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International Consortium of Investigative Journalists
Updated: 10 hours 21 min ago

ICIJ’s Paradise Papers wins award for innovation in watchdog journalism

Mon, 04/09/2018 - 13:43

The Paradise Papers investigation has been honored with a top prize at the IRE Awards, an international award for investigative reporting and editing.

The project won the Gannett Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism, marking the second year in-a row that an ICIJ investigation has been awarded the prize for innovation after the success of the Panama Papers last year.

The IRE judges hailed the investigation as exhibiting “extraordinary innovation in exposing the secret tax machinations of some of the world’s most powerful people and corporations.”

The judges said ICIJ and its partners had broken the boundaries of investigative journalism with the Panama Papers, but the Paradise Papers project ‘’went beyond even that.’’

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Based on a trove of 13.4 million leaked files, the Paradise Papers exposed the secret tax machinations of some of the world’s most powerful people and corporations. The files were leaked to German reporters Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier of Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with ICIJ, which brought together a collaboration of more than 90 media partners, including The New York Times, the Guardian and others from around the world.

“ICIJ used reverse-engineering techniques to reconstruct corporate databases, used algorithms to draw out people and organizations of interest, and further developed its platform to allow reporters to search within and across datasets and visualize the connections among people and business entities,’’ the IRE judges said.

‘’To top it off, ICIJ has made its software code and large stores of data available to the public.”

The Paradise Papers and Panama Papers investigations have both prompted and spurred on tax evasion probes around the globe that have recouped hundred of millions of dollars.

ICIJ director Gerard Ryle said the win was a huge boost to the entire collaboration of more than 380 journalists, which continues to investigate the massive trove of leaked documents.

“These investigations aren’t just about uncovering hidden wealth. They are also about exposing injustice in the world,” Ryle said. “We’re encouraged by this recognition from IRE, and by the ongoing impact of our stories around the globe.

“None of this would be possible without the tireless work of hundreds of determined reporters, nor would it be possible without the courageous whistleblowers helping bring this information to light. We’re still investigating, and we encourage anyone with more information to contact us and help us continue our work.

The annual IRE Awards, run by Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc., recognize the top pieces of investigative journalism from around the world. Other winners this year included The New York Times for its coverage of sexual harassment in Hollywood and the #MeToo campaign, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Slidstvo.Info for its documentary on the murder of Ukranian journalist Pavel Sheremet, among other local, national and international media outlets.

This is the second major prize for the Paradise Papers investigation, which was honored with a George Polk Award earlier in the year.

Such an honour: #PolkAwardsLIU for the #ParadisePapers @ICIJorg @SZ. This is an award for the collaborative efforts of 380 journalists all around the world. Kudos! pic.twitter.com/LXsard7ElO

— Frederik Obermaier (@f_obermaier) April 6, 2018

The post ICIJ’s Paradise Papers wins award for innovation in watchdog journalism appeared first on ICIJ.

Categories: News

Why you should share your story with ICIJ

Tue, 04/03/2018 - 17:33

‘The biggest leak in whistleblower history’ was just one of many titles given to our Panama Papers investigation.

The project, which had hundreds of journalists working secretly for one year before it went live, has become known for its security, use of data, collaboration and impact.

The investigation, launched two years ago, has brought down world leaders, recouped millions in taxes (and fines) and put the morality of offshore finance squarely on the agenda.

And we want to do it all over again.

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We’re looking for new pitches and ideas from journalists or whistleblowers to come forward and trust us to tell their story.

Is that you?

Here are just a few reasons why you should trust our team to tell your story effectively, securely and with global impact.

  • We only share our information with other trusted journalists and do not give access to government, advocacy or private organizations.
  • We are funded by thousands of individual donors, as well as foundations. We do not take money from any governments.
  • Our data team has experience working with millions of files and complex datasets (Panama Papers and Paradise Papers are examples).
  • Our network of members – more than 200 strong – and our global media partners, who span from Senegal to Russia, Pakistan and Japan have invaluable local knowledge they can add to any story.
  • We vow to protect the anonymity of our sources.
What does it take to have a story ICIJ would consider?
  • Cross-border potential. Our stories don’t stop at geographical boundaries. In fact, they tend to have no boundaries at all.
    There must be a public service imperative. We’re in the business of exposing the truth and holding people to account.
  • Does that sound like you? Or maybe your colleague?
Here’s how to get in touch
  • Encrypted email – contact@icij.org, our public key fingerpint: 986A 572D 3B95 BD42 331E 839A B532 F18C 2A17 696B
  • WhatsApp – Phone/Message: +1-202-820-0036
  • Wire – Username: ICIJ
  • Signal – Phone: +1-202-820-0036
  • Peerio – Username: ICIJ
  • Keybase – Username: ICIJ
  • Postal Mail –
    ICIJ
    910 17th Street NW,
    Suite 410, Washington, DC 20006, USA
  • SecureDrop: Explained in detail here.

The post Why you should share your story with ICIJ appeared first on ICIJ.

Categories: News

The Panama Papers revisited: yogurt, bananas, small moustaches and fonts

Tue, 04/03/2018 - 17:09

At 2:01 p.m. on 3 April, 2016, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and 90 media partners released the first Panama Papers stories. Hundreds have followed since.

Two years later, we’ve published more than 55 stories at ICIJ, including deep-dives into U.S. frauds, the looting of Africa’s natural resources and a blow-by-blow account of what reforms governments have made – or ignored – in the wake of the scandal.

Here are 11 things we were surprised to learn after we published the Panama Papers.

1. Font matters

After we revealed the offshore holdings of the offspring of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani supreme court opened a corruption probe into Sharif and two of his children. His daughter, Mariam Nawaz Sharif, submitted a document to the court that claimed she was not the owner of an offshore company under scrutiny. The document was reportedly written in the Microsoft Calibri font and dated February 2006. Microsoft Calibri only became available in 2007, leading to online ridicule of the proffered evidence under the hashtag #fontgate. Nawaz Sharif was eventually disqualified as prime minister in July 2017. His case continues in the nation’s top anti-corruption court.

2. With an offshore company, yogurt can come at you really fast

The day after we revealed the secret offshore ties of Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, thousands of protesters descended on the parliament to call for his resignation. Several threw yogurt. Others hurled eggs and bananas. Two days after the first story was published, Gunnlaugsson stepped down. Last November, Gunnlaugsson announced he would form a new political party.

Skyr bandit being taken away in handcuffs, plus pics of damages. #Iceland #PanamaLeaks #cashljós pic.twitter.com/spk9ZRf7Tu

— Elias Thorsson (@Eliasthorsson) April 4, 2016

3. People really don’t know Africa

Although lots of the reporting has focused on wealthy Europeans and North Americans, the Panama Papers also revealed secrets about politicians, business leaders, multinational corporations and criminals across Africa.

As part of its collaboration with investigative journalists in Africa, ICIJ published an online game, Continent of Secrets, which showed how offshore companies help strip billions of dollars from Africa every year and required some knowledge of African economies and industries. Most of the players did terribly (including some ICIJ staff). Test yourself, below!

4. Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t like it when you write about his favorite cellist

In January 2017, a joint report by U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russian president Vladimir Putin responded to a Panama Papers story by using negative disclosures about then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to “discredit the image of the United States and cast it as hypocritical.”

ICIJ’s story revealed how Sergey Roldugin, a classical cellist, conductor and childhood friend of President Putin, is listed as the owner of companies involved in an offshore scheme that shuffled up to $2 billion around the world.

4. The FBI is still looking

After ICIJ published its first stories, including an investigation into the companies and individuals sanctioned by the United States and who appeared in the Panama Papers, U.S. Democratic senators Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Treasury requesting an investigation into any U.S. companies, individuals, banks or financial institutions with links to Mossack Fonseca.
In January, the Federal Bureau of Investigation told ICIJ that it could not respond to a freedom of information request about the Panama Papers due to “ongoing investigations.”

5. Some divorces end really, really badly

Ever since we published a story about the ex-husbands (and one ex-wife) who allegedly hid money offshore during a divorce, ICIJ has received dozens of tips by ex-spouses. Keep ‘em coming.

6. Growing oranges is one career option if you can no longer manage a global offshore law firm

Last year, Mossack Fonseca co-founder Ramon Fonseca gave a rare interview to a Panama Papers reporter, Sol Lauria. Fonseca, who along with co-founder Jurgen Mossack was arrested earlier in 2017 as part of an unrelated probe, said he had no regrets and had done nothing wrong.

“My aspiration is to spend as much time as possible on my farm,” he said. “To grow oranges and write.” In March, Mossack Fonseca – the law firm at the heart of the Panama Papers – announced the permanent closure of its remaining offices.

7. People will pay lots of money to own a portrait of a man with a small moustache Seated Man (Leaning on a Cane) by Amedeo Modigliani i Photo\\: Christie's Images / Corbis Seated Man (Leaning on a Cane) by Amedeo Modigliani

A court in New York is still determining whether a wealthy art-collecting family must return a valuable painting allegedly looted by the Nazis from a Paris art dealer 100 years ago.

The family claimed it didn’t itself own the painting, “Seated Man with Cane,” but that the painting was owned by an offshore company in Panama that the Panama Papers showed was actually controlled by the family.

8. Exotic islands aren’t the only problem

Although there is plenty of criticism directed at traditional tax havens in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific or Indian Oceans, many observers (and ICIJ readers) have told us that they see banks, law firms and accounting firms in Europe, the United States and elsewhere as equally serious problems. Following Panama Papers reporting, authorities investigated and fined banks millions of dollars in Luxembourg, Sweden and Taiwan.

9. Panama is a small place, geographically and professionally

ICIJ looked at the revolving door in Panama between the offshore industry and government. Several ministers and senior government officials have worked for offshore law firms that are competitors to Mossack Fonseca. Ramon Fonseca, one of Mossack Fonseca’s co-founders, resigned as an adviser to the president of Panama shortly before the Panama Papers.

8. Panama’s revolving door is nuts. https://t.co/KUrAlulaRs pic.twitter.com/lK61vSfbqq

— Will Fitzgibbon (@WillFitzgibbon) April 3, 2018

10. The journalists who worked on the Panama Papers are brave and some of the best in the business

Journalists who worked on the Panama Papers received threats online and even taunts from Ecuador’s president. They were threatened with lawsuits, and some lost their jobs.

Despite the pressure, journalists are still digging into the Panama Papers and publishing new stories. ICIJ works with additional journalists every month, many from new countries, to make sure no stone goes unturned.

