Why is the fish disappearing from our oceans?
How can it be that Sweden has such strong regulations prohibiting arms sales to countries that are in conflicts but still manage to be among the top five selling countries in the world?
And how can they do it without bribing in an industry where almost every deal is mired in corruption?
Then it's the smoking gun. Where should we be looking and what are the possibilities of actually unearthing it?
We almost never do projects that do not have a minimum level –- meaning that we at the start of the project already know that the story is good enough with what we know already so that it can be run. And then we have the maximum level which we never know if we are going to reach, but most certainly is what we are aiming for.
In the case of TeliaSonera we started at looking at pictures of the manuals of western IT companies that line the walls of the offices of the torturers in Libya and Egypt and realized that we were the ones producing the tools these people had been using to oppress their people.
Then we focused on the telecom giant’s seemingly impossible position of being owned by a democratic country with strong views of cooperating with oppressors, and the facts of everyday life when operating in dictatorships like Belarus and Uzbekistan.
The smoking gun became to prove that TeliaSonera customers were being oppressed by their own mobile phones, and that was laborious to document in six countries, but really not that hard since the surveillance was everywhere and TeliaSonera was cooperating one hundred percent with the intelligence services in their export markets.
What do you consider some of the most important lessons you have learned over the years?
Trust your gut feeling. If you think something is odd, or shouldn't be the way it is, it probably shouldn't.
Love all. Connect with everyone, even the devil. Trust a few, choose your partners carefully. And finally: paddle your own canoe. In the end you always have to do the job yourself, whether it's mining the database all night or do the final confrontation interview with the CEO. You can't leave that to someone else. And never give up.
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?
A helicopter analysis that has answered the public's question: why do we care, and a smoking gun that proves that you are right in the analysis. Finally: people affected by the issue you are reporting on, and their stories to make the report come alive.
What is the biggest single threat to investigative reporting and what advice can you give to others?
The crumbling finance model of classic journalism. There is no substitute in sight for the capitalists that used to make the profits from the printing presses and shared the loot to some small extent with the journalists in exchange for filling the space between the ads.
In the meantime journalists must get money someplace else and keep doing the job. There is nothing wrong with the product: good reporting will always have a value to the reader. It's going to be a rough ride, but we will prevail. If money was your object when you went into journalism you are in the wrong industry in the first place.
What other tips would you give young, emerging, investigative reporters?
Go for it. News is what someone wants to hide, the rest is advertising. If you remember that you will always have someone that wants to read your story.