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International Consortium of Investigative Journalists
Updated: 3 hours 9 min ago

Our who, what, why leak explainer

Wed, 09/05/2018 - 13:46

Whistleblowers, like Deep Throat, Daniel Ellsberg, Karen Silkwood, Mordechai Vanunu, Linda Tripp, Jeffrey Wigand, Edward Snowden, Bradley — now Chelsea — Manning and John Doe, come from all walks of life, and stigma and myth tend to surround them.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has lots of experience with information leaks. In the past five years alone, we’ve sifted through about 30 million leaked documents to produce groundbreaking investigations like the Panama Papers, Paradise Papers, Swiss Leaks and Lux Leaks.

The common denominator? Whistleblowers providing information, secretly, in an attempt to expose hidden wrongs.

Famously, whistleblowers have toppled President Richard Nixon, effectively ended the Vietnam War, exposed an Oval Office tryst, revealed nuclear secrets, uncovered environmental and health catastrophes and focused global attention on offshore tax havens.

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ICIJ is often approached by concerned citizens who believe they’ve found an injustice that they’d like us to investigate,  but few know the first thing about becoming a whistleblower or how to provide information to journalists.

So we thought a basic guide to leaking might prove useful, one laid out using an old journalistic tool: the five W’s and a H (loosely interpreted!)


You! Anyone can be a whistleblower. If you’ve seen something wrong and you want to do something about it, then sharing information (especially information that might otherwise remain secret, hidden or unknown) with a journalist could help uncover the injustice and force society to take action.


Documents and data. We can sometimes turn a small tip into a big story through hard work and public documents, but there are many stories that can only be told with help from an insider, someone who has hard evidence of injustice or wrongdoing. That’s where brave whistleblowers can help with documents and data that otherwise might be kept hidden away. It doesn’t need to be a hard drive with millions of files or a database of facts and figures. Sometimes just a single, damning document can be enough.


Choose where you want to leak your information very carefully. Seek an outlet or journalist who is likely to be interested in the story. If it’s a local issue, try a local news outlet. If it’s a financial issue, look for a journalist with experience investigating financial wrongdoing. If it’s a global issue, look for an organization renowned for global investigations, like ICIJ (we couldn’t go through this whole post without plugging our work at least once!).

Whistleblowers often take great risks to provide data to journalists. Look for an outlet that will treat the leak (and the leaker) with respect. ICIJ takes source protection seriously and can work with you to keep your identity secret when necessary.


Now (so long as you’re ready). It’s important to be prepared. Have documents and data ready, if possible, and have a plan around what might happen next, once the information has been leaked.

Some stories might happen quickly — within hours of passing the information to a journalist. Others might take months or even years of further research to complete an investigation. If in doubt, ask a reporter about the timeline.


Expose injustice. There can be any number of individual reasons that might motivate a whistleblower, but ultimately it’s the wrongdoing or unfairness or injustice of a situation that will provide both the impetus to leak and the reason for a journalist to investigate.


Safely and efficiently. There are lots of options for contacting journalists, from making a phone call to anonymously providing encrypted information over obscure networks. Assess the risk first (how sensitive is this information, what are the consequences of leaking it), then choose a method that’s both appropriate and comfortable.

Email and phone calls are easy, but also can be easily traceable. Consider using a different phone to normal, or creating a new email address on a different computer if you’re worried about your communication being tracked.

Encryption for digital files and communication is wonderful, but only if it’s done correctly. Instead, consider using apps like Signal and Peerio which include built-in encryption. Or perhaps posting the hard copy material in the mail might be easier.

There are a number of ways you can get in touch with ICIJ, including via email, Signal, Peerio and, for anonymous and secure communication, SecureDrop.

If you’d like to know more, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

To speak with one of our reporters, you can use one of the contact methods here or send us an email:

The post Our who, what, why leak explainer appeared first on ICIJ.

Categories: News

‘It is not the time to shut up’: Venezuelan journalists remain in exile as press freedom attacks continue

Tue, 08/28/2018 - 20:34

Four Venezuelan journalists in exile have suspended plans to return home after an entrepreneur with reported ties to the president doubled-down on efforts to muzzle reporting on alleged fraud inside a program designed to feed hungry Venezuelans.

ICIJ members Ewald Schafenberg and Joseph Poliszuk and colleague Roberto Deniz of news website fled Caracas to Bogotá, Colombia, earlier this year. A fourth reporter, Alfredo Meza, now works from the United States.

“Working from a distance… has been difficult, but it would have been worse to accept the censorship behind this case and be forced to abandon this story,” Poliszuk told the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists by email. Poliszuk credits technology and the determination of colleagues who stayed in Venezuela with’s ongoing coverage. has published a series of reports since 2017 revealing how the Colombian mogul Alex Saab reaped millions of dollars via an offshore company in Hong Kong. The company artificially inflated food prices on packages provided to Venezuela’s poorest citizens under a government-run program, according to

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Venezuela’s economy has collapsed under President Nicolás Maduro and millions of citizens regularly do not have enough to eat. The Maduro government introduced the program, known by its Spanish initials CLAP to deliver food boxes with essentials like beans, cornmeal and tuna.

Saab used connections to Maduro’s administration to secure the contract, reported. The offshore company lists Saab’s son, on paper, as its owner.’s recent reporting included chemical analyses that showed milk powder imported by Saab and others under the food program had high levels of sodium but low levels of protein and calcium. In one of eight analyses, reported, a child would have to drink 41 glass of CLAP-imported “milk” to receive the average amount of protein contained within a normal glass.

Saab denies wrongdoing. In September, he launched legal action in Venezuela, accusing and the four editors and reporters of defamation and “aggravated injury.”  The lawsuit carries with it the possibility of up to six years in jail.

Last month, a Caracas court granted Saab’s request to prevent the journalists leaving Venezuela — despite the fact they had already done so. This month, Saab filed another request with the court to stop publishing any further reference to his name.

That someone can ask a judge to prohibit any mention of his name in a case that involves public funds and the provision of food to those who have nothing to eat “shows the degree of authoritarianism that exists in Venezuela,” Poliszuk said. “They are asking for an injunction against transparency.”

It is not the time to shut up. Joseph Poliszuk

The journalists fear that Venezuela’s judges, 40 percent of whom are members of the ruling party, could not guarantee a fair trial should they return.

“We decided to come to Colombia for what we thought would be a short time,” Poliszuk told ICIJ. “But unfortunately, with the latest decision of the court, if we return at this moment we might be at risk.”

“I miss everything, of course, it’s my country,” said Poliszuk, who relocated to Colombia without his family. “More than anything, I want to be in Caracas because I love journalism.” is a regular media partner of ICIJ. continues to publish investigations into Saab’s business empire and the government’s food program, CLAP.

With Venezuela’s economy in freefall, hyperinflation and power cuts have left many of the remaining 32 million people struggling to survive, millions have fled the country in what has become of the biggest migration crises in Latin America’s history.

Journalists are increasingly joining the exodus, Poliszuk said. Some leave to escape government pressure; others in response to crumbling salaries and chronic food and medicine shortages.

Poliszuk said that recent reporters-in-exile include a prominent radio host who moved to Miami and others who cover the news, as Poliszuk does, from Bogota.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has criticized Venezuela’s increasing attempts to silence journalists through politicized probes of independent newspapers and the use of a new, draconian “anti-hate” law.

