Frank Belyeu reports from the “Investigative Journalism: Follow the Money” workshop

by Frank Belyeu, Data J Lab

Transitions Online, in collaboration with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Czech Center for Investigative Journalism, organized an inspiring three-day workshop in Prague the past 13th of January. Throughout this course, named “Investigative Journalism: Follow the Money in Central and Eastern Europe”, not only journalists took part in the classes, but also several activists, students and members of the Transparency Department of the Czech police forces. All of which begun the workshop with one main goal in mind: this is, to acquire some new skills aimed to track illegal financial movements, and actors, across borders. Although three days may not seem that much time, under Paul Radu’s command participants (like myself) were able to learn fascinating tricks and tools, all of which were put into practice further on in the workshop.

During the first day, after discussing some theoretical background on investigative journalism (especially in the context of Central and Eastern Europe), we were given a piece of paper and pencil: it was time to roll up our sleeves and undertake our first task. In groups of four, we were asked to design an organized crime network. Some details were the following: “You have one ton of cocaine in Colombia, you need to sell it and, somehow, bring your money to Prague. This money, of course, has to come back clean”.

By putting ourselves in a drug trafficker’s shoes, we had to consider many of the options they face on a daily basis, such us “Where is cocaine more expensive, and therefore more profitable?”; “How can I take it there?”; “Do I have to negotiate with another drug cartel or bribe someone at the border?”; “What business should I use to launder my money, and where should I establish it?” We let our imagination run wild and, although some of the outcomes were pretty accurate, we learnt that organized crime is already many steps ahead with respect to imagination.

We dedicated most of the time in the following sessions to familiarize ourselves with public databases, as these are the cornerstones of any investigation. Paul Radu then showed us the “investigative dashboard”, an initiative headed by him in which many of these datasets are compiled, organized and accessible to the public. Moreover, this platform has full-time experts available, who provide free assistance for journalists around the world. This website came in very handy when we had to complete our second and final task, assigned for the last two sessions: we were asked to investigate connections within one business of our choice in Prague. Again, we were divided in groups and given a topic to investigate, such as money exchange houses, luxury shops, pubs and restaurants.

As a part of this assignment we had to do some fieldwork first, before going back to our computers and start “fishing” for data. My group, which was assigned money exchange houses as a topic, found out who were the shareholders, the proxy holder and a number of shell companies which lead directly to Cyprus (an offshore haven). Unfortunately we did not have enough time to dig in deeper, nonetheless I found this work to be remarkable, given that it took us a bit less than three hours to uncover this network.

It was now time to bring this network alive, meaning to visualize it, so another tool created by the OCCRP was introduced to us for this purpose: Visual Investigative Scenarios. By means of this social network visualization tool, we were able to connect the dots and make more sense of our findings. Furthermore, with a friendly user interface design, we realized that journalists are easily capable of creating appealing and interactive graphics for the public. And this, dear colleagues, is highly recommended.

I learnt many things during those three days, but the best piece of knowledge I could take back home is the following: we are journalists and it’s our duty to defend the public’s interest. Corruption is a scourge that can deeply affect the economic development and democratic values of a society. We can now fight against it, and most importantly, prevent it, as we have countless tools in our hands to do so. The information we are looking for is there, somewhere. And, yes, we are able to find it, because as Paul Radu concluded with a twinkle in his eye: “History cannot be erased entirely”.

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