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How Global Network of Journalists Helps Expose Organized Crime

FILE - A banner calling for justice is seen next to a photo of assassinated anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia at the bomb site, in Bidnija, Malta, April 15, 2018.

Before she was murdered in 2017, Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was investigating two companies named in the Panama Papers – a leak of millions of records that exposed corruption in offshore finance.

Caruana Galizia, a harsh critic of the government in her Running Commentary blog, uncovered apparent trails between Malta and overseas companies that she suspected were tied to top Malta politicians.

But she never had the chance to finish her reporting. In October 2017, the journalist was killed by a car bomb. One of three men accused of carrying out her murder has been sentenced to 15 years in prison. His alleged accomplices have pleaded not guilty. A fourth man, businessman Yorgen Fenech, was charged with organizing and financing the murder. He denies the charge.

FILE - People hold pictures of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was slain in October 2017, as they protest in Valletta, Malta, Nov. 29, 2019.
FILE - People hold pictures of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was slain in October 2017, as they protest in Valletta, Malta, Nov. 29, 2019.

Journalists from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) — a global network of investigative reporters — followed the trail Caruana Galizia left behind. In doing so, they uncovered dubious energy deals, a visas-for-sale program, and more.

In an interview with VOA, Julia Wallace, deputy editor-in-chief of OCCRP, says having a global journalism network was key to finishing what Caruana Galizia had started. Following are excerpts; the questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Before Caruana Galizia was killed, she was looking into two companies, Macbridge and 17 Black. What were the first steps you took in this investigation to build off her work?

Wallace: Caruana Galizia was interested in these companies because they were named in a now-infamous email that had been sent in 2015 by a dodgy Maltese accounting firm to Mossack Fonseca, the now infamous Panama law firm implicated in the Panama Papers.

The email named both 17 Black and Macbridge as companies in the United Arab Emirates that were expected to allegedly send millions of euros to shell companies set up in Panama for two Maltese politicians. After she was killed, journalists eventually tracked down 17 Black in Dubai and proved it was owned by Fenech, the tycoon accused of masterminding Caruana Galizia's murder.

But Macbridge remained a mystery. Months of searching in the United Arab Emirates didn't yield anything. Then, when Fenech was arrested, he spilled a piece of new information — he said Macbridge stood for "Malta and China bridge." That's what got this project going.

The OCCRP report said it was difficult to track down companies in China due to often unstructured or incomplete nature of the business registry system. How did your reporters manage to get around this?

Wallace: It's difficult, but not impossible. We're lucky to work with excellent journalists and investigators who speak Chinese and have extensive experience navigating this system. Doing investigative journalism in China can be risky, and we're grateful for their bravery and skill.

For this story, analyzing Chinese social media — especially Weibo, which is like China's version of Twitter — was critical in establishing the personal relationship between the owner of Macbridge and Chen Cheng, a prominent consultant linked to major Maltese politicians and controversial energy deals.

It was also important to understand how company information in Hong Kong and China is structured and how to compensate for the inefficiencies in the databases. In China, company directors' personal data (such as their dates of birth) is not made public — a big problem in a place where many people have the same name. We just had to be persistent in trying out search queries in different formats, using various third-party company databases.

What impact has OCCRP's reporting had on the visa trade?

Wallace: To be clear, it's not always illegal to sell visas. Many European countries, including Malta, have programs that allow wealthy foreigners to buy residency or citizenship in exchange for different forms of investment.

But it's usually a bad idea. The citizenship-by-investment industry is ripe for abuse because its natural constituents are the wealthy and corrupt — people who need places to stash their cash.

In part because of several major journalistic investigations on the pitfalls of so-called "golden visas," the EU took measures last year to crack down on these programs. Our new story is part of a large and growing body of evidence that selling citizenship is not a savory business.

The OCCRP says it "takes a network to fight a network." How does that collaborative approach work?

Wallace: This is the critical insight that OCCRP is built on. Traditional news organizations hire foreign correspondents to fan out around the world and report back. We are more interested in working with local journalists: people who know their countries intimately, spend years or decades developing sources, and don't leave.

We've built up a network of what we call "member centers" — investigative reporting outlets such as KRIK in Serbia, Kloop in Kyrgyzstan, and iStories in Russia — that we collaborate with. They're led by some of the best journalists in their countries.

Having a global journalistic network is key, because this is also an era of global criminality. Money now moves around the world very quickly, and it's rare for a story on financial crime to be confined to a single country. This Malta story is a perfect example of how corruption and criminality cross borders in the 21st century.

Were you afraid that continuing Caruana Galizia's investigation would lead to any reprisal? What risks do journalists in Europe face for taking on powerful interests and businesses?

Wallace: We're always safety conscious because this type of work can be dangerous. But we've had no specific threats that made us fear pursuing this line of inquiry.

Any journalist reporting on powerful actors — especially at the nexus of organized crime and political power — is at risk. When people perceive a threat to their interests, especially when large amounts of money are involved, they will go to great lengths to eliminate the threat.

But journalists have power too, especially when they stick together. In recent years, groups of journalists have joined forces to finish the work of colleagues who have been killed, including Caruana Galizia and Jan Kuciak of Slovakia. We do the same when a journalist is jailed or threatened with arrest. Our strategy is to get lots of reporters on the scene, figure out what the targeted journalist has been reporting on, finish it if necessary, and disseminate the stories as widely as possible.

When people threaten or harm journalists, they're trying to send a message: "Don't report on this; it's dangerous."

Our response: "Even if you kill a journalist, you'll never kill the story."