Scharfenberg, Poliszuk, Deniz and Meza say they will stay outside Venezuela until they receive guarantees of a fair trial and will continue to report on Saab and the food program scandal.

“It is not the time to shut up,” Poliszuk told ICIJ.

The post ‘It is not the time to shut up’: Venezuelan journalists remain in exile as press freedom attacks continue appeared first on ICIJ.

Categories: News

Nicaragua’s media uprising challenges President Ortega

Mon, 08/27/2018 - 18:21

Arriving in Diriamba, Nicaragua, cameraman Ricardo Salgado was greeted by menacing scenes following the brutal government crackdown of a local uprising.

“Paramilitaries and hooded police were already there,” Salgado recalled. “Even the police were covering their faces.”

Cardinal Leopoldo José Brenes Solórzano and two bishops were leading a delegation seeking safe passage for protestors opposed to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

The protestors had taken refuge in the San Sebastian church after they were assaulted by state security forces and government supporters — in the midst of nationwide clashes that resulted in the deaths of 31 protesters, four police officers and three government supporters.

Salgado was there to capture the moment for Confidencial, a leading Nicaraguan news program headed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists member Carlos Fernando Chamorro.

It was a very terrible situation… I was in the mouth of the wolf Ricardo Salgado

As Salgado’s camera rolled, the paramilitaries forced their way into the church alongside the rescue delegation. Some were armed with machetes and shouted insults at the churchmen, calling them “killers” and “sons of whores.”

Then, Ortega’s fighters set upon the clergymen as they tried to leave the sanctuary. They rained blows on priest Edwin Román and slashed bishop Silvio Baez, leaving him with cuts across his arm.

“For me there is not even a name for that,” Salgado said. “It is a direct war against the Catholic church.”

Realizing the events were being recorded, the fighters turned violently on Salgado and the other journalists. They punched Salgado in the face twice and stole his video camera. Fearing that Ortega’s men would start shooting, he fled nearby on foot.

The cameraman hid for two hours in the home of a local man who offered him refuge, as paramilitaries roamed the streets surrounding the church in Toyota Hiluxes, searching for protestors and journalists.

“It was a very terrible situation,” Salgado said.  “I was in the mouth of the wolf, as we say in Nicaragua.”

The following day, July 10, Confidencial released a video with dramatic footage of the confrontation at the church – compiled in large part from numerous other Nicaraguan outlets whose equipment was not seized.

Foreign media, including the BBC and Associated Press, also covered the assault on the clergy. Their equipment was returned to them after the attacks, according to Salgado.

The incident reflects a remarkable pattern that Salgado’s boss Chamorro says is unfolding in Nicaragua: as the regime’s repression grows increasingly brutal, the media has become more and more independent.

“The media independence that exists now in Nicaragua was not a gift,” Chamorro said. “It was won by journalists and the people.”

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Since this spring, Nicaragua has been in a state of upheaval. Massive protests in April against a government plan to reduce social security benefits sparked a wave of violent repression by the Ortega regime.

Human rights groups say that nearly 450 people have been killed, mostly by state security forces and government-allied paramilitaries, and a military crackdown in July cemented Ortega’s control of the country.

Ortega has been president of Nicaragua since 2007. He first came to power in 1979 as leader of the leftist Sandinistas but, in his second stint in power, has suppressed civil liberties, abolished presidential term limits, cut social services and won support from the business community.

One result of the current wave of state violence is that reporters are now working together with greater solidarity across media outlets, Chamorro said. As a security measure, his reporters now travel in groups of at least three that include journalists from other outlets.

Foreign journalists provide an additional measure of protection. In the community of Monimbó, an indigenous neighborhood in the city of Masaya, locals barricaded the streets until they were violently driven out by police and paramilitaries.

Confidencial editor Carlos Salinas Maldonado gained access shortly after the crackdown together with The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson. Salinas wrote a lyrical dispatch about how the occupied city had quietly “closed its doors and resisted,” including burying the protesters killed by the military after a somber procession through the empty streets.

“This is not a war between two armed groups,” Chamorro said. “It’s a massacre.”

The regime’s brutality has reduced its popular support and prompted more media outlets to cover its abuses, Chamorro said. He said the country’s most widely watched network, Canal 10, was largely uncritical of the Ortega regime prior to the recent upheaval. But the severity of the government’s violence and the insistence of Canal 10 reporters on covering the reality has brought about a major shift in its coverage.

Mauricio Madrigal, the news director for Canal 10, said his station had significantly increased its political coverage and was determined to hold the government accountable.

“We have a social commitment to inform the people at this historic moment for our country,” Madrigal said.

Chamorro said Confidencial’s coverage during what he described as a gradual eleven-year shift from democracy toward authoritarianism during Ortega’s rule had earned the outlet additional authority for its reporting of the current crisis.

“We are now reaping the credibility we have sowed for 11 years,” Chamorro said.

The post Nicaragua’s media uprising challenges President Ortega appeared first on ICIJ.

Categories: News

How machine learning is revolutionizing journalism

Wed, 08/22/2018 - 12:14

The rise of the machine has freed ICIJ members globally to pore over millions of documents in a custom-built search engine.

But even this next-level research has posed substantial challenges: for example, what to do when certain phrases return an indigestible 150,000 results? Clearly, the next step to speeding up our research was to intelligently filter information relevant to each investigation.

Here’s how we streamlined the previously daunting process, giving us both unprecedented flexibility and the required search success rate.

Step 1: Wrangle the big data

In leaks like the Paradise Papers, we dealt with millions of documents (including PDFs, photos, and emails) that traditional platforms like Excel can’t process. This is known as Big Data, where huge volumes of often unorganized data need to be tamed into structured sets.

We upload leaked files to a server for indexing, using Apache Solr which is freely-available open source software. For documents stored as image files (e.g., a printed PDF signed and scanned into a computer) we need to use a technique known as optical character recognition.

ICIJ’s team developed our own OCR tool called Extract, that recognizes and indexes the text using the power of up to 30 servers or more. It uses components from existing open source OCR tools like Apache Tika and Tesseract. You can take a look at the tool on our GitHub.

ICIJ uses Talend to help reorganize data. Talend

Then we use Talend Studio. It’s a data transformation and analysis software based on visual components that you drag around a work area and connect to create a flow.

First, we automate a search and store the results by creating a Talend job that searches for a topic, organization name or individual that we are investigating, such as “Glencore.”  The search will return hits and other information from the text of the documents and their metadata, such as document ID, the name of the file, file root, extension, size in bytes.

The search results are stored in Solr, a database that recognizes the relationship between items. It’s not necessary to store all the text in the document, because analyzing is a slow process. We can add a filter so only the first few pages or words of documents are analyzed.

Step 2: Group documents by cluster

Clustering is a technique that allows us to group similar things. Instead of scrolling through a mass of PDFs, it’s helpful to create groups of documents by topic or by the type of document, so the reporter can access similar documents all at once, such as all the PDFs concerning fund transfers.

We use RapidMiner to process the text and metadata of documents and create clusters based on common words and phrases. RapidMiner is a powerful tool that makes it easy to implement data mining algorithms, and it also uses a visual workspace rather than a drab text editor.