11. You never know where a three word message will take you

John Doe, the anonymous source who leaked the Panama Papers, first contacted German journalist, Bastian Obermayer, with a simple question: “Interested in data?” The rest is history.
Are you the next John Doe? Contact ICIJ here.

The post The Panama Papers revisited: yogurt, bananas, small moustaches and fonts appeared first on ICIJ.

Categories: News

The biggest change after the Panama Papers? The one inside people’s heads

Tue, 04/03/2018 - 15:50

The Panama Papers investigation deposed heads of governments and resulted in the recovery of hundreds of millions of dollars.

But it also changed the the worldwide understanding of a cleverly contrived and continuously evolving system that swells and protects the riches of the wealthy and powerful.

The journalists who worked on the Panama Papers look back on the project through different lenses, but taken together, they reflect a world in flux.

Sol Lauría, an Argentinian journalist who has worked in Panama since 2013, witnessed the Panama Papers up close like few others.

Lauría said that one of her strongest memories during the months before publication is “seeing the evidence -such as documents, emails or messages with [offshore lawyer Ramon] Fonseca’s own handwriting- of information that we already knew but had never been able to prove due to the lack of access to the information in offshore jurisdictions.”

Mossack Fonseca co-founder Ramón Fonseca. Mossack Fonseca co-founder Ramón Fonseca

In 2017, Lauría nabbed a rare three-hour interview with Mossack Fonseca co-founder, Fonseca, in his apartment in Panama City.

“Ask what you want,” Fonseca said to Lauría, who has written a profile on the offshore lawyer for an upcoming book.

Fonseca, writes Lauría, “is a man of medium and resounding stature who lost several pounds after the Panama Papers. He exercises with a personal trainer every day after a routine that he clings to as his only defense: from an early hour he checks to see if he has been sued in some corner of the world, then reads and later tries to write.”

On the couch in a small, dark room, Fonseca told Lauría that there was a lot of sensationalism in the Panama Papers.

“You do not regret anything?” Lauría asked.

“No,” Fonseca replied. “We take risks, of course, because everything in life is risk. But we did nothing illegal.”

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Lauría wrote that Fonseca’s “verbiage at times is dark, at times graceful or melancholy. When he speaks of Panama Papers, he is always unrepentant, as if seeking to shield himself with repetition.”

“I consider myself a balanced man,” Fonseca replied. “I hardly regret it. I know that I am not perfect, but I do not have an enormous ego.”

“Do you not find anything questionable, however lawful?” Lauría asked again

“But everyone does it! Everyone uses the system!” Fonseca told Lauría. “The world’s savior does not understand that the capitalist world is managed by corporations. The world does not subsist with the state bureaucracy. And we can’t stop encouraging those who want to create wealth, create business, create ideas. Please…”

Despite Fonseca’s protestations and after some pushback from the Government of Panama that initially claimed it, too, had done little wrong, Lauría sees some changes.

Panamanian authorities sanctioned delinquent offshore companies with financial penalties and closed down more than 275,000 offshore companies. New rules, long-resisted, require Panama to collect and swap certain financial information with other governments.

“We will see how it is implemented,” Lauría said.

While Panama looked to update its laws, in other nations it was the lawmakers themselves facing public scrutiny over their finances.

After 15 months of protests, lawsuits, and vitriolic online debates across Pakistan, prime minister Nawaz Sharif stepped down from power in July 2017.

Sharif was the second prime minister to lose office because of the Panama Papers, following the more rapid departure of Iceland’s leader, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson.

Umar Cheema, an investigative journalist with The News in Pakistan, led reporting on the offshore holdings of Sharif’s family members.

Cheema said that the Panama Papers was “a tour through the underworld of the rich” that has left a permanent mark on him.

“They enjoy all the privileges, milk all the benefits and rig the policies,” Cheema said. “Nevertheless, they park wealth abroad.”

Bastian Obermayer is the German journalist who received the first message from John Doe, the anonymous whistleblower who provided Süddeutsche Zeitung with the data for the Panama Papers.

Obermayer and his colleague, Frederik Obermaier, chose to share the 11.4 million documents with the International Consortium of Journalists (ICIJ) on the understanding ICIJ would assemble a coalition of reporters around the world.

Look back at the 2016 investigation. The Panama Papers investigation

Asked about what the biggest change is since the project, Obermayer points to two things.

“Although there’s even a new anti-offshore law in Germany that’s called the “Panama Plan,” Obermayer said, “I think the biggest change is that people are aware now of the menace that the anonymous offshore world poses.”

“The biggest change is the one in the heads.”

The post The biggest change after the Panama Papers? The one inside people’s heads appeared first on ICIJ.

Categories: News

British inquiry promises ‘no stone left unturned’ as it tackles tax avoidance and evasion

Tue, 03/27/2018 - 17:24

A British parliamentary subcommittee has opened an inquiry into tax avoidance and evasion in the wake of Paradise Papers revelations.

“After the Paradise Papers, it is clear that this issue hasn’t gone away and continues to deprive the [British] taxpayer of billions of pounds each year,” said John Mann, a Labor Party MP and chairman of the Treasury subcommittee.

“Together we will leave no stone unturned in understanding the root cause of this problem and how we in Parliament can tackle it.”

Over the next six months, the subcommittee is expected to hear evidence from witnesses, including those accused of aggressive tax avoidance as well as their accountants and advisors.

Labor MP John Mann said the U.K. should consider it ‘a matter of national shame’ that the Union Jack gives shelter to the financial elite. Labor Party's John Mann

In an unprecedented move, MPs on the committee also hope to invite ministers from the U.K.’s Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories to appear before them.

Mann said the committee would be “looking in depth” at the role played by these jurisdictions, many of which are well known tax and secrecy havens.

Britain’s Crown Dependencies include Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, while its Overseas Territories include the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.

All of these jurisdictions are largely self-governing, but maintain constitutional ties to the U.K.. Many of them have close commercial links to Britain’s banking and insurance industries.

Writing in The Guardian today, Mann pointed out that the British Virgin Islands, like many Overseas Territories, “proudly flies the Union Jack” as part of its national flag. “We [the U.K.] should regard it as a matter of national shame that the Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories that fly our flag give shelter to the wealth of the world’s financial elite.”

A British parliamentary committee does not have the authority to summon individuals who are resident outside the U.K. But MPs hope politicians from the offshore world will attend voluntarily.

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The U.K. inquiry comes a month after the European Parliament established a special committee to investigate tax avoidance and evasion issues raised by the Paradise Papers. The European Parliament special committee, will also pay “particular attention” to the U.K.’s Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories.

Separately, the U.K.’s Treasury subcommittee also said it will investigate concerns that British tax authorities are offering favorable arrangements – “sweetheart deals” – to large corporations while smaller businesses face “harsh treatment”.

The MPs hope to build on the work of the U.K. Parliament’s public accounts committee, which conducted a similar inquiry in 2012, shedding light on tax avoidance at Google, Starbucks and Amazon.

In addition, the full Treasury select committee will carry out an inquiry into more than 12 billion pounds a year in value-added tax income that the U.K. fails to collect. It will scrutinize the role played by tax advisers who encourage clients to engage in aggressive VAT avoidance.

VAT is a Europe-wide tax linked to the price paid for goods and services, rather than to profits.

A number of complex VAT avoidance arrangements involving yacht and jet purchases were exposed in the Paradise Papers. Many of these took advantage of favorable VAT rules in the Isle of Man.

The post British inquiry promises ‘no stone left unturned’ as it tackles tax avoidance and evasion appeared first on ICIJ.

Categories: News

Zimbabwe’s list of alleged offshore offenders includes Panama Papers shell companies

Mon, 03/26/2018 - 17:01

Zimbabwe published a list of more than 1,800 individuals and companies last week that the government said illegally transferred money abroad, including several who appear in the Panama Papers.

The list was the result of a three-month amnesty that allowed companies and individuals to return money to the country without prosecution. The list named those who had not done so.

In announcing the results, President Emmerson Mnangagwa said that $826 million – more than half of an estimated $1.42 billion stashed outside Zimbabwe – was not returned during the 90-day amnesty period.

“The authorities have no other recourse to cause these entities and individuals to respond, other than to publicize the names of the entities and individuals so that the concerned parties take heed of the importance of good corporate governance,” Mnangagwa said in a statement.

Those on the list who can prove they have declared the assets may still approach the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe to have their names removed, the statement added. The government-owned bank is responsible for monitoring Zimbabwe’s foreign financial flows.

Five mining companies were the biggest culprits, according to the list, with two firms, African Associated Mines and Marange Resources, accused of not returning $62 million and $54 million, respectively.

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Others holding assets abroad included cargo, cotton, tobacco and refrigeration companies and the Archdiocese of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, which allegedly failed to account for more than $10,000. Chinese business owners were strongly represented.

One former finance minister criticized the decision to publish names as “defamatory” and called it a “Mickey Mouse list.” The BBC reported that a representative from China’s embassy in Zimbabwe rejected the list as lacking credibility.

At least three companies and business owners in Zimbabwe named on the list also showed up in the Panama Papers, ICIJ has found. But their offshore assets have not been previously reported in detail.

Harare-born businessman Derek Kitchen, who founded a food and beverage supply company in the 1970s, moved more than half a million dollars out of Zimbabwe “in cash or under spurious transactions,” according to the government.

Kitchen owned SK Cheminvest Ltd., a company registered in the British Virgin Islands in 2010, according to the Panama Papers.

The company provided “consultancy services” to farmers in Zimbabwe and South Africa, according to emails sent between a Mauritius-based management company and Mossack Fonseca, the offshore law firm that helped set up SK Cheminvest Ltd. and whose files formed the basis of the Panama Papers investigation.

Kitchen, who lives in Cape Town, owned SK Cheminvest through stand-in or “nominee” shareholders and through the Sunhouse Trust.

“There are few legitimate reasons for a Zimbabwean businessperson to use an offshore company or trust registered in a secrecy jurisdiction like the BVI other than to conceal personal identity,” said John Christensen, director of the nonprofit Tax Justice Network.

Although not specifically addressing SK Cheminvest, Christensen noted that “the anonymity provided by a secret offshore company or trust makes it easy for people who engage in tax evasion, bribery, fraud, evading creditors, embezzlement and similar crimes to thwart police and other investigators from trying to ‘follow the money’.”

Kitchen told ICIJ that “the whole thing is a screw-up by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.”

Kitchen said he received approval to remove the funds in relation to a property sale and added that he would be writing to the Reserve Bank to complain about his appearance on the list.

