Teams of journalists came together after the murders of Jan Kuciak and Daphne Caruana Galizia to ensure their investigations were completed and published. The resulting articles are having lasting effects.
On the early morning of March 31, 2019, just hours after it was announced that she had won the election to be the next president of Slovakia, Zuzana Caputova stepped out of the back seat of a dark sedan parked on a quiet square in the capital, Bratislava. It was her first action as president-elect.
She was there to pay her respects at a memorial to the murdered investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova. She walked over to the memorial and bowed her head in silence for a brief moment before returning to her car and her new role as president.
Caputova’s unlikely rise from lawyer to political activist to the presidency was inherently tied to the public uproar that followed Kuciak’s murder on February 21, 2018. She has cited the murders as one of the reasons she decided to run. The killings and the revelations that followed sparked anti-government protests across the small European Union country of 5.4 million inhabitants, attracting tens of thousands of people. They not only demanded justice but also a change in the country’s political trajectory.
Before he was killed, Kuciak was working with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) on an investigation into the presence of the infamous Italian criminal group “Ndrangheta” in Slovakia and possible connections to the country’s political elite. Many in Slovakia believed that Kuciak was killed because of his investigations.
Immediately after he was murdered, Kuciak’s colleagues at OCCRP decided that those who silenced Kuciak would not also silence his work. The multinational group resolved to publish his findings, many of which were already in the final stages. To do so, they would have to work together, across borders and languages.
A team effort
Journalism has always been a collaborative process. It is an industry built upon connections and sources but also on competition to see which media house breaks the big story. Unfortunately, the geographies of modern commerce, corruption and criminality do not always lend themselves to this competitive model.
Recently, journalists have needed to develop new tools to tackle large stories that not only cross borders and languages, but also demand the native knowledge that only local journalists can offer. The result is the development of various secure online platforms where journalists can research, share and discuss complicated investigations.
These tools have become a critical resource for journalists working in the European Union, especially those based in countries that only joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 and where capitalism often still collides with the corrupt remnants of the post-Soviet era. Organizations including OCCRP, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU), were formed to foster such networks.
The International Press Institute (IPI), with funding from the European Union, launched IJ4EU to support cross-border investigations throughout Europe related to the misuse of EU funds. Many of these projects would not have been possible exclusively with local funding or without the knowledge and cooperation of journalists in other countries.
“Having networks of investigative journalists across different countries helps journalists pick up on issues that don’t stop at the borders of member states,” said Scott Griffin, the deputy director of IPI.
According to Griffin, such projects also spread out the responsibility and risk of investigations so that one reporter cannot be singled out to be targeted or intimidated.
“Journalists are often under a lot of pressure and face attacks from different elements in their home countries,” said Griffin. “I think being able to be a part of a larger network helps to mitigate those attacks and keep journalists safe.”
The investigations undertaken by Kuciak and OCCRP are examples of this. While collaboration was not enough to deter Kuciak’s killers, it allowed his investigation to be carried on and published.
“Only because we were able to share all of his findings were we able to finish the story and we published just a few days after his murder,” said Pavla Holcova, a Czech investigative journalist who was already working with Kuciak on his investigation and helped get it published. One of the findings linked then-Prime Minister Robert Fico to an Italian mafia member residing in eastern Slovakia. Fico resigned a few weeks later.
An island of hope
One of the most successful and well-known uses of collaborative journalism was the “Panama Papers,” an investigation into the use of offshore accounts by wealthy persons to, among other things, hide money from tax authorities.
To complete the investigation, ICIJ recruited journalists from 107 media organizations in 80 countries to go through the 11.5 million leaked documents. To date, the investigation has led to over $1.3 billion (€1.15 billion) being recovered by tax authorities worldwide.
One of the reporters who helped sift through the leaked documents was Daphne Caruana Galizia, an independent journalist who had been investigating corruption in Malta, a member country of the European Union, for 30 years (Jan Kuciak and Pavla Holcova were also active in putting together the Panama Papers). On the morning of October 16, 2017, Galizia was killed by a bomb planted in her car. She was 53 years old.
Soon after her death, Forbidden Stories, a non-profit network of journalists based in Paris, took up the challenge of finishing the stories that Galizia was investigating at the time of her death. They called it the “Daphne Project.”
“The sun was shining on the day assassins took Daphne’s life. Now her colleagues will shine many lights onto the stories that killed her,” stated the project’s website.
A team of 45 journalists from 50 countries was assembled to go through over 750,000 pages of documents. Many of those who partook worked with Galizia on the Panama Papers. One topic she was investigating was Malta’s profitable but highly controversial “passports for sale” program that enabled rich non-Europeans to buy a Maltese passport, giving them access to all of the European Union.
Galizia’s work was so despised by the political elite her investigations exposed that she was facing 42 libel suits at the time of her death. A suit brought by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has been allowed to continue even after her murder.
Building upon Galizia’s work, the project published articles in 18 news outlets that exposed more information about the passport scheme, government corruption in Malta, organized crime, drug smuggling and tax evasion by the country’s political elite.
“We are making sure that we keep these stories alive so that people can get access to this critically important information,” said Forbidden Stories’ Executive Director Laurent Richard.
Shining a light
Just thirteen months after the murder of Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova, the police arrested a politically connected businessman and charged him with ordering the killing. Then two weeks later, a reformer was elected as the next president of Slovakia. The two victims got their justice while the people got their change.
“This was not just a case of journalists versus politicians,” said Holcova. “This was about a public that asked how the hell the system allowed something like this to happen.”
Unlike in Slovakia, little has changed on Malta and the same persons Galizia investigated remain in positions of power. Three arrests have been made related to her murder but many people, including her own family, believe that whoever ordered the killing remains at large.
However, her investigations and the subsequent collaborative work of the Daphne Project have ensured that the topic of political corruption continues to be debated in Malta and beyond. Malta’s passport scheme is still active but was the subject of a recent critical report by the European Parliament.
Galizia’s sons and supporters have vowed to keep her legacy alive by calling for those who ordered her murder to be brought to justice and for the political and business establishment to drop their libel cases against her estate.
“The kind of society our mother, Daphne Caruana Galizia, fought for is impossible without freedom of expression, a right she was killed trying to defend and one which could only be taken from her by a car bomb,” Galizia’s son, Matthew Caruana Galizia told DW.
The article is a part of Deutsche Welle’s DW Freedom project that tracks and reports on issues of free speech, freedom of expression and media freedom worldwide.