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Now, we need to process the content of the documents by applying transformations and filters to the document text in RapidMiner. Here is a more detailed workflow:

  • Tokenize: This process separates the text in a sequence of individual words or “tokens” preparing it for further manipulation.
  • Filter tokens (optional): In one case, we noticed that the most relevant keywords and phrases to identify a document were written in capital letters, so we added a token filter to only analyze uppercase words longer than three characters.
  • Eliminate stop-words: Remove words that are commonplace in daily language and aren’t key to deciphering the document, for example, “a,” “and,” “the,” “be.”
  • Stemming: For all the tokens (or words) in the document, we find the root word. For example, fishing, fished and fisher derive from fish. Certain types of stemming will not result in real words, but machine calculated stems. For instance, the words expression and expressive may be shortened to expres. This technique identifies themes in a document by turning all root word derivatives into a single token.
  • Clustering: Common words and phrases in a document are grouped together, or clustered, so that the similarities among documents can be found.

With this process, you can create groups of documents that contain common tokens (words). For example, this is a set of transformed tokens found in documents with similarities:

  • loan agreement
  • share purchas agreement (this will then pick up “share purchasing agreement” or share purchased agreement” as it is using the root word.)
  • altern director appoint confirm
  • written resolut sole sharehold adopt
  • fund agreement plc
  • transfer agreement
  • board director unanim written resolut herebi adopt
  • altern director resign
  • privat confidenti
  • power attornei
  • director appoint confirm

After processing, we can execute queries in Solr to get a list of documents that match the search parameters. Without opening a single document, we know what type of documents we have, and if we have one we’re interested in. We also know the words and phrases to find them directly.

With this structure, we can now create spreadsheets in Talend. We’ve got the list of search results, their document IDs, the ID numbers of document clusters, a field that contains the cluster tokens and the first 500 characters of a document that serves as a preview before downloading. The spreadsheet could also contain a URL that leads to the documents so they can be downloaded directly from the platform.

This kind of spreadsheet allows us to explore documents more efficiently because journalists can discard the documents they’re not interested in and easily determine which are relevant.

Step 3: Automatic file classification

Once we’ve classified some leaked documents using the above processes, we can use machine learning to automatically classify other documents that we haven’t even opened.

First, we need a structured dataset to train the machine learning model in RapidMiner, which will then learn to classify new files using the existing data and metadata.

After applying the transformations and filters explained in Step 1, the model will take into account all tokens (words) and/or phrases that have to be present in a file to classify it accordingly. So when we add a new file to the system, the model can determine which category to assign the file to.

Now the machine will automatically place new files into categories, such as:


But, there’s still work to be done. At ICIJ, we have plans to repurpose existing tools and to refine the machine learning model.

Discarding spam and useless files

For a long time, email services have used classification models to recognize spam. We want to  apply this technology to all email files in our document set, as well as the emails of irrelevant conversations. That way, we can discard those emails and other files aren’t of public interest and so reduce the number of results that we obtain through our search or the number of the files we process with other components.

Classifying all the files

Right now, we’ve applied this strategy to a subset of files containing special keywords, but we plan for the capability to apply automatic classification on all the files in the leak. We will train the machine model using a complete set of diverse files, and eventually, the model should be able to teach itself how to classify all new files.

Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this story.

The post How machine learning is revolutionizing journalism appeared first on ICIJ.

Categories: News

A first-timer’s guide to anonymously leaking information via SecureDrop

Tue, 08/21/2018 - 13:02

Ever wanted to leak something to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and remain entirely anonymous? SecureDrop is one of the safest ways to send us information – but the process can seem intimidating.

So we commissioned our own, in-house first-timer to “leak” some information to ICIJ via SecureDrop, and document the experience.

Project manager (and SecureDrop novice) Fergus Shiel kindly volunteered to put the process to the test. We should note that, thanks to his observations, we plan on making a few changes to our instructions to help make it more accessible for users of all skill levels. Thanks, Fergus!

ICIJ’s Fergus Shiel fancies himself as The IT Cooler. The Cooler movie poster

You’ve seen “The Cooler” right? Down on his luck Vegas guy deploys his innate ability to bring about misfortune to jinx gamblers.

Well, meet The IT Cooler. For there is no computer, printer or phone which I cannot jinx with my innate inability to log on, download, upload or any load, more or less.

So, let me be frank, being tasked, as a guinea pig, with uploading a document to ICIJ’s SecureDrop did not fill the chambers of my heart with sparkledust.

No, dear reader, I sallied forth with four heavy chambers in the center of my chest, certain in the knowledge that SecureDrop and I would never be BFFs. Never, ever.

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Like the brave chroniclers of yore, however, I determined to be your guide in this my darkest hour, recording for humanity’s sake the steps that I took on my SecureDrop odyssey.

Step 1: Find the instructions

I go to Leak to Us at the top of ICIJ’s website, then click on How to Use SecureDrop. Woohoo, so far so good. Feelin’ cray, as Millennials might say.

Step 2: Read the instructions

Panic attack. Total brain spasm at seeing so many words in How-To Guide (HTG). Hoc non computato.

Step 3: Choose a secure browser/operating system

After breathing exercises, my calm restored, I read HTG.

HTG talks about “a new onion URL.” I have no idea what this is, but something tells me that it’s not a French soup.

Okay, got it! Google has revealed that there is a computer network called Tor which uses an onion as a symbol.

The Tor Browser allows internet browsers to obscure their online browsing from prying eyes. The Tor Browser

Why the onion, pray tell Ms. Google? Because Tor encrypts and randomly bounces messages around relays – like the layers of said onion.

Next, HTG proffers two options: use Tor or Tails. For the sake of my personal amusement, I’d much prefer if it had said “Heads or Tails.”

Regardless, I opt for Tor, rather than Tails, by clicking on the highlighted link to the download page.

Step 4: Install the secure browser

Downloading Tor is impressively pain-free, taking about 30 seconds. I install it with a click. I don’t know yet about SecureDrop, but I already love The Onion.

Step 5: Go to ICIJ’s SecureDrop platform

Following instructions as if my very life depended upon them, I open the newly-installed Tor browser and navigate to the onion URL, i.e. copy the address that’s provided (http://lzpczap7l3zxu7zv.onion); paste it into Tor’s address bar and hit enter with a loud and self-satisfied ‘Voila!’:

ICIJ's SecureDrop

Step 6: Remember your code name

You may be familiar with Luther Stickell’s work as a hacker in the Mission Impossible films. Well, this is my Stickell moment.

Improbably, and to my own amazement, I have managed to get to the SecureDrop welcome page.

Now, all I have to do is to upload a document to ICIJ.

To most people, this would be a straightforward task.

For an IT Cooler, it is the equivalent of hacking the Kremlin.

First, I am given a seven word code name. The code name comes with this message:

Because we do not track users of our SecureDrop service, in future visits, using this code name will be the only way we have to communicate with you should we have questions or are interested in additional information. Unlike passwords, there is no way to retrieve a lost code name.

Frankly, my code name is not nearly as cool as I’d like, but I press on bravely, nevertheless.

An example of a SecureDrop source code name.

Step 7: Send your file and message to ICIJ

You can submit any kind of file, a message, or both, to SecureDrop.

If you are already familiar with PGP encryption, you can optionally encrypt your files and messages with our public key before submission.

Fergus Shiel leaked this picture of a snowdrop to ICIJ. Snowdrops

Remarkably, I am familiar with PGP thanks to the immortal patience of ICIJ’s IT staff, but for the purpose of this exercise, I decide to live a little dangerously by doing without it, as files are encrypted as they are received by SecureDrop anyway.