An email from the Panama Papers relating to SK Cheminvest (highlighting is from the original document). SK Cheminvest from the Panama Papers

 

Kitchen said that SK Cheminvest no longer exists and that his trust fund managers had “cancelled” the business.

The Zimbabwe government’s list of companies with offshore assets includes Progene Seeds, a business that produces corn and bean seeds and provides cattle semen to Zimbabwean farmers. The company sent more than $10,000 overseas for goods that never arrived in the country, according to the list.

Progene Seeds Ltd., owned by geneticist Andrew Henderson, was created in the British Virgin Islands in 2003, according to the Panama Papers. The company sold plant genetic material in Zimbabwe and other countries in southern Africa and received royalty income from germplasm sales by other agricultural companies, Progene Seeds’ 2015 business plan noted. Progene Seeds also provided consulting services.

Page 2 of Zimbabwe Business Plan

Page 2 of Zimbabwe Business Plan

Contributed to DocumentCloud by Will Fitzgibbon of International Consortium of Investigative JournalistsView document or read text

Without commenting on Progrene Seeds specifically, Tax Justice Network’s Christensen said “unspecified ‘consulting services’ are an old favorite when it comes to hiding bribe or kickback payments.”

“It is hard for investigators to establish what those services consist of, and what the real value of such services (if any services were indeed provided) might be,” Christensen said. “This explains why ‘consulting services’ are frequently used as a mechanism for shifting money illicitly to offshore destinations.”

Henderson did not respond to written questions and hung up on an ICIJ reporter.

Zimbabwean President Mnangagwa promised to tackle corruption after he replaced Robert Mugabe, who led the country for 37 years.

On social media, however, Zimbabweans noted how few individuals or companies on the list were linked to politicians long-suspected of graft and bribery.

European countries and the United States have sanctioned Zimbabwean politicians and companies controlled by the Mugabe government since the early 2000s for undermining democracy. European asset freezes and travel restrictions continue against former president Mugabe and his wife, Grace.

After the initial Panama Papers disclosures in April 2016, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe announced investigations into more than 250 individuals and companies named as having done business with or through the law firm Mossack Fonseca.

Zimbabwe has not commented on the probes since the announcement.

The post Zimbabwe’s list of alleged offshore offenders includes Panama Papers shell companies appeared first on ICIJ.

Categories: News

Go global. Pitch your investigation to ICIJ

Thu, 03/22/2018 - 17:28

For weeks, emails, bank records and other data from a notorious Panamanian law firm had flooded the computers of two investigative reporters at the Munich newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung – and now they were in danger of drowning in it. The journalists, Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier, reached out to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), and the most ambitious global journalism investigation in history was underway.

In April, 2016, ICIJ and more than 100 other news organizations published the first Panama Papers stories, a Pulitzer Prize-winning project that revealed startling details about the scope of international tax avoidance and how some of the world’s richest people shield their money from outside scrutiny.

It was just one in a series of ICIJ projects that have transformed global investigative journalism. Each was made possible because journalists took a giant leap of faith: they shared information with other news organizations, turning what might have a been a national-level “scoop” into a global phenomenon.

In the past year, ICIJ has launched another major project, the Paradise Papers, and undergone a substantial transformation. We’ve become a stand-alone nonprofit news organization with an expanding staff of investigative journalists. As we’ve grown, so has our network of media partners and journalist members.

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This is where you come in. We are looking for more journalists willing to take that leap of faith, and join us in our mission to tell the most important stories in the world.

If you have embarked on an investigation with cross-border potential and a clear public service imperative — or have a strong idea for a project that meets these tests – we want to hear from you. Send a proposal for a project that you would pursue as part of a team of ICIJ journalists to bhallman@icij.org (PGP Key) or via any one of these methods.

The deadline for submissions is Friday, June 1. Proposals can come from reporters or editors who work in newsrooms, or from freelancers, who would be brought onto the ICIJ team for the duration of the project.

There is no one recipe for a successful ICIJ investigation, but each of our projects have centered on abusive and unjust behavior that impacts lives across political borders. We’ve reported on how the World Bank is not meeting its own standards for protecting vulnerable communities; how an unregulated mining boom is leading to death, injury and community conflict in Africa; and the booming business of recycling dead humans.

The best pitches will clearly define the scope of an investigation and describe how journalists in newsrooms across the globe might work together to accomplish something that they could never have done on their own.

It was just such a project that launched the modern era of ICIJ.

In 2011, our director Gerard Ryle arrived at ICIJ with a computer hard drive packed with corporate data, personal information and emails. He had obtained the data trove as a result of his three-year investigation of Australia’s Firepower scandal, a case involving offshore havens and corporate fraud.

In April, 2013, ICIJ published its first big project on global financial secrecy. What became known as the Offshore Leaks was, at the time, the biggest leak in history and the biggest cross-border investigation in history, involving 86 journalists from 46 countries.

In 2014, ICIJ published Luxembourg Leaks, another collaborative investigation that exposed for the first time on a global scale how Luxembourg works as a tax haven in the middle of Europe. It involved 80 reporters in 26 countries who analyzed nearly 28,000 pages of leaked confidential documents that lay out the special tax deals granted by the government of Luxembourg to some of the world’s largest corporations. The documents had been originally obtained by the French journalist, Edouard Perrin.

The next year, ICIJ worked with 140 reporters from 45 countries on Swiss Leaks, a set of documents obtained and shared with ICIJ by the French journalists Fabrice Lhomme and Gérard Davet. These showed how the Swiss branch of one of the world’s biggest banks, HSBC, profited from doing business with tax dodgers and criminals around the world.

And the impact continues. Just this month, Mossack Fonseca, the law firm at the center of the Panama Papers, announced it was closing its doors.

We strongly believe that stories of cross-border crime, corruption and the accountability of power pursued by teams of reporters working together offer journalists the best chance not just to describe the world – but to change it.

Send a proposal for a project that you would pursue as part of a team of ICIJ journalists to bhallman@icij.org (PGP Key) or via any one of these methods.

The post Go global. Pitch your investigation to ICIJ appeared first on ICIJ.

Categories: News

Stories of collaboration: A huge story we wanted to tell the world

Wed, 03/21/2018 - 15:59

Alia Ibrahim is a co-founder of the news website Daraj. She worked on ICIJ’s most recent investigation, Paradise Papers, and here reflects on what it was like to collaborate across the world.

It was a pleasant evening in late March of 2016. We were a group of journalists in a suburban Munich restaurant located not too far from the headquarters of the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Around the dining table, Marina Walker sat next to me and told me how confident she was that the Paradise Papers investigation was going to be an “amazing story we are going to tell to the world in just a few months.”

The deputy director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) paused for just a moment. And then, in a whisper, as if talking to herself, she continued.

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“The full story, is the one that will be told 50 years from now… then, if we succeed, we will tell our grandchildren how we started.”

From the first moment I approached her with the plans my team and I had for our news site Daraj, Walker didn’t hide her enthusiasm for the idea of an independent Arab media company that would contribute to the project and then publish its stories.

Just like her colleagues, Gerard Ryle, ICIJ’s director, and Will Fitzgibbon, the team member responsible for Middle East and Africa stories, Marina showed a great deal of trust and support, including giving our team the right to introduce ourselves as partners in future projects of the consortium, now recognized as a pioneer in investigative collaborations and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Panama Papers.

To us, this was huge.

Daraj at that stage was still just an idea.

It was a project consuming our energy, time, imagination and talent and an objective our team members were passionately pursuing for many reasons – most importantly because it gave us the drive we needed to keep trying and believing that we could still achieve something, despite multiple failures since the Arab Spring was derailed.

Daraj was filling our hearts and minds, but it was, nonetheless, just an idea, ink on paper, looking for the support and funding to be able to exist.

Daraj co-founders Alia Ibrahim and Diana Moukalled.

The trust that ICIJ showed our team and our project gave us a massive moral push, but the challenges were huge.

What we had in mind was simply crazy.

Daraj had a name, a logo and a slogan – “The Third Story” – but design and development hadn’t started yet, and the possibility of us being ready to publish by the initial deadline in June (2017) was simply impossible.

Deciphering the Paradise Papers riddles

During the weeks that preceded the Munich meeting, our core team of four journalists had spent hours working on the data we had been given full access to. Our pledge to protect the secrecy of the documents meant that we couldn’t get any expert help to assist us in deciphering the riddles we were looking at.

It was obvious that we were on the right track. But it was also clear that the success in the mission required the full attention and commitment of those working on it. That was a luxury none of our team members could afford.

ICIJ’s Marina Walker, Gerard Ryle with Bastian Obermayer, Frederik Obermaier from Süddeutsche Zeitung at the Munich meeting. i Scilla Alecci

The absence of any other Arabic-language outlet on the project and what that would mean in terms of exclusivity and exposure for Daraj when publishing time came, were behind our strategic decision to prioritize work on Athena, even if that meant compromising other important standards including design.

Still, June was just a few months away, and it was sheer craziness to think that we could meet that deadline.

When I mentioned my fears to Walker, she answered with her usual calm smile that all we had to do is to actually vote in favor of postponing the publication date.

My partner Diana Moukalled and myself laughed at the idea, that Daraj could actually have a voice even before it existed.

But that was exactly what happened.

The next morning, in the conference room that the German newspaper had arranged for the secret meetings that lasted for two days, the vote was held.

Representatives of the world’s leading media organizations, including the BBC, the Guardian, Le Monde and Radio Canada, wanted to proceed with publication in June. They had very strong arguments. Most of them had come a long way in their reporting, and their stories were almost completed.

But that wasn’t all.

The New York Time’s team, for example, had serious concerns that an impeachment attempt against President Donald Trump was possible and that, if it happened, this would practically kill the value of their lead story about the relations of his administration with individuals close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But the majority of the smaller organizations wanted to postpone. The voting process lasted about 30 minutes; the small organizations won, and the date of November 5 was agreed on.

Another obstacle we had to overcome was the challenge of finding relevance to our audience in project.

In the room that all the partners willingly locked ourselves in for two days, I listened to our colleagues talk about the “tremendous” violations that were uncovered.

The court of public opinion

The papers didn’t uncover as much as they confirmed and provided legal documentations for actions that might be legal in many cases. But presenting the information to the court of public opinion is a necessary step in the process of reforming laws that allowed the extremely rich to multiply their fortunes at the expense of the tax-paying and struggling classes.

There were stories about the queen of England and the Trump administration, leading multinational corporations, music rights and cinema and sports stars. Even religious and educational organizations were using offshore havens.

It was the whole world system under scrutiny.

Some of the stories mentioned were amusing despite the uncertainty of the answers, like the moment when Walker was asked if the Soros Foundation, one of her organization’s main funding sources, would be mentioned, which she answered with a confident, yes, and a sure smile.

Our colleagues in that room knew well that it wasn’t simply discomfort but legal repercussions that might follow their stories based on information contained in the documents. [Editor’s note: Our partners in the UK still face legal action from offshore firm Appleby.]

They genuinely felt empowered by the anticipation of the publication of information.

That was exactly my thought when I received a piece of news from Beirut.

The #familyrepublic that had gone viral on Twitter in the preceding weeks commenting on the growing number of appointments of the president’s family members to public offices and key positions – including that of of a family member as the army commander – was trending again after the president’s friend Elias Abou Saab was named as his adviser on foreign affairs.

It was business as usual in Lebanon. That was just another day. These are our stories. And the stories coming from all over the region were in no way better. So, what on earth were we doing in this room?

The power of working together

Some of the answer, I found in that room, on that day.

Next to the big stars, there were others like us.

One reporter told us she found the name of her publisher in the documents and that she was proceeding with the investigation even if she had no idea what could happen when the time to face him arrived.

Our colleague from Turkey told us that among the names she found were members of Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s family and that she had serious doubts she would be able to publish in light of the growing oppression of journalists in her country.

Things were even more dangerous for others.

Our ICIJ colleague Matthew is safe and sound, but his mother Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese investigative journalist renowned in her country, was following up on her own on the Panama papers stories and was killed in a car bomb just days before publication of the Paradise Papers.

The colleague from Japan was struggling for other reasons. Finding an angle to her story was difficult. She couldn’t find any Japanese names in the documents. “It seems there is no tax evasion in Japan,” she said miserably.

What was the story we were going to tell our audience?

On that day, I didn’t find an answer, but my conviction that we should participate in the project included no doubts.

Stars of investigative journalism were standing together in the service of the same story.

Everybody was convinced there was no room for an individual scoop at the expense of the project.

The idea itself sounded crazy, but the picture was clear.

Diana Moukalled, of Daraj, tells the Munich Paradise Papers meeting there is ‘never a good time’ to publish in Lebanon. i Vice Diana Moukalled from Daraj at ICIJ's paradise papers meeting

Most of the effort that everyone in that room put above all was self-defense and defense of our profession. When Donald Trump blew the smoke bomb of fake news, he didn’t target American journalists exclusively, but every journalist, anywhere in the world.

Over the two days I spent in Munich, I realized not only how interconnected our stories were but also how much we could do when we work together.

Our readers – the readers we imagined for Daraj – are part of this world, and much of the conversation happening across the globe is actually about them.

This was an opportunity to actually take part in the conversation, instead of just being on its margins, or worse, being merely its subject.

Never a ‘good time’ in the Middle East

Five days separated the launch of Daraj from the simultaneous global publication of the Paradise papers on November 5, at 8:00 p.m. Beirut time.

“Good luck,” said a phone message from Will Fitzgibbon just a few minutes before the publication.

“We have a resigned PM (prime minister) and in Saudi 11 arrested billionaire princes, we’re going to need a lot of luck,” I answered, mentioning the region’s ongoing chaos unrelated to the Paradise Papers.

Will laughed and reminded me that my partner Diana had predicted that in the Munich meeting when she said there will never be a good timing for the Middle East. Indeed, the timing in this part of the world is not going to be convenient for any projects, any time soon.

But who knows, maybe in 50 years, we will be able to tell a different story.

Maybe in 50 years, we will tell our grandchildren, that it was then, and for those reasons that we decided to start, when nothing seemed possible.

This article was first published on Daraj

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Categories: News

After Panama Papers, Indonesia urges beneficial owners to come out of hiding

Mon, 03/19/2018 - 17:04

Indonesia beefed up corporate transparency standards this month with a decree that will require all companies to regularly disclose their true, beneficial owners – not just their legal representatives – to authorities.

The new rules, introduced at the beginning of March, target those who reap financial benefits from the companies and are designed to prevent and combat corruption and other illicit activities.

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They respond to three urgencies, a spokesman for the Indonesian financial intelligence agency wrote in an official statement: to protect corporations and shareholders, to assess criminal liability with legal certainty, and to recover assets in an effective manner. Those who violate the provisions will be subject to sanctions, he wrote.

The “catalyst” for this new regulation was the country’s need to comply with international anti-money laundering standards, said Gay Ordenes, Southeast Asia director of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

But, according to Ordenes and other experts, the government began to “feel a sense of urgency to act on” ownership disclosure after the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published a series of reports exposing how individuals and companies use tax havens to hide money and evade taxes.

Offshore Leaks [in 2013] took us by surprise and then, of course, the Panama Papers,” said Rimawan Pradiptyo, who teaches economics at Gadjah Mada University and works as a consultant for the Indonesian anti-corruption agency.

The revelations from the two investigations prompted a deeper probe by the financial authority, Rimawan said. They also raised awareness on issues such as tax evasion in Indonesia, and “we started thinking how we can try to tackle the problem,” he said.

Overall, more than 3,000 Indonesians were found to have accounts in tax havens, including several politicians and a fugitive who had previously been convicted of corruption, according to ICIJ’s Indonesian partner Tempo.

Last year another ICIJ investigation, the Paradise Papers, also revealed that family members of the late dictator Suharto, a former presidential candidate, and other tycoons had set up offshore companies that were not previously disclosed. Natural resource conglomerates were also found to use complex, albeit legal, tax structures to expand their operations in Indonesia.

With the new law, watchdogs and researchers hope the country will have a tool to fight financial crime, which has been weighing on the country’s welfare and growth.

A 2012 survey found that half of Indonesia’s tax revenue – an estimated $56 billion at the time – may be lost due to corruption. Four years later, The Economist reported that only 27 million people – about ten percent of the country’s population – were registered as taxpayers and that, of those, fewer than one million paid taxes in 2014.

By year-end, Indonesia is also set to join the Automatic Exchange of Information initiative, a global effort to curb tax avoidance and evasion, which enables tax authorities around the world to exchange information on taxpayers’ accounts.

https://s3.amazonaws.com/www-s3-1.icij.org/uploads/2017/11/17-thru-the-forest.mp4

Described as “long-waited” and “ground-breaking,” the recent decree supplements a 2010 anti-money laundering law and defines beneficiaries as those who own at least a 25 percent stake in an legal entity or significantly control it.

It’s “wonderful because it forces people to think about who actually owns the company,” Rimawan said. “It’s a great stepping stone.”

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Categories: News

Paradise Papers helps reveal Illinois governor candidate’s offshore connections

Thu, 03/15/2018 - 20:16

For months, J.B. Pritzker, the billionaire Democrat vying for the party’s nomination to run for governor of Illinois, offered the same explanation to questions about whether he has holdings in offshore tax havens. Pritzker maintained that offshore trusts linked to his name were set up by his grandfather, who died in 1986.

“Any trusts for my benefit that are offshore, I have received no distributions from, and those trusts are only providing charitable contributions,” Pritzker said in December. “That’s all that they do.”

But after these comments, reporters for the Chicago Tribune obtained access to the Paradise Papers, a cache of more than 13 million documents leaked from offshore jurisdictions around the world that was at the heart of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists investigation last year. The files included details about Pritzker’s links to offshore tax havens that appeared to counter his earlier assertions.

In early March, Tribune reporters questioned Pritzker about some of these findings outside a campaign event. But Pritzker provided little additional information regarding his offshore connections. “I really don’t have any details about this,” Pritzker said, shaking his head.

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On Wednesday, the Tribune cited the Paradise Papers in reporting that a series of offshore companies had been created long after the death of Pritzker’s grandfather, which “are either wholly owned by J.B. Pritzker, his brother and business partner Anthony Pritzker, or list other close associates as controlling executives.”

The report of additional connections between Pritzker and the world of offshore finance, which is often used to dodge taxes, shook the state’s Democratic primary contest, which will be held Mar. 20.

A debate Wednesday night between Democratic gubernatorial contenders led with fierce exchanges about the new reporting from the Paradise Papers. Pritzker asserted that the Tribune story contained nothing new and that the companies were set up not by him but by trusts to benefit charitable interests; he said all of the entities had previously been disclosed.

But his opponents pounced on him, accusing Pritzker of mischaracterizing the new revelations. “J.B. Pritzker set up companies offshore, probably to avoid taxes and spent the entire past year lying about it,” said Daniel Biss, a Democratic state senator and gubernatorial challenger who bills himself as running to the left of Pritzker.

“What he’s done is he’s avoided paying taxes” said fellow Democratic rival Chris Kennedy of Pritzker. “Every taxpayer in the United States now pays more in income tax because he paid less.”

The reports of Pritzker’s offshore connections also drew new attention to the decision by Pritzker and Kennedy – a millionaire himself – to release only limited portions of their income tax returns. “Now we know part of what J.B. Pritzker has been hiding,” Biss said in Wednesday’s debate. “I’m scared to know what the rest is.”

Penny Pritzker and the Paradise Papers

Heirs to the Hyatt Hotel fortune, the Pritzkers are one of the wealthiest families in America. This isn’t the first time the Pritzkers’ offshore ties have emerged in the Paradise Papers.

J.B. Pritzker’s sister is Penny Pritzker, who served as President Obama’s second commerce secretary. Before assuming the post in Washington, Pritzker pledged to sell investments to avoid conflicts of interest while serving in public office.

Files from the Paradise Papers show that soon after she received Senate confirmation in June 2013, Pritzker transferred her interests in two Bermuda companies to a firm that used the same mailing address as her private investment firm in Chicago.

The company was “owned by trusts that are for the benefit of Penny Pritzker’s children,” according to Appleby’s files. These transfers may have fallen short of federal ethics standards for divestment, according to ethics expert Lawrence Noble.

Penny Pritzker did not respond to numerous requests for comment before publication.

After ICIJ and its partners published its findings, a spokesperson for the former commerce secretary provided a statement: “Ms. Pritzker, in consultation with and under the review of the Office of Government Ethics during her service as U.S. Secretary of Commerce, timely complied with all of the rules and requirements promulgated by the Office of Government Ethics with respect to her divestitures and her holdings.”

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Categories: News

‘The world has changed’: Europe targets advisers, accountants, lawyers with new tax rules

Wed, 03/14/2018 - 17:58

The masterminds who promote and sell tax avoidance schemes are under fresh scrutiny after European finance ministers decided on Mar. 13 to impose tough new rules in the wake of the Paradise Papers and the Panama Papers investigations.