So here goes. Wish me luck. I am about to upload an enigmatic winter scene to SecureDrop. A SnowDrop to SecureDrop, if you like.

I browse my files, choose the photo and hit submit.

Then I pray that it has uploaded, because SecureDrop doesn’t tell me if it has and, as previously confessed, this is far from my forte.

No, wait!! Ninety seconds later my Eureka moment comes in the form of a message certain to bring a tear to the eye of any IT Cooler. A message declaring:

Thank you for sending this information to us. Please check back later for replies.

Thus ends my odyssey in the sweet balm of unanticipated achievement. And verily I say unto you, if your humble servant can use SecureDrop, you can, too.

The post A first-timer’s guide to anonymously leaking information via SecureDrop appeared first on ICIJ.

Categories: News

New study raises red flags on tax haven role in environmental destruction

Tue, 08/14/2018 - 01:01

Tax havens – and the financial secrecy they provide – may bolster industries tied to Amazon deforestation and the unsustainable management of natural resources, a new study has found.

“We need to start seeing the environmental costs of tax havens” and “how financial actors and financial flows are shaping the planet in very profound ways,” said Victor Galaz, a researcher at Stockholm University’s Resilience Centre and the leading author of the report that looked at the use of tax havens by agribusiness and fishing companies.

The study, which started after the unveiling of the Panama Papers investigation in April 2016 and was published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, examined jurisdictions where agribusiness conglomerates operating in the Amazon and fishing vessels involved in illegal activities are registered.

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An analysis of Brazilian central bank data from 2000 to 2011 revealed that at least nine of the world’s largest producers of soy and beef, two industries considered to be main drivers of deforestation, use offshore subsidiaries to finance their operations in the Amazon forest, which Galaz called “a sleeping giant” in the climate change system. Scientists agree that deforestation is one of the main causes of global warming as the carbon dioxide that is typically absorbed by trees gets released in the atmosphere when they are cut or burnt.

The Stockholm University researchers found that, over the decade, about 70 percent of foreign capital – or about $18.4 billion – reached the operating companies in Brazil after being routed through subsidiaries in low or zero tax rate jurisdictions, such as the Cayman Islands. (Central bank data is not available for the years after 2011.)

Such routing is legal and often used to decrease companies’ tax burden, the report says. The lack of transparency associated with operations in tax havens, however, makes it difficult for watchdogs and researchers to monitor how offshore financing may affect operations “on the ground.”

Although the years examined partly overlap with the highest rate of deforestation in the Amazon, the authors say it’s currently “impossible” to establish a direct link between capital flowing from tax havens, land use and environmental damage.

“Direct proof of causality remains elusive,” according to the report.

In response to the researchers, international grain companies including Louis Dreyfus Company, Cargill, Bunge and Amaggi Group have said their organizational structures and trading policies comply with the law and that they are committed to the highest environmental standards.

Stockholm University researchers traced the foreign cash making its way into the beef and soy industries. i Nature Ecology & Evolution Cash being routed through tax havens

In the past, investigations by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and its partners have shown how natural resource and agribusiness companies often take advantage of the secrecy provided by the offshore industry for various purposes, including tax avoidance.

Last year, ICIJ partners Premiere Lignes in France and Poder360 in Brazil reported that the Brazilian Amaggi and the Swiss-French Louis Dreyfus in 2009 set up a joint venture to operate in Bahia and other areas of Brazil. According to the investigation, the beneficial owner of the joint venture’s Cayman Islands subsidiary was Brazil’s current agriculture minister, Blairo Maggi, who denied any wrongdoing.

The findings were part of the Paradise Papers, a global investigation based on 13.4 million leaked files which detailed how wealthy individuals and corporations use shell companies in tax havens to avoid or evade taxes.

In Namibia, the ICIJ found that Pacific Andes, a major fishing company, set up a Mauritius subsidiary to manage its operations in the country and take advantage of a treaty between the two jurisdictions that shielded it from taxes. Pacific Andes told ICIJ the majority of the fees stayed in Namibia as capital.

Another report by ICIJ published in November 2017 found that a Singapore-based pulp and paper producer used a web of shell companies to avoid paying withholding tax on loans and to expand its Indonesian operations, while allegedly contributing to the destruction of the country’s fragile rainforest. A company spokeswoman said it “meets all tax obligations in the jurisdictions where it operates.”

At the time, experts interviewed by ICIJ questioned forestry and agribusiness companies’ practice of funding their business through offshore subsidiaries to exploit natural resources in developing countries.

“While profits are really earned from tangible land-based operations, a large portion of profits are routinely declared in jurisdictions with low corporate tax rates,” said Tom Picken, the forests and finance campaign director for Rainforest Action Network, a nongovernmental organization.

As a result, Picken said, supplying countries may end up with a lower tax revenue and fewer funds to implement critical national development programs for health, education and infrastructure.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that about $200 billion is lost every year by developing countries due to tax avoidance.

The Stockholm University report also explores the role of tax havens in enabling and disguising illegal fishing. Through analyzing multiple datasets, researchers found 70 percent of vessels identified by Interpol as responsible for carrying out illegal or unregulated fishing are currently, or have been, flagged in a financial secrecy jurisdiction, mainly in Panama and Belize.

The study is part of an on-going research project that explores the relationship between financial markets and sustainability and will eventually include other environment-impacting sectors.

To promote sustainability, you need accountability, which comes with transparency, Galaz said. Only then “you have the power to change things,” he said. “Any progress we can do would have environmental benefits.”

The post New study raises red flags on tax haven role in environmental destruction appeared first on ICIJ.

Categories: News

Nine essential tools from ICIJ’s data journalism and programming experts

Wed, 08/08/2018 - 21:39

How do you tackle some of history’s largest data leaks? With ETL, SQL, Neo4j and a bit of Cypher.

Unless you’re a computer programmer, those acronyms and program names likely appear more intimidating than useful. They look that way to many investigative journalists as well. But in a world where the story is hidden in the details, and the details come in the form of data, investigative journalists are trading pounding the pavement for a “digital toolbelt” to make sense of leaks before sharing their findings in an online newsroom.

This is a look at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ favorite data journalism tools: what they are, how they work and where we’ve used them before. We believe in open source, or freely available, technology and use it wherever we can. Our tools range from simple spreadsheets to software designed especially for the kind of “big data” that produced some of our major investigations.

Spreadsheets + Pivot Tables (Google Sheets/ Microsoft Excel)

Improving spreadsheet literacy is a big step towards being more comfortable with data for both journalists and other citizens. ICIJ journalists use both Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets on a daily basis. However, Pierre Romera, ICIJ’s Chief Technology Officer, says that data sets on Google Sheets should only be data sets slated for publication because of Google’s lower security bar. Sensitive data needs to be kept in-house. “When we need to dig into a data set that we don’t want to release, that’s when we build on our servers,” he says.

Increased comfort with spreadsheets creates big returns in the form of pivot tables, which allow journalists to pull information from a huge data set in very little time. Pivot tables aggregate a spreadsheet by a particular value to help summarize data. They can also be used to identify inconsistencies (for example, by counting how many instances of a value a set contains), and to find patterns in data sets.


Not a developer? This is for you. Miguel Fiandor, one of ICIJ’s web and data application developers, highlighted Datawrapper as a data visualization tool that doesn’t require code.