The rules will require tax advisers, accountants and lawyers – also known as intermediaries or promoters – to report in advance schemes that may be used by companies or individuals to avoid taxes.

Intermediaries will also be required to report any structure that may disguise the true owner of an offshore company.

Tax avoidance and evasion is a global problem that requires co-ordinated rules and collaborative action John Peterson

European countries will share details of the schemes through a database and penalize intermediaries who do not comply, the European Commission announced. The first details will be shared among tax administrations in July 2020.

The rules emerged from a consultation launched last December by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

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“The Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers have focussed the public’s attention on the global reach of the tax planning industry,” John Peterson, the head of the OECD’s aggressive tax planning unit, told ICIJ.

“These leaks make it obvious to everyone that tax avoidance and evasion is a global problem that requires co-ordinated rules and collaborative action,” Peterson said.

The rules’ targets include offshore law firms such as Mossack Fonseca and Bermuda-based Appleby, the companies whose client files contained information revealed in the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers.

Other intermediaries covered by the rules would include wealth managers and private bankers as well as accounting firms such as KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte and EY, whose tax advice to oligarchs and multinational corporations including Apple and Nike sparked furor and official probes across Europe after last November’s Paradise Papers revelations.

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“The way the offshore advisory industry operates (as evidenced in the Panama and Paradise Papers) means that our rules needed to target, not only the promoters, but also the local advisers and other service providers that play a key role in the global supply chain for these type of arrangements,” said Peterson.

“The world has changed,” Peterson said.

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Categories: News

Europe cracks down on luxury yacht tax dodge, citing Paradise Papers

Mon, 03/12/2018 - 09:32

The European Commission is taking action against three EU member states for failing to collect sufficient value added tax (VAT) on yachts.

Pierre Moscovici, the EU’s commissioner for taxation, started formal infringement procedures against Cyprus, Greece and Malta for allowing yacht owners to pay less VAT than they should.

In particular, the commission argues, these three countries have developed local VAT rules that are unlawful because they favor buyers of large luxury yachts that sell for tens of millions of dollars.

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“In order to achieve fair taxation we need to take action wherever necessary to combat VAT evasion,” Moscovici said.

Practices in Greece, Cyprus and Malta  distort competition in the maritime sector, violate EU law “and must come to an end,” he said.

In its press release, the European Commission noted that concerns about the amount of VAT paid on private jets and yachts was drawn to public attention last November by the Paradise Papers investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and its partners.

ICIJ’s reporting focused mainly on complex corporate structures that avoided the VAT on luxury yachts and jets bought through the Isle of Man – an offshore tax haven not mentioned in the European Commission’s Mar. 7 infringement action.

Vanessa Mock, the Commission’s spokeswoman for tax and customs, said the Isle of Man was still under scrutiny.

“VAT evasion on aircrafts in the Isle of Man is an issue taken very seriously by the Commission. The issue is also being investigated by Eurofisc, the EU’s network of anti-fraud experts,” she said.

Although the Isle of Man is self-governing, it is a UK Crown Dependency and is treated as part of the UK for VAT purposes.

Last year, Moscovici wrote to the British finance ministry demanding an explanation of the Isle of Man’s VAT collection on yachts and private aircraft.

The UK authorities are currently conducting a review of relevant VAT practices in the Isle of Man and are expected to share the results with the commission.

Mock said: “Should it become necessary, the commission will not hesitate to take further action.”

Meanwhile, the infringement procedure begun against Malta, Cyprus and Greece will address both yacht purchases and leasing.

Under European Union rules, it is possible for member states to grant a VAT reduction on transactions if it can be proven that the yacht is to be used, in part, outside the EU. However, the commission claims that Greece, Cyprus and Malta have instead been applying a formula, based on a vessel’s size, to estimate the time it spends beyond EU waters.

Under the formula, the larger the vessel, the longer it is deemed to be outside the EU. This rule results in the largest yachts attracting the biggest VAT reductions – a practice the commission says is unlawful.

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Categories: News

Cross-border collaboration: the antidote to censorship and press intimidation in Thailand

Thu, 03/08/2018 - 14:00

ICIJ collaborates with journalists all around the world to break stories such as the Paradise Papers, Panama Papers, Evicted and Abandoned, Fatal Extraction and more. This series gives you the inside story of what it’s like being an investigative reporter and explores some of the challenges faced by these journalists.

Facing prosecution, censorship and financial hardship, Thai reporters are finding it more and more difficult to hold the government and corporations to account.

Thailand has a “strong investigative reporting culture,” said Prangtip Daorueng, an investigative reporter and a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. But attacks against freedom of expression in the recent years have been crippling.

“Cruel April” and “Savage May,” as Thai media dubbed those critical months in 2010, marked a turn for the worse for the local press.

During the violent confrontations between security forces and anti-government protesters more than 2,000 people were injured and at least 90 were killed, including an Italian photographer and a Japanese video journalist (a colleague of this reporter at the time.)

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Four turbulent years followed, until the army took power with a coup in May 2014.

As a result, “the current media and political environment is more restricted and full of uncertainties,” Daorueng said.

Recent news reports have documented the existence of so-called attitude adjustment camps for those who publicly criticize the government or who are deemed a threat to national security.

Lèse-majesté provisions, preventing anyone from defaming, insulting or threatening the royal family, can carry a penalty of up to 15 years behind bars.

A 2016 law on computer-related crime is yet another tool designed to “drastically tighten the chokehold” on online speech, according to Human Rights Watch.

“If you speak ill of the draft charter, you’ll be summoned for attitude adjustment.” #Thailand deputy PM Prawit. pic.twitter.com/DrRp9u7RMP

— Sunai (@sunaibkk) February 2, 2016

And the list of challenges that reporters face doesn’t end there. “I see a sign of growing corporate influence over governments in many Southeast Asian” countries, said Daorueng, who has also worked in Indonesia and Malaysia.

“When bad companies work with repressive governments, journalists suffer.”

How the Panama Papers, Paradise Papers can help

She believes that international collaborations such as the ICIJ-led Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers could be a remedy.

Not only do they raise awareness of issues such as corporate transparency and accountability, they also help “put pressure on governments and the corporate sector by drawing more public attention [and] can indirectly help shield reporters from pressure that might come from one’s own country,” she said.

Daorueng began to collaborate with ICIJ when she contributed to Collateral Damage, an investigation into the U.S. anti-terrorism program abroad, and Divine Intervention, an exposé of the George W. Bush administration’s AIDS policy in developing countries. One of the findings was that Thailand, with the biggest HIV-positive population in Southeast Asia at the time, was receiving only a small share of the funding and that the American program was putting the health of local sex workers at risk by promoting abstinence over condom use.

Most recently Daorueng also worked with ICIJ reporting on the hidden fortunes of Thailand’s richest men and on the offshore deals of the country’s most powerful corporations.

[Cross-border collaborations] can challenge the restrictions by helping one another to obtain information and publish their stories. Prangtip Daoreung

Each project has represented a different challenge, but each has also given her new skills. For instance, in order to work with more than 370 colleagues on the Panama Papers – an investigation stemming from a leak of more than 11 million files – she had to learn how to use encrypted emails and secure mobile messaging applications.

The learning curve has been “steep,” she said, but in the end it paid off. Today Daorueng uses those same technologies in her daily job while trying to dodge unwanted attention to her reporting activities.

As a freelancer she prefers to work from Bangkok to avoid possible physical harassment sometimes faced by reporters in more remote areas. She’s also cautious about selecting her publisher and often collaborates with Isranews, a non-profit news organization that strives to be independent from business interests.

With Thailand falling six places in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index last year – the country is currently 142 out of 180 countries – Daorueng has one piece of advice for her Thai colleagues, as well as those in neighboring countries.

In such a repressive environment, cross-border collaboration among journalists is “crucial,” she said. Together they “can challenge the restrictions by helping one another to obtain information and publish their stories.”

Read more about the challenges our members and partners face: 

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Categories: News

Poetic irony: How I went from working in finance to investigating it

Wed, 02/28/2018 - 12:06

Manuel Villa was ICIJ’s first-ever Neo4j Connected Data Fellow. The fellowship was inspired by the way graph databases strengthened reporting and helped journalists understand large data sets during the Panama Papers investigation.

I don’t allow myself to become excited about possibilities; only about certainties. It has been a rule I have followed strictly for as long as I can recall.

On a day in the middle of July 2017, in New York City, I came close to breaking that rule.

A notification on my phone alerted me to an email. It was titled “¡Enhorabuena!” – Spanish for “Congratulations!” The sender was Mar Cabra, then-head of the data team at the International Consortium of International Journalists (ICIJ). I almost jumped for joy before reading its contents.

Almost.

Keeping composure, I opened the email and read it.

Mar informed me I had been chosen for the six-month Neo4j Data Journalism Fellowship at ICIJ, the first of its kind.

Now I jumped. With joy.

Life had taken a few turns for me lately. In 2016 after 11 years (and five months and three days) I left the financial industry. About a year later, I was walking in the door of a nonprofit news organization which, just a few months before, had received the Pulitzer Prize for the now-famous Panama Papers. I took pause, recalling how this happened.

ICIJ Neo4j Connected Data Fellow Manuel Villa. i ICIJ Manuel Villa

During my previous career, an anxious sensation developed with time. At first, I didn’t know why: I had an interesting and challenging job; one that allowed me to work in Tokyo, New York and London. And I could not complain about financial remuneration. An enviable life in the eyes of many.

As clichéd as it sounds, I eventually worked out why: disenchantment. I had been feeling increasingly disillusioned by the bottom line of what I was dedicating my existence to. Most importantly, I had been fearful to admit it to myself. But after coming to terms with my inner reality, I was done having doubts. I left finance and entered the master’s degree program in investigative journalism at Columbia Journalism School, in New York.

I knew it would be a strenuous shift of career. I was an absolute beginner in journalism, and I would have to learn all skills from scratch.

Or would I?

To my joyous surprise, all those financial databases, the limitless lines of SQL and VBA coding, the countless spreadsheets…

The daily bread in financial risk management had become useful tools for a new field in journalism  that had exploded in the past two decades: data journalism.  Those skills became the platform from which I dived into data reporting tools, such as Python, R and Neo4j. In retrospect, it is amusing to think that background would eventually land me in a global organization of investigative journalists (who incidentally have reported on the very industry I had left).

For the next few weeks after receiving Mar’s email, however, there was another issue I still had. A minor issue, really: What exactly would I do during those six months? Apparently, I would be “collaborating in data projects.”

I figured it would probably be a rather generic fellowship, helping here and there with several chores and, of course, learning about journalism during the process.

On Monday, August 14, 2017, I arrived at the (tiny) ICIJ office in Washington, D.C., about three blocks north of the White House. I met the local staff: Marina Walker, Emilia Díaz, Martha Hamilton, Sasha Chavkin, Will Fitzgibbon, Scilla Alecci and Rick Sia. I recall asking Emi (Emilia) if she could brief me in more detail on my role, to which she responded Mar would do that in a call from Madrid.

That call came shortly afterwards and, with it, the bombshell revelation.

The Paradise Papers secret

Mar let me know the Panama Papers – the investigation that secured a Pulitzer Prize for the ICIJ – was not the only trove of millions of confidential documents leaked to journalists ICIJ would be working with.  Several months before I arrived, ICIJ had been working on a new leak, amounting to 13.4 million records and originating from two offshore services firms and official company registries of 19 tax haven jurisdictions. It took me a minute to realize the significance of what I was being told.

Panama Papers led to Paradise Papers. i ICIJ Paradise and Panama Papers

My role?

To  help ICIJ organize and transform this massive amount of new data into a Ne04j-based graph database, a visual way of explaining connections within the data, and incorporating it in the existing Offshore Leaks Database.

Lottery winners must feel something akin to the disbelief that overtook me.

While catching up and familiarizing myself – under the strictest of confidentiality – with dozens of stories being developed by partners around the world, I also spent hours analyzing endless lines of Python, Cypher and SQL code and countless data files.

Little by little, the whole structure began to make sense.

Soon I was working with data from several jurisdictions, among them Tonga, Samoa, Cook Islands, Bahamas and more. My role was to work with the leak’s raw data – names of companies and company officers, addresses, dates, etc.– and convert it into a database structured in terms of nodes (companies, officers and addresses) and relationships among those nodes. In a way, it is akin to creating a social network, except that instead of instances such as “Manuel is friends with Miguel” or “Barack is married to Michelle,” what we were interested in building were cases such as “John X is a director of  company Y” or “Company A and company B both have registration address Z.”

I also had to run independent checks of work done by Miguel Fiandor and Rigo Carvajal, the two data gurus with whom I interacted most intensively, confirming if I obtained the same results they did (number and type of nodes, relationships, etc.) for each data source. The importance of this cannot be overstressed, since any mistakes could make journalists waste time and resources on false leads – in the best case scenario – or face lawsuits if they end up publishing inaccurate information.

It was poetically ironic to realize the similarities this had with financial risk management, where reporting the wrong risk data to traders can lead them to make the wrong transactions, losing millions – and getting them (and you) fired.

It was poetically ironic to realize the similarities this had with financial risk management, where reporting the wrong risk data to traders can lead them to make the wrong transactions, losing millions.

Besides the vast amount I learned from my immediate responsibilities, the experience of ICIJ’s organization style was invaluable. The members of the data team were, literally, scattered around the globe: from Madrid to Paris, Costa Rica, Malta and Washington, D.C. Because of that and the delicate nature of the subject, work was discussed daily in encrypted emails, chats and online meetings. To my substantial gratification, ICIJ not only included me, but made sure I participated in those confidential communications.

This is something I especially appreciated. I had barely unpacked my bags, and they immediately had complete trust in me. They could have easily – and understandably – decided not to increase the risk to the project by expanding the number of insiders beyond necessity. Strictly speaking, I likely could have performed the technical aspects of my role without knowing about the confidential aspects of the project. But they wanted me to be aware of the full scope of Paradise Papers. They thought the more I knew, the better I could contribute. They also wanted this to be a full journalistic experience for me.

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I will always appreciate such trust.

It allowed me to discover something about myself: I have no difficulty in keeping secrets.

From the moment  I arrived at ICIJ, for close to three months, my family, friends and other acquaintances  had no clue what I was working on – and not because they did not insistently ask. It was not until November 5, about an hour before we were due to publish the first of the Paradise Papers online, that I called my spouse, my parents and siblings.

I still didn’t let them in the secret. I simply advised them to visit ICIJ’s website in an hour. They craved more details. I let them suffer a bit more.

And now, as the song famously goes, the end is near. With the publication of the final batch of companies and officers to the Offshore Leaks Database on February 14, the invaluable six months of the Neo4j fellowship at ICIJ drew to a close. The opportunity of being part of this project would have been unimaginable to me a couple of years back, when I finally parted with my previous career and ventured into journalism, determined to become a muckraker.

My utmost gratitude goes to Ne04j, for sponsoring the fellowship and to all ICIJ members, who, by fully allowing me to be part of the project, gave me not only a unique learning experience that I take with me, but allowed me to be part of the aspiration that encouraged me to switch paths and enter journalism. Borrowing the words of Walter Lippman: To tell the truth and shame the devil.

Manuel Villa.

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Categories: News

Will US tax agency nominee, Charles Rettig, help rein in offshore holdings?

Tue, 02/27/2018 - 11:05

On Dec. 12, 2007, billionaire Igor Olenicoff pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return that helped him conceal roughly $200 million in offshore holdings, stashed mainly in the Bahamas, out of U.S. tax collectors’ reach. Caught up in one of the highest-profile tax evasion cases in recent history, Olenicoff faced the prospect of joining other top-dollar tax cheats who have found themselves behind bars for defrauding the Internal Revenue Service.

But, when Olenicoff appeared for sentencing the following April, jail time wasn’t an issue: He had won over the judge.

“You are an incredible man,” Judge Cormac Carney told Olenicoff after reading a binder filled with positive information about the billionaire. “You’re probably the smartest person in this courtroom. You have tremendous common sense.”

Moments later, the California federal court judge would hand down a punishment to the billionaire that would become notable for its mercy. Having agreed to pay $52 million in civil fines and back taxes to the IRS, Olenicoff walked out of the courtroom a free man: he would be on probation for two years and required to perform 120 hours of community service.

Given the staggering sums of money he had hidden and the long-running federal pursuit of his offshore holdings, Olenicoff’s avoidance of jail time awed some commentators. Forbes marveled at the light sanction and in another article pronounced that Olenicoff had received a “sweet deal.” Olenicoff himself described his sentence as “an excellent outcome.”

It was so excellent, in fact, that the case set a precedent for other billionaires to claim they should also avoid imprisonment for charges of large-scale tax evasion.

Olenicoff’s success was aided by the law firm representing him, the venerated Beverly Hills-based Hochman Salkin Rettig Toscher & Perez.

In recent weeks, the firm has received renewed attention: President Donald Trump recently announced his intent to nominate one of the firm’s partners, Charles Rettig, as the next commissioner to lead the IRS.

Charles Rettig. i UCLA Extension via PR Newswire Charles Rettig

Rettig did not personally represent Olenicoff, but for the past 35 years, Rettig has based his career largely on representing clients against tax collectors, offering his extensive expertise to wealthy people seeking serious firepower against government actions.

At the same time, Rettig is far from a single-minded crusader against the IRS: While he has represented the wealthy in tax proceedings, he and his firm also have advised the IRS and state tax agencies on how to be more effective. Rettig has even served a stint as chairman of the IRS Advisory Council. In public remarks, Rettig has spoken of federal tax collectors with admiration.

Though they defend clients with offshore holdings, neither Rettig nor the firm participate in creating or administering tax shelters, according to law partner, Steven Toscher. Indeed, a search of tens of millions of leaked documents from offshore jurisdictions contained in ICIJ’s various databases, including the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers, found nothing of note and no correspondences relating to the nominee or his law firm.

If confirmed by a Senate, Rettig will be tasked with implementing President Trump’s sweeping tax overhaul in an agency struggling with years of budget and staffing reductions. The IRS has lost thousands of agents, and overwhelmed officials have struggled to collect money the IRS has calculated it is owed.

While Rettig’s background is varied, one thing is certain: the IRS nominee has considerable expertise in federal attempts to collect revenue from offshore accounts often designed to keep the money out of reach.

In recent years, with input from Rettig’s firm, the IRS launched a high-profile series of efforts to pressure Americans to come clean about hidden offshore holdings, including bank accounts, trusts and shell companies that the wealthy have used to dodge taxes. These programs, generally known as voluntary compliance programs, offer benefits for coming forward – and warnings of criminal penalties for those who don’t – to encourage disclosure.

In addition to taking on the Olenicoff case, Rettig’s firm has also represented clients facing government scrutiny for a tax shelter known as SC2. This maneuver was set up by accounting firm KPMG and has been described as improperly classifying for-profit investments as contributions to charities. The SC2 was among the main subjects of a 2003 Senate subcommittee investigation on tax shelters, and the panel’s chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.,  called the maneuver a “sham.” The following year, the IRS added SC2 to a list of abusive tax transactions. (It has remained there since.) But Rettig publicly defended his clients’ use of the embattled tax shelter, using an argument familiar to tax enforcement authorities: The maneuver had been technically legal.

“The SC2 transaction is not the poster child for abusive tax shelters that the government would portray,” Rettig told the Los Angeles Times during the SC2 controversy in 2005. “The tax result may be highly objectionable to the IRS. But as a technical matter, many knowledgeable practitioners are convinced it will be upheld in litigation.”

Comments like this worry critics, who question whether his allegiances lie with the tax agency or those seeking to dodge its reach.

“Rettig’s sympathy for rich people seeking creative solutions to minimize their tax obligations makes him a poor choice for a country experiencing massive economic inequality and a declining ability to collect owed taxes from the economic elite,” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, a nonprofit group that seeks to increase scrutiny of executive branch appointments, in an email to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

For those linked to the Panama Papers, there are likely a thousand explanations … and for some, sleepless nights ahead. Charles Rettig

Rettig’s law partner Toscher told ICIJ that such criticism of Rettig was unfounded. “He has long espoused accountability for those who don’t voluntarily comply with their filing and reporting obligations and has participated in training sessions significantly improving the examination functions of IRS employees as well as their state counterparts,” Toscher said in an email. (Rettig did not respond to a request for an interview; Toscher answered questions ICIJ sent to Rettig.)

“At the request of the IRS and California taxing authorities, Chuck [Rettig] has also long served on their advisory boards providing invaluable advice for the proper, efficient and effective administration of our tax laws,” Toscher added.

Citing the law firm’s policy, Toscher would not comment on the Olenicoff case except to note that public records confirm that Rettig did not personally represent the billionaire.