“Data is not everything, but it can be the foundation to understanding the highly complex issues of our time,” Datawrapper co-founder Mirko Lorenz said.

Data is not everything, but it can be the foundation to understanding the highly complex issues of our time. Mirko Lorenz, Datawrapper

Datawrapper, an open source tool for anyone who wants to create a chart or map from their data, came out of the knowledge that expecting every journalist to know code is unrealistic.

“The idea is that you have a two-minute interaction with the tool,” Lorenz said.

This interaction consists of importing data from a spreadsheet or an external link, selecting a headline and hitting “publish.” Users emerge with a graph ready to be embedded in a story, from bar graphs to density charts.

With individual and newsroom subscriptions, Datawrapper is geared towards people who are not equipped with the data capabilities of a large news outlet and only charges its users if their graphs have more than 10,000 views each month.

Jupyter Notebook


Jupyter Notebook is useful for sharing data and code. Jupyter notebook

A more recent addition to Fiandor’s “digital toolbelt” is Jupyter Notebook, a web application that works a little like a souped-up Google Drive. Notebook users can share and publish documents containing live code (especially Python – more on Python below), visualizations, images, videos and other content.


“You can follow step by step in the notebook what you’ve been doing with the data,” Fiandor said, making the tool a good one for presenting data for analysis, especially while collaborating.

Jupyter Notebook is open source: it is freely available, and users may study or change the code as needed.


“I use [OpenRefine] like most other people use Excel,” Romera says. OpenRefine (previously Google Refine), another open source tool, is very similar to Microsoft Excel and does not require coding skills to import and manipulate datasets big and small.

Raw data often needs “cleaning” before journalists can get information from it. Clean data is written in a single format and has no duplicate values, or instances where a set of queries and responses appears more than once. Clean data is also properly filtered and partitioned. So a data set listing domestic addresses and their occupants might be divided by state, P.O. boxes separate from on-site mailboxes, with no lurking corporate addresses.

OpenRefine helps the data team merge copied sets of data points, check for inconsistencies or mistakes and otherwise make sure that a “raw” dataset is ready for analysis. And with just a few lines of code (see more on coding below), OpenRefine can compile data in a matter of moments – for example, adding population growth statistics, GDP, and demographic breakdowns to a data set that contains a list of countries.

Programming languages: Python and R Related articles

And what if journalists are ready to turbo-charge their data capability?

“Every tool you have gets more powerful when you can improve [on] it,” Romera said, and the way to do that is by learning to code.

Coding languages Python and R get the most mileage in data analytics.

Python is the best choice for machine learning, data extraction and database building – all essential parts of ICIJ’s data operations – and many of the more complex tools on this list either are built using Python or need the language for use. ICIJ data expert Rigoberto Carvajal emphasised R as a powerful tool for everything from “scraping,” or collecting, data, to cleaning and processing to data analysis and visualization.

Aspiring coders can consult Codecademy to begin getting familiar with R, Python, or any number of coding languages.

Talend Studio

Data expert Carvajal also singled out the open-source Talend Studio for his work with “big data.”

“[Talend] saves me hours or days of programming for several data tasks,” Carvajal says. The software lets him build ETL, or extract, transform, and load, processes. ETL consists of “reading” data from its original location and converting it into one desired format before rewriting it into a new database, all according to predetermined rules. Talend speeds up the ETL process by letting Carvajal build programs for these rules, when he would otherwise be writing those rules “by hand.”


SQL, pronounced “sequel,” stands for Structured Query Language: Carvajal’s preferred tool for interacting with databases. Among the tool’s capabilities are retrieving information from, updating and creating “procedures” in a database. Using SQL, a user can filter a data set for a particular piece of information, find patterns in data or combine these functions to explore “relational” databases, or a series of data sets all connected by one common trait.


Pandas is an open-source tool that uses Python to work with large data sets by indexing, tagging or otherwise manipulating data to make it easier to analyze. Some of its functions include removing empty cells and duplicated data points and “labeling,” or describing, data with a desired descriptor: for example, determining whether a document is written in Russian or French. Pandas also combines smaller data sets into larger ones to make extracting information from data that much simpler.

Neo4j + Linkurious Wilbur Ross was linked to 11 offshore entities in the Paradise Papers. Wilbur Ross' Paradise Papers connections

ICIJ’s investigations often expose previously unknown links between entities or characters in a data set that seem unrelated at first glance. And had we been investigating a leak like the Panama Papers “by hand,” many relationships between different individuals and shell companies would have gone unnoticed.

Tools like Neo4j ensure journalists can have the full picture of a given piece of data — not just the pieces of data to which it’s immediately connected but also second- and third-degree relationships, as well as the different ways in which two pieces of data could be linked.

Take U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, a stakeholder in 11 shell companies that all listed their headquarters at the same address in the Cayman Islands. Neo4j allows journalists to connect that data point to Ross himself via his companies and, ultimately, to a third data point, Ross’ office address. That relationship between the two addresses certainly isn’t an easily visible one, nor is the connection, through Ross, between the different shell companies to their single Cayman Islands location.

To create what visitors to our website see when they search the Offshore Leaks Database, ICIJ used Linkurious to visualize the Neo4j graph database and make it searchable by labeling and categorizing nodes (data points) and edges (relationships between points) and indexing those labels for the search engine. When harnessing the database for research, journalists literate in the Neo4j language Cypher can search for certain relationships by using “patterns” to query varying sets of results.

Hopefully, this piece has demystified some of the tools in ICIJ’s data operation, but there’s no denying that talking about these tools and their operations involves a lot of acronyms and jargon. Below is a glossary defining some common processes and terms in our digital toolkit, as well as a few other useful words to know for the curious reader.

Glossary of Terms

OCR: Optical Character Recognition. OCR converts hard text into machine-encoded text, making it useful for digitizing print copies of anything.

Unicode: a binary language that encodes text or script into one “alphabet,” thereby making it universally accessible.

Node: (in graph databases) a vertex, or the point at which lines meet, in a graph of points. Nodes can be categorized or linked with “edges,” or relationships. Most graphs represent nodes with a circle.

Edge: (in graph databases) another name for a relationship between two nodes in a graph database. Graphs represent these relationships as lines between the nodes. If, for example, you had a business person as one node, and a company as a second node, the edge would describe and visualize the relationship between the two – such as “shareholder” or “director” or “owner.”

ETL: Extract, Transform and Load is the process of reading data in its original format, sorting and cleaning it by removing redundant information, and then converting it into a particular format or consolidating it before re-writing it into a target database.

Fuzzy searching: also known as approximate string matching, fuzzy searching is the process of searching terms in a database allowing for misspellings, cross-language similarities or hints. It ensures that a search turns up the most complete set of results possible.

Cypher: the query language of Neo4j, which allows users to describe nodes, edges and their properties as well as the actions they want done on them — for example, searching or finding a pattern in a series of nodes.

Faceting: allows search results to be arranged into subsets, categorized by date ranges, number ranges or keywords and then count the number of results that appear for a particular query.

Scraping: the process of extracting data information from websites, documents, images and more. It focuses on the transformation of unstructured data (for example, from a website’s HTML) to structured data (databases, spreadsheets, etc.)

BSD: Berkeley Software Distribution, a “family” of permissive free software licenses.

API: Application Programming Interface. An API is a set of tools and documentation that a developer offers to other developers in order to use its system.

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Categories: News

How investigative journalism exposed the Swiss tax ‘rip off’

Tue, 08/07/2018 - 12:29

ICIJ has hundreds of members across the world. Typically, these journalists are the best in the country and have won many national and global awards.

Our monthly series, Meet the Investigators, highlights the work of these tireless journalists. This month, we speak with Oliver Zihlmann, an investigative reporter who has worked on several of ICIJ’s financial investigations, including Swiss Leaks and the Panama Papers.  Follow him on Twitter here.

What drives you to be an investigative journalist?

In the Swiss Leaks investigation we found that 2,846 French residents, who were subject to taxes in France, had assets in HSBC Bank in Geneva. Just six of them declared the wealth they had stored in Switzerland to the French tax authorities. That’s 0.2 percent. The rest – 99.8 percent – cheated, all thanks to Swiss tax laws.

The job we do here as investigative journalists is among the few ways to actually bring change to one of the most important tax havens in the world.

We are a very rich and well-organized country, but if we help rip off other countries on such a scale, someone has to speak out. Unfortunately, there are not many willing to do that in our country. It takes either a U.S. prosecution or a data leak to raise awareness.

So the job we do here as investigative journalists is among the few ways to actually bring change to one of the most important tax havens in the world. That’s a powerful motivation for me and for my team to work in this field.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into investigative journalism?

I am 46, and the father of four. I live in Basel – that’s in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, just on the border of France and Germany.

Earlier in life, I wrote a book on a diplomatic scandal in Berlin and did a dissertation at the University of Basel on public apologies by heads of state. But since the 1990s I have mainly worked as a journalist, first with the Swiss national broadcaster SRF, then as a correspondent for Tamedia Newspaper SonntagsZeitung in Berlin. In 2012, I became head of the new investigative unit of SonntagsZeitung and Le Matin Dimanche based in Lausanne.

What are some of the stories you are proudest of?

There are the leak investigations obviously: Swiss Leaks, Panama Papers, and Paradise Papers, which won the Zürcher Journalistenpreis, the most prestigious journalism prize in Switzerland. The investigations into the use of offshore accounts to avoid taxes are now leading to significant changes in Swiss laws.

Zihlmann reconstructed the fatal journey of Olympic athlete and refugee Samia Yusuf Omar from Somalia. Olympic athlete, Samia Yusuf Omar from Somalia

Personally and apart from the investigations, I was most invested in a story of an Olympic athlete, Samia Yusuf Omar from Somalia. She competed in 2008 in Beijing in the 200-meter sprint. After the Olympics, she could not exercise anymore in Somalia, because Islamists saw her run on TV without a veil. She tried to flee Somalia to get to the Olympics in London 2012, because the Islamists refused to allow her to participate. She joined a refugee trek through the Sahara and ultimately drowned in the Mediterranean on her way to Switzerland. I reconstructed her journey.

What are the major advantages and challenges of being an investigative journalist in Switzerland?

We are very well equipped and staffed. But stories on white-collar crime are especially hard to sell here, simply because there are so many of them, and people click away. We really have to come up with a special angle in order for them stand out and get attention.

Do you feel like your reporting will lead to real changes in Switzerland when it comes to financial secrecy?

Yes, just recently the government proposed substantially stricter anti-money-laundering laws as a consequence of the Panama Papers reporting. Paradise Papers helped build support for additional legislation that would tighten controls over commodity trading giants such as Glencore and Vitol.

Related articles Since you started your career, how has the media environment changed – for better or worse?

For worse. Budgets have been tightened across the board, and the journalism workforce has been reduced significantly. Within Tamedia, this has so far not touched the investigative unit.

Tell us a little about how you work? Do you have any good stories about successes or failures you have had as an investigative journalist?

The good news is that our publisher, Pietro Supino, is a big supporter of investigative journalism and allows our journalists to train in the United States. We also have had big successes in collaborative journalism – on an international level with ICIJ but also on a national level in our joint German-French unit, that now produces investigations in both languages for 15 newspapers within Tamedia.

What advice would you give someone who wants to be an investigative journalist?

The problem today is no longer that we do not have enough data or sources of data. The challenge is to see the good stories. So my advice is to develop attractive concepts for stories and learn how to pitch them. [Editor’s note: ICIJ is always looking for good pitches!]

No matter from where you come from, how old you are or what professional background you have: If you come up with a really strong investigative idea, chances are very good you can do it somewhere, and thus get your foot in the business.

Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to comment on?

There is a trend worldwide to more authoritarian leadership in politics. In extreme cases, such as Russia or Turkey, journalists are always among the first to feel the impact. This means we need to be on guard to make sure we do not lose freedoms and liberties we have fought so hard to obtain.

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Categories: News

Loopholes in UK company register show crime can still flourish, study finds

Fri, 08/03/2018 - 00:15

Corrupt politicians, fraudsters and money launderers could be using loopholes in the United Kingdom’s company register to avoid detection, an analysis by nonprofit Global Witness has found.

The novel data-driven study reviewed more than 10 million records from the British corporate registry.

Groundbreaking 2016 laws that oblige those owning 25 percent of any U.K. company to identify themselves made the study possible.

But Global Witness – using advanced data techniques and tools – found that although most companies comply with the new transparency rules, thousands have no obvious owner or submitted paperwork that raised red flags for potential wrongdoing.

Related articles

Companies with no publicly-listed owners, or owners concealed behind layers of offshore structures, are routinely used in criminal activity. ICIJ’s Panama Papers and Paradise Papers investigations revealed how politicians had made and received bribes and hidden millions of dollars from the public – in part through secretive companies – including those in the U.K.

Global Witness found that more than 335,000 companies had not filed owner information. And while those companies may not be hiding illegal activity, other indicators used in the data analysis suggest that companies registered in the U.K. could be used for illegal activity.

Global Witness collaborated with London-based data analysis charity DataKind UK to build online tools to better visualize and assess the risks of anonymous or incomplete company details.

One online tool analyzed company filings alongside indicators that police, government agencies and civil society agree increase the risk of wrongdoing and may require further scrutiny.

The analysis found 208,572 companies listed post box addresses with no connection to the company’s owner, 140,409 companies with owners or others who provided addresses in tax havens, and 416 companies that changed names more than five times, possibly to obscure corporate activity.

“The open data format of the register provides a huge opportunity for law enforcement … civil society organizations, journalists and others to analyze the data for mistakes and suspicious behavior,” Global Witness reported.

The report found that the register’s failure to systematically verify the information submitted by companies leaves it open to abuse.

There is no system that actively identifies and responds to suspicious information, Global Witness found, noting that the only fine issued by the U.K. registrar so far was against a transparency campaigner. The campaigner deliberately filed incorrect information to show how lax the system remains.

The European Union’s 28-member countries will soon follow the U.K. with company registers. Global Witness reported, however, that the level of information made freely available, or in a searchable format, may vary.

Other countries, including the United States, do not currently collect or publish corporate ownership information in a centralized database.

One senior British police officer called anonymous companies “the single biggest obstacle to investigating corruption cases,” Global Witness reported.