Rettig has written extensively for Forbes’s website and other publications about how the wealthy should handle offshore holdings, commonly encouraging readers to immediately take steps to report any illicit accounts to the IRS.

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In response to ICIJ’s Panama Papers investigation, Rettig wrote an article pointing to the potential for future leaks and whistleblowing to urge readers to begin reporting their offshore holdings. “For those linked to the Panama Papers, there are likely a thousand explanations … and for some, sleepless nights ahead,” he concluded.

Responding to a question of how Rettig would help the IRS more effectively bring offshore accounts out of the shadows, Toscher argued the agency should make the process easier for taxpayers.

“Efforts should be made at simplification and reducing the burden of reporting,” Toscher said of offshore accounts. “It is a difficult challenge – but simplification, taxpayer education and assistance and ease of compliance will help achieve greater compliance.”

Toscher said that Rettig’s experience with both private and government practice positions him to improve IRS offshore enforcement.

Speaking in 2016 at a conference about offshore tax compliance, Rettig said he saw few differences between private and public service.

“But for those of you who practice in this arena, I think you’ll quickly get onboard with the concept that there really is not a distinction between government and private practitioner,” Rettig said, according to a transcript of the speech. “We’re all in the same business, which is trying to get people, who for whatever reason are not in compliance, back into compliance.”

Rettig then added a key caveat: “The only distinction is the private practitioner likes to get there before the government” and help get the client on a road toward compliance to improve the chance of a better outcome.

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Categories: News

Paradise Papers wins Polk Award

Wed, 02/21/2018 - 00:20

The Paradise Papers investigation of wealth stashed offshore  has won a George Polk Award, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalist’s second Polk Award in as many years.

The team of more than 380 journalists from six continents was honored with the Financial Reporting Award, announced by the Long Island University (LIU) at a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

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Based on a trove of 13.4 million leaked files, the Paradise Papers exposed the secret tax machinations of some of the world’s most powerful people and corporations. The files were leaked to German reporters Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier of Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with ICIJ, which brought together a collaboration of more than 90 media partners, including The New York Times, the Guardian and others from around the world.

“What had been a powerful but invisible matrix of hidden wealth known only to specialists has been exposed to the full glare of global public scrutiny and – much to the chagrin of insiders – is now a topic of kitchen-table conversations around the world. And there is no going back,” ICIJ deputy director Marina Walker Guevara noted in ICIJ’s entry letter for the award.

This is the second year in a row that an ICIJ investigation has been honored with a Polk Award, after the Panama Papers also won the Financial Reporting Award last year. It is ICIJ’s third Polk Award.

This year’s awards also gave special recognition to journalists from The New York Times and The Washington Post for “their extraordinary effort in uncovering the connection between the Trump presidential campaign and the Kremlin that led to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation,” according to a statement from LIU.

“The Polk judges felt the investigative work, based on the cultivation of sources, was equally outstanding on the part of both newspapers and may play a significant role in safeguarding our democracy from foreign interference.”

Other winners announced on Tuesday included reporters from The New York Times and The New Yorker for exposing the decades-long sexual predation of the movie producer Harvey Weinstein, The Intercept for documenting the destruction of a covert U.S. Navy SEAL raid in Yemen, ProPublica and NPR for portraying the tragedies behind an alarming increase in maternal deaths in the United States and The Washington Post for digging into the past of U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama to disclose on-the-record accounts of sexual assault. Awards also went to journalists from The Naples Daily News, Phoenix New Times, Buzzfeed, VICE News, CNN, CBS News, and more.

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Categories: News

How to work on a high-tech global project with limited internet, phone connection

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 15:34

ICIJ collaborates with journalists all around the world to break stories such as the Paradise Papers, Panama Papers, Evicted and Abandoned, Fatal Extraction and more. This series gives you the inside story of what it’s like being an investigative reporter and explores some of the challenges faced by these journalists.

It seems like some of today’s best investigative journalism is dependent on internet connectivity: open source research, data mining, scraping, encryption and sending emails.

Yacouba Ladji Bama says reporters in Burkina Faso are often intimidated. Le Reporter journalist Yacouba Ladji Bama

But what happens if you work in a place where an internet connection, or even a reliable telephone line, is far from assured?

Ask Yacouba Ladji Bama, an award-winning investigative journalist and the editor-in-chief of Burkina Faso’s newspaper, Le Reporter.

With a team of just four full-time journalists, Le Reporter has exposed financial and procurement scandals within government ministries, corruption within the judiciary and the role of high-profile ministers in the country’s recent, coup-ridden, history.

Bama learned all he knows on the job after finishing studies in sociology (he missed an enrolment deadline to sit the entry test for his first choice journalism school). He counts himself lucky to have landed an internship at a daily newspaper where, after a few days of self-doubt, he landed some scoops and has never looked back.

Bama is also a regular face on a popular Burkina Faso news programs. “Aren’t you the one on television?” is the usual question that greets him when he arrives in town on a new reporting assignment.

Sometimes, I’m forced to go and connect to the internet in a hotel, which is not only costly but brings with it a host of security risks Yacouba Ladji Bama

But for all the impact and public recognition, it is often the basic things that make investigative journalism in Burkina Faso so challenging.

“Telephone and internet connection costs are real headaches,” Bama said.

Le Reporter’s internet connection isn’t always reliable or strong enough to research or download large files. Responding to urgent emails can be delayed by connection failures in the office and throughout Ouagadougou, the capital city where Bama has worked as a journalist for 10 years.

“Sometimes, I’m forced to go and connect to the internet in a hotel, which is not only costly but brings with it a host of security risks,” Bama said.

It was a particular issue during his reporting on the Paradise Papers last year.

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Bama was the only journalist from Burkina Faso to collaborate with hundreds of other reporters on the 13.4 million leaked documents from offshore specialists and company registries.

Time and time again, Bama said, he ran into problems accessing online databases where the documents were shared. It was also challenging to log on to the ICIJ’s communications platform where journalists from around the world exchanged discoveries and research tips during the long months of investigation.

“I was lucky if I could connect to the platform,” Bama remembers. “I tried many times in vain. Sometimes, even the telephones didn’t work.”

Access to public documents in Burkina Faso is another hurdle for investigative journalists, Bama said. “Access to information and public documents from the government is a very serious problem. We are dealing with a very closed administration.”

Burkina Faso adopted a freedom of information law in 2015 that, in theory, allows journalists to request and receive public documents. It is one of the few countries in the region to have such a law, according to African Freedom of Expression Exchange.

But Bama said that officials pay almost no heed to it. That’s been the case for contracts from the transport ministry about a new highway interchange and public service recruitment policy guidelines.

“Many times my requests for information have remained unfulfilled.”

Burkina Faso reporters also face “disguised forms of intimidation,” Bama said. A reporter could be unexpectedly called to the police station or asked to appear before a court. “Often we have cases brought against us whose real intention is to intimidate us, to stop us touching certain subjects.”

In the private sector, Bama said, a company or executive might offer the journalist a bribe to make a story disappear.

Despite the challenges, Bama said, he doesn’t let official or technological obstacles get in his way. “I don’t let myself be influenced, because I always do my job correctly by respecting the ethical rules of the profession.”

That way, he hopes, no one can touch him.

Read more about the challenges our members and partners face: 

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Categories: News

‘I am still in shock’: Journalists flee Venezuela to publish ongoing investigation, amid legal threats

Fri, 02/09/2018 - 18:14

It sounded like another grim chapter in the repression that has gripped Venezuela during the rule of President Nicolas Maduro.

Earlier this week, four journalists from the investigative website Armando.info have been forced to leave the troubled country citing fears of state persecution after they were sued by a business executive with ties to Maduro’s party. Armando.info is a long-term partner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and worked on many projects, including the two most recent projects, Panama Papers and Paradise Papers.

Their dramatic investigative series last year revealed how Colombian executive Alex Saab took advantage of connections, government contracts and an offshore enterprise to sell food at inflated prices to a government program meant to feed Venezuela’s desperately poor.

End of story? Not by any stretch.

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One of the journalists, ICIJ member Joseph Poliszuk, told ICIJ that he and his colleagues would soon publish additional revelations in their series and would be safer doing so from outside the country.

“We are temporarily going abroad to publish these pieces,” Poliszuk told ICIJ.

He said they eventually plan to return to Venezuela to continue their reporting, despite the lawsuit by Saab.

“I am still a little bit in shock,” he said. “We didn’t expect this reaction.”

The scandal centers on a series of articles published by Armando.info that revealed questionable dealings in a government food program to aid the poor, an operation involving offshore companies allegedly linked to President Maduro himself.

The first article, published in April 2017, alleged that Saab, who has enjoyed close business ties with the Venezuelan government, was benefiting from a state contract to import food supplies for a program to feed the poor. The program, known as CLAP for its acronym in Spanish (Comites Locales de Abastecimiento y Produccion), is meant to prevent hunger among poor communities amid Venezuela’s ongoing economic crisis.

So much more could have been done with that money. Joseph Poliszuk

Documents obtained by Armando.info showed Saab’s ties to an offshore company incorporated in Hong Kong called Grupo Grand Limited. Grupo Grand Limited received a contract of $340 million from the Venezuelan state of Tachira to import food for CLAP.

The documents showed that Grupo Grand Limited charged prices well above the market rate for food staples such as tomato sauce, pasta and beans. The offshore firm charged nearly 50 percent more than the market rate for tomato sauce and roughly 80 percent above market rates for pasta and beans – even as hundreds of children across Venezuela were dying of hunger during the country’s economic collapse.

“So much more could have been done with that money,” Poliszuk said. “And what’s more, there were people who benefited.”

Saab has denied any connection to Grupo Grand Limited, although the documents obtained by Armando.info show his son listed as a beneficiary of the company, and the company is registered at the same address as another company owned by Alex Saab.

But it was another dramatic twist last August that brought the story national attention in Venezuela. Luisa Ortega, who spent a decade as Venezuela’s top prosecutor, was dismissed from her post after denouncing the Maduro regime.  She then leveled an explosive allegation at a press conference in Brazil several weeks after her dismissal. President Maduro himself was a beneficiary of Grupo Grand Limited, she asserted.

Ortega said she had evidence to support these claims and would hand it over it to authorities outside Venezuela but so far has not provided proof to the public.

“With that it became scandalous because it was related directly to the president of the Republic,” Poliszuk said.