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Categories: News

‘What information should I include?’ and other frequently asked questions about becoming a whistleblower

Tue, 07/31/2018 - 05:31

In my 30-year career as a journalist, I’ve spoken with thousands of potential sources, some of them with interesting tips or insider knowledge, others with massive datasets to share. Conversations often start with questions about the basics of whistleblowing. If you’re thinking about leaking information, here are some of the things you should keep in mind:

Q. What is a whistleblower?

A whistleblower is someone who has evidence of wrongdoing, abuse of power, fraud or misconduct and who shares it with a third party such as an investigative journalism organization like the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

By blowing the whistle you can help prevent the possible escalation of misconduct or corruption.

Edward Snowden is one of the world’s best-known Whistleblowers. Edward Snowden talks with Süddeutsche Zeitung Q. Can a whistleblower remain anonymous?

Yes. We will always go out of our way to protect whistleblowers. You can remain anonymous for as long as you want, and, in fact, this is sometimes the best protection that journalists can offer whistleblowers.

Q. What information should I include?

To enable a thorough investigation, you should include a detailed description of the issue you are concerned about. Ideally, you should also include documents or data. The more information you provide, the better the work the journalists can do.

Q. Why leak to ICIJ?

ICIJ is a nonprofit organization that has built a network of some of the best investigative journalists in the world – journalists who make it their mission to investigate wrongdoing. We have a global organization of more than 220 journalists from 83 countries who collaborate on in-depth stories. Together, we produce investigative journalism in the public interest that is driven by data and technological innovation. Our unique model is collaborative, based on the idea that journalists who work together and share information will have vastly more impact than one journalist working alone.

Recent examples of our work include the Paradise Papers and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Panama Papers, which investigated the shadowy offshore industry. These investigations have generated powerful long-lasting impact. For a behind-the-scenes look at how such a large investigation works watch this HBO/Vice documentary on the Paradise Papers.

We also do regional investigations. One recent example was West Africa Leaks, the largest-ever collaboration of journalists from West Africa. Al Jazeera produced a documentary on this project that goes behind the scenes on how a collaboration like this comes together.

Leaking information to ICIJ ensures that it will reach the eyes of journalists from reputable news organizations – such as The New York Times, the BBC, The Guardian and Le Monde, to name just a few. Your information may lead the journalists to work together to produce big stories and big scoops that most of them could not afford to work on separately.

Under the ICIJ model, the story becomes more important than any one media brand, with clear public interest and public service results.

Share a story with ICIJ

Q. How do I get in contact with ICIJ?

There are a number of ways to contact ICIJ. Here are some secure methods.

If you are trying to contact us from inside a government agency or corporation we recommend that you access the communication channels from a device that is not connected to your employer’s intranet.

To speak with one of our reporters, you can use one of the contact methods here or send us an email:

The post ‘What information should I include?’ and other frequently asked questions about becoming a whistleblower appeared first on ICIJ.

Categories: News

‘I’m worried that we will run out of sources when we need them the most’

Mon, 07/30/2018 - 13:00

Five years ago Edward Snowden landed in Russia after leaking classified U.S. documents that disclosed worldwide surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency. Süddeutsche Zeitung reporters and ICIJ members, Georg Mascolo, Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer sat down with him recently in Moscow for a rare and open conversation.

Süddeutsche Zeitung was the recipient of two massive leaks of documents that showed how the rich and powerful stash money out of the reach of tax collectors, as detailed in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ Panama Papers and Paradise Papers investigations. Obermaier and Obermayer are at work on a book on the rise and fall of whistleblowers.

Mr. Snowden, many people want to know: Can you move freely? Can you use public transport, for example?

Yes, I can. I ride the metro.  People have this image in their head that I am living on some military base or in a palace or something, with armed guards.  But, no, I live in an ordinary apartment together with my girlfriend Lindsay, and I pay rent like everybody else. I don’t use credit cards, and I try to keep my life off the books as far as possible.

Do people recognize you?

Much less now than they used to. It was much more difficult closer to 2013, because I was on every news channel all of the time. As my face has become less prominent in the newspapers, I have become less recognizable.

But still, at least some people must recognize you on the street.

There are some rare exceptions. Some months ago a German girl recognized me when I visited the Tretyakov gallery with my parents. She asked “Are you Snowden?” I said yes and agreed to a selfie, and I am glad that it has not appeared on social media yet.

How do you make a living here?

I speak. I give public speeches, via the internet. And I am fortunate enough that people pay for that, so this works for me.

Since you have been living in Moscow now for five years, there are lots of rumors about you. Head on: Several prominent politicians as well as the head of the German intelligence service have repeatedly suggested, or claimed, that you might be a Russian spy.

Believe me, the CIA does have its sources inside Russian intelligence. If I was a Russian spy, the United States would know. And it would be on the front page of every newspaper.

Share a story with ICIJ

Has the Russian intelligence service ever approached you?

Yes, at my arrival in the airport. I very strongly refused. I said “Look, if you guys are going to kick me out, you’re going to kick me out. Show me the plane. But I don’t have anything, I’m not going to tell you anything, I don’t want any relationship with you, and I will not be threatened.” And I had someone with me at the time, a journalist.

Sarah Harrison from Wikileaks?

Yes. I would not allow myself to be separated from her, particularly so that there would be a witness.

Did the Russians try it later again?

No. But there’s always a fear that people could approach me, but they haven’t. And what do they have to gain? I’m not the guy who has all the documents. Those are journalists. So what could I really give them, what could I really tell them?

Is the biggest reward for Russia maybe that they can present themselves as the guardian of a U.S. whistleblower?

Right, they may believe that it’s more important to protect their PR victory and not to interfere.

From time to time you criticize Russia on Twitter, openly and directly. Did you ever receive any warning from the government after doing so?

No, no. People think that there must be some guy telling me what to tweet or slapping me with a board if I tweet something critical or giving me a ruble every time I say something against the CIA … I don’t have any contacts with the Russian government, and that’s by design. I don’t want any connections. I don’t want any entanglement. I never planned to be here.

The ballot stuffing seen today in Moscow and elsewhere in the Russian election is an effort to steal the influence of 140+ million people. Demand justice; demand laws and courts that matter. Take your future back.

— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) March 18, 2018

Is it fair to say that, after your service for democracy, it’s a tragedy that you have to spend your life in a country like this?

I think that’s too negative. For one thing it presumes that this place will never improve. But more than that, it focuses too much on me. I don’t matter. I did not expect to get away with it. I thought the likeliest outcome was an orange jumpsuit in the equivalent of Guantanamo: that they’d be holding me on a Navy ship somewhere, probably still today, saying, “Oh, yeah, we don’t know where he is.”

Still, in the past five years you have repeatedly argued for freedom of speech, freedom of the press – and all the time you depend on the benevolence of a country which is widely seen as an abuser of human rights. How do you perceive the country?

I think the public feels disempowered. Russians are not naïve, they know that state-TV is unreliable. The Russian government is corrupt in many ways, that’s something the Russian people realize. Russian people are warm. They are clever. It’s a beautiful country. Their government is the problem, not the people.

Do you think it’s dangerous for you to criticize Russia?

Yes. There’s no question, it’s a risk. Maybe they don’t care, right? Because I don’t speak Russian. And I am literally a former CIA agent, so it’s very easy for them to discredit my political opinions as those of an American CIA agent in Russia.

Still, Kremlin-critics die under mysterious circumstances in Russia and elsewhere

Maybe, but, I am already someone who the world’s most powerful intelligence agency considers a real threat. If I wanted a safe life, I would still be in Hawaii, working for the NSA. (Snowden was a contractor for the National Security Agency at the time of the leak.)

Don’t you agree that the Russian government might be especially thin skinned these days, regarding criticism?

I definitely think that is the case. At the same time, that’s why I do it. Because it’s the times when it is the most unwise to speak in terms of consequences that it is the most meaningful. That’s when people listen.

You currently have a temporary residence permit that lasts only till 2020. That could be another argument to spare Russia from criticism.

My lawyers probably share this point of view…

Five years ago you went public. What has been your biggest achievement?

I have raised awareness of how the world works, and it works in a way that people previously would have regarded as a conspiracy [theory] but is now all too recognizable as reality… Nobody really believed the NSA was collecting the phone records of every single person in the United States. But it was happening. No one believed that the NSA was collecting all the phone calls of everybody in the Bahamas, but it was happening.

Not all the documents that the journalists have access to were intended to be published. The fact that some are not published is the point, not a problem. Edward Snowden

No one believed that Apple and Google and Facebook and all of these companies had created secret mechanisms to provide exact copies of users’ data from their servers and give it to the intelligence services, but they had. Now, we are aware that these things are not only possible, they are happening. And as a result of this, while the predation is still occurring, we can begin to resist it.

So what is better today than five years ago? Aren’t people giving up their privacy freely today, with Alexa and Siri and whatever computers they buy, and thereby inviting Google or Apple or Amazon into their homes to listen in?

Well, it’s a good question. The question presumes that people know they are letting Amazon or whatever listen to all of their conversations. These companies of course aggressively deny that they are doing that, that they’re using it in those ways. Governments do the same.

So what did change?

I would say the intelligence services are doing more or less exactly what they did before the revelations. But to be fair, encryption is playing a much larger role today, and the companies are not as eager as they were in the past to help governments. So this has clearly changed.

James Clapper, who was National Intelligence Director until 2017, testified in March 2013 before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the NSA did not collect data on Americans. Your revelations have shown that it was a lie.

In the system that I was exposing there is no accountability. James Clapper, who lied under oath to Congress – a felony – on camera, served out the end of his term. He went all the way to retirement, until the statute of limitations expired. He broke the law with impunity, and it’s this system of immunity and impunity that public awareness begins to change. Because it’s true, even in the wake of public knowledge, James Clapper did not go to jail. Right, he never will. But, the public at least knows about this. And public officials, sitting in these closed rooms making these decisions, have to think about the possibility that they will be exposed.

In October 2013 you met reporters from Süddeutsche Zeitung for the first time. At that time your hope was clearly that some European country, especially Germany, could grant you asylum. Are you disappointed that the German government denied it?

There’s never been any question that I would have been glad to come to Germany. But disappointment would imply the belief that the government was likely to make the right call. All the polling shows that the public in Germany would very much like to welcome whistleblowers, like myself, into Germany. But they don’t have a mechanism of influence to require the government to do the same.

Do you sometimes think about how your life would look like if you had come to Germany?

I’ve already accepted that I am going to spend my life dealing with enormous consequences for my decision to tell the public what I know. But, if not for me, by all means, Germany should pass the necessary laws to allow future whistleblowers to find a safe harbor. If Europe, if the world does not create a system of rules to protect sources who provide information of public interest, regardless of whether you approve or disapprove of it, I’m worried that we will run out of sources when we need them the most.

Many whistleblowers try to stay anonymous, but they don’t make it.

Right, but then there is also your John Doe, the Panama Papers whistleblower, whose identity is still unknown. Fabulous, right? And this is proof that it is possible. If I had planned to stay anonymous, I could’ve done it. I wouldn’t have been able to do it on the same scale, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it, I think, with the same level of authenticity. It would have been more easy for (the government) to deny it and go, “Maybe these are forgeries. Maybe they’re manipulated.” As opposed to: “Well we just charged this guy with the crime of leaking it, so we can’t say he’s making it up.”

We know what your decision was, but would that be a general advice from you to other whistleblowers?

I think it’s an absolutely individual case. The circumstances are always so different. I would never encourage anyone to come forward, unless they thought it mattered. If you have reached a point of awareness where you realize you could come forward, you can start looking for the right moment. You could start looking for the right context, you can start looking for the point in political history where, even though you may have very little power, that might be enough to tip your finger on the scale and take us to a freer and better future.

Under which conditions would you ever return to the United States?

Things actually haven’t changed since I first left. I had a single demand for Obama’s Justice Department, and this was that I would be allowed to make a public interest defense, that I would get a chance to explain to the jury what I did and why I did it – for them to decide whether or not that was just, whether that was permissible in the circumstances. And Obama’s Attorney General, the head of the Justice Department, Eric Holder, responded with a letter that promised I would not be tortured.

Related articles The same Eric Holder later said that you performed a “public service” …

… but he didn’t say so before leaving office.

Are your lawyers still in contact with the government?

No, we haven’t had any contact with the Justice Department under the new administration.

Speaking of Trump, he is reportedly still using a cell phone that isn’t equipped with sophisticated security features to shield his communications…

… probably the same model as Angela Merkel used.

That doesn’t sound very reasonable.

Nobody can tell him what to do. The phone is going to get attacked, and it has likely already been compromised and will be compromised again.

Your critics say the revelations have put informants at risk.

Yes, in the passion of that June 2013 moment, the combined forces of America’s intelligence agencies and many of its allies were accusing myself and every journalist, even peripherally involved, as being party to crimes of the highest order against democracy. Saying people were going to die, the oceans were going to boil off, the sky was going to catch fire. But five years later, none of it was true.

The intelligence community claims you have published too much. At the same time, transparency advocates would like to see more documents published.

If I wanted everything published I would have put it online myself or sent it to Wikileaks. Not all the documents that the journalists have access to were intended to be published. The fact that some are not published is the point, not a problem.

It may sound strange, but in a way, you’re not only a celebrity, you’re a star. You’re starring in a Hollywood movie. People wear t-shirts with of your face on it, others spray your face on walls –- because you’ve become a symbol. How does this feel?

I’ve got to say, it’s weird and a little bit intimidating to be less than 30 years old when the world decides who you are for the rest of your life. It’s interesting, actually, how those social pressures can shape you.

When I came forward with the journalists in 2013 I actually communicated with them under an alias: Cincinnatus. He was a Roman general, who was made dictator for a day to repel an invasion. They asked him to stay, but instead, he gave up his prominence. He gave up his power, and he went back to his fields, which is what I sought to do. I wanted to tell people what was going on, and honestly, just go back to ordinary life.

This didn’t really go well.

Right. But seeing people that are encouraged by your actions can inspire you to do more than you would naturally do.

How so?

By nature, I’m a pretty lazy guy. I don’t want to work too hard, but I’ve been working really hard for the last five years, and I’m not actually ready to stop.

If you had one wish, is there any specific topic you would most wish a whistleblower to come forward with?

There are many, honestly. But the one I think is still the most important to history, that we haven’t seen, is the torture report. The unredacted form of the Senate’s report on the United States torture program.

This interview formed part of a book project with the working title ‘The Rise and Fall of the Whistleblowers’. A publication date is not yet set.

Interview by Georg Mascolo, Frederik Obermaier, Bastian Obermayer.

This story was first published by Süddeutsche Zeitung.

The post ‘I’m worried that we will run out of sources when we need them the most’ appeared first on ICIJ.

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