Armando.info published their second story in the investigation in September last year. armando.info's investigation

In September, Armando.info published its story about Ortega’s allegations. Poliszuk and his colleagues began receiving threats sent from an anonymous Twitter account. The messages included their home addresses and other personal information, as well as an ominous statement: “Greetings to you and your beautiful family.”

Poliszuk and his colleagues, including fellow editor and ICIJ member Ewald Scharfenberg, editor Alfredo Meza and reporter Roberto Deniz, remained in the country and continued their reporting.

But mounting fears of persecution by the government later forced them to leave Venezuela. This week they noted in a press release that Saab had charged them with defamation and “aggravated injury,” crimes that carry sentences of one to six years in prison. Concerned that they would not receive a fair trial in Venezuela’s courts, all four have now temporarily left the country.

“I have doubts about Venezuelan justice,” Poliszuk said.

His own reporting had provided ample grounds for concern on this front – a July 2017 Armando.info investigation authored by Poliszuk found that 40 percent of the judges in Venezuela are members of Maduro’s ruling party.

It was not the first time Saab has taken legal action against journalists – last year he also sued Univision’s Gerardo Reyes, another ICIJ member, after Reyes reported that Saab was under investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency for possible connections to money laundering.

Poliszuk said he and his colleagues were determined to continue their work and publish what Poliszuk said will be significant new revelations in their series.

 

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Categories: News

Through death threats and scare tactics, Honduran reporter ‘perseveres’

Tue, 02/06/2018 - 15:28

ICIJ collaborates with journalists all around the world to break stories such as the Paradise Papers, Panama Papers, Evicted and Abandoned, Fatal Extraction and more. This story is part of series that gives you the inside story of what it’s like to be an investigative reporter and explores some of the challenges faced by these journalists.

Lourdes Ramirez, an ICIJ member and reporter in Honduras who focuses on human rights issues, has had the same away message on her Skype account for the past few years: “Perseverando.”

The message means “persevering.” For Ramirez, reporting on topics from a rash of unsolved murders of women to conditions in garment factories to Honduras’ powerful organized crime networks has been an act of constant perseverance, as well as considerable bravery.

For her efforts, Ramirez has received the Courage Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation, awarded to women reporting in situations of risk, and the Froylan Turcios award from Honduras’ National Congress.

What inspired me to do journalism were exactly those issues of human rights and poverty. Lourdes Ramirez

She has also been warned off stories by hooded men who bundled her into a vehicle to threaten her life and, years later, forced to flee Honduras after receiving another wave of death threats. Although she could have applied for asylum in the United States, she returned to the country and continued reporting.

In 2014, she worked with ICIJ on the Evicted & Abandoned investigation of forced displacement caused by development projects financed by the World Bank, joining an on-the-ground reporting trip in the violence-racked Honduran province of Bajo Aguan.

Ramirez says it is a struggle in Honduras to find work as a journalist covering human rights, crime and other problems the government prefers to keep quiet, but that she will keep on investigating those subjects.

“If I don’t do that, I feel like I’ve failed as a journalist,” Ramirez said. “Because what inspired me to do journalism were exactly those issues of human rights and poverty.”

Last June, she was abruptly removed from her Saturday morning radio broadcast Café Informativo and offered only a slot in the afternoon with a far smaller audience, despite a contract that extended into 2018. Ramirez says she was offered no explanation for the change but notes that her show frequently addressed uncomfortable topics such as human rights, corruption and government misconduct.

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Ramirez left the radio station and kept up her reporting on human rights. In July, a story she worked on examined the unsolved murders of women in Honduras, a phenomenon so frequent that they have come to be referred to as “femicides.” Using police statistics, Ramirez and a colleague found that in more than 90 percent of femicides in her home city of San Pedro Sula, investigations were closed by authorities without bringing charges.

To pay the bills, Ramirez also works for a nonprofit group dedicated to combating violence. The initiative she works on, called Proyecto Genesis, works with youth in San Pedro Sula, which has the third-highest murder rate among all cities worldwide, according to The Economist.

Proyecto Genesis offers activities for young people in Chamalecon, one of the city’s most crime-affected neighborhoods, to offer them alternatives to street gangs. Ramirez works in communications, writing profiles of the youth and other materials for the organization.

Ramirez has also launched a digital newspaper, En Alta Voz, to cover politics and current events in Honduras.

She and several contributors are covering Honduras’ disputed elections, which have sparked widespread protests and international concern after incumbent president Juan Orlando Hernandez came from behind to take the lead in a vote count widely suspected to be tainted by fraud.

Sensitive stories, Ramirez says, are published without bylines to protect the reporters.

“I could live perfectly well as a consultant,” she said. “But I have never left journalism.”

Read more about the challenges our members and partners face: 

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Categories: News

The U.S. list of wealthy Russians and our offshore investigations

Mon, 02/05/2018 - 16:38

Last week, the U.S. Treasury released a highly-anticipated list of wealthy Russians with close ties to the government of Vladimir Putin. It was intended to help policymakers decide on a new round of sanctions against Russia for both the country’s meddling in the U.S. presidential election and its annexation of Crimea.

Russia’s billionaires had braced themselves for potential inclusion on what was expected to be a deeply-researched list to name and shame power players of Russia’s political economy.

But when the public portion of the list was released earlier this week, it astonished many observers: It evidently contained no original research by the U.S. government at all.

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Instead the list was “an exact replica of the Russians on the 2017 billionaires list” published by Forbes, as the magazine itself noted.

“The names of and net worth of oligarchs in the unclassified version of the report were selected based on objective criteria drawn from publicly available sources,” a Treasury official told Buzzfeed

In response to questions from ICIJ about its oligarch list, the U.S. Treasury Department responded with a press release stating that, while the list it released was drawn from publicly available sources, it was submitted to congress with “classified annexes” that contained additional information.

“This included links to corruption, and international business affiliations of the named Russian persons,” the release said. “Treasury included a classified annex in the report in order to avoid potential asset flight from the named individuals and entities, as well as to prevent disclosure of sensitive information.”

This classified material, the department said, “included links to corruption, and international business affiliations of the named Russian persons. ”

The cut-and-paste list, however, was accompanied a larger retreat by U.S. President Donald Trump from new sanctions on Russia.

But the recycled Forbes’ list caught our eye for another reason. It contained a lot of names ICIJ had found in millions documents about offshore activity that made up the Panama and Paradise Papers investigations.

Russia’s offshore connection

Like their global counterparts, many Russian billionaires love offshore financial services — the secretive bank accounts and trusts hidden away in tax havens across the world — and recent leaks of offshore data have exposed secrets of the wealthiest Russians and their connections.

ICIJ’s Paradise Papers and Panama Papers revealed extensive financial dealings with Russia’s richest people and their connections to both American interests and tax havens around the world, underscoring the sensitivity for the Trump Administration of compiling an Oligarch sanctions list with any bite.

Wilbur Ross was found to have Russian business ties in the Paradise Papers. i Rocco Fazzari Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross.

For instance, documents from the Paradise Papers revealed U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has had financial ties to at least three wealthy Russian’s appearing on the Administration’s list.

Ross held a stake through offshore entities in Navigator Holdings, a shipping firm that receives millions of dollars from the Russian energy firm Sibur, a company owned by Vladimir Putin’s close allies. According to the Commerce Department Ross no longer has an interest in Navigator.

Two of its key owners are Kirill Shamalov (#66 in Russia, according to the 2017 World’s Billionaires list), who formerly was married to Putin’s youngest daughter, and Gennady Timchenko, a sanctioned oligarch whose activities in the energy sector, the Treasury Department said previously, were “directly linked to Putin.” Timchenko is the fourth Russian on the Forbes list.

Another powerful owner is Sibur’s largest shareholder, Leonid Mikhelson, who controls an energy company that was also previously sanctioned by the Treasury Department for propping up Putin’s rule. Mikhelson is, according to the Forbes list, also the richest businessman in Russia.

Also appearing on the administration’s list of wealthiest Russians are Alisher Usmanov (#5 on Forbes list), an Uzbek-Russian mining magnate, and Yuri Milner (#30), a star tech investor in Silicon Valley.

In November, ICIJ reported that the investment fund run by tech mogul Milner received $191 million in 2011 from a Russian government firm, VTB Bank, and invested that money in Twitter. Another state-controlled financial institution, Gazprom Investholding, funded a shell company that invested in a Milner-affiliated company that held roughly $1 billion in Facebook shares shortly before its 2012 initial public offering, documents show.

The Paradise Papers revealed Yuri Milner’s Russian connections. Yuri Milner is an investor

Usmanov was one of Milner’s most prominent backers of investments in U.S. social media. Last month, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and three other Republican senators formally asked the Trump administration to consider adding Usmanov to the official list of oligarchs. At that point, Washington was still apparently taking the list seriously.

In response to a question from ICIJ and its partners about the shell company’s ties to the Facebook deal, Gazprom Investholding stated that its loans to the firm “were provided for general corporate purposes.”

In response to previous reporting, Rollo Head, a spokesman for Usmanov, said Usmanov “has been a highly successful investor in Russian and international assets utilizing a combination of his own and borrowed funds.” Head said none of Usmanov’s investments in Facebook used money borrowed from state institutions. As a passive investor in Milner’s deals, the spokesman said, Usmanov had no control over funds controlled by Milner or their underlying investments.

For his part, Milner confirmed VTB’s involvement in the Twitter deal but said he was unaware of any possible involvement by the Gazprom subsidiary in any of his deals.

The Paradise Papers also revealed a number of Russian billionaires who registered private jets in tax havens. For instance, Putin’s friends, billionaire brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg (#39 & #90 on the Forbes list) had relied on offshore entities to handle the taxes and other issues involved in owning luxury planes and boats, leaked files showed. The Panama Papers also revealed they owned at least seven companies registered in the British Virgin Islands

And Oleg Deripaska (#23 on the Forbes list), who has emerged as yet another Russian in the Tolstoy-sized cast of characters comprising the election-meddling scandal, also has ties to offshore jet registrations revealed in the Paradise Papers.

Deripaska and the Rotenberg brothers did not respond to earlier requests for comment on their offshore registrations by ICIJ and The Guardian.

Another Russian billionaire who made the Treasury’s list is mining magnate Dmityri Rybolovlev, revealed in Panama Papers files to have controlled an offshore company used to buy and store artworks worth $650 million. Rybolovlev, who is #15 on the Forbes list, also declined to comment.

While Rybolovlev and numerous other wealthy Russians have been identified in the Panama and Paradise Papers, they may have little to fear from the Treasury: The classified files supplementing the copied Forbes list will likely see the light of day no time soon.

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