Things that Matter

Investigative journalist Paul Radu speaks about how investigators find the motivation to work in a challenging and sometimes dangerous environment, what are the driving forces behind information activism, and why it’s important to network and stick together.

Investigative reporting takes time, patience and effort – often with no immediate results. How do investigators find the motivation to work in this challenging and sometimes dangerous environment? In this chapter we discuss the driving forces behind information activism, and why it’s important to network and stick together.

The most important part of a successful investigation is when you turn your findings into a story. When are you satisfied with a story?

The satisfaction comes when you realise that the public is taking advantage of what you’re doing. Very often, law enforcement agencies are part of organised crime, or do not have the capacity to investigate organised crime. We report on groups and criminals and we post everything publicly, online. Then we see that the law enforcement agencies do nothing, even after we’ve presented them with all the evidence. Sometimes this is because of corruption and sometimes because of lack of capacity, knowledge and so on. The real reward, for us, comes when our information is used by the public at large.

Often we receive letters from the lawyers of the criminals that we have exposed. These letters are very threatening; for example, “You have to take down, from the internet and your database, the names of these people and their companies, because you’re hurting their businesses. They were about to sign this deal, or they were about to get a loan from this bank, and because you posted that information, they didn’t get what they wanted. So, you’ve cost us money.” We are very happy when we receive such letters.

When do you know that a story has had an impact?

What's important with investigative reporting is to be patient, because you do not always get an immediate reaction to your reporting. In Texas, I worked on illegal adoptions. There were a few foundations, based in California and Texas, involved in this. Children were being adopted from orphanages in Eastern Europe: the children were filmed in the orphanages then video-tapes were delivered to families in the USA so that they could choose which children they wanted from those tapes. These people would separate siblings and so on. There was a lot of wrongdoing. And I exposed them, I exposed the people involved and what they were doing.

I published this in the San Antonio Express News, but the problem was that I published it in October 2001, right after the 9/11 events, so people were not really focussed on anything other than terrorism. I received letters and emails, but no action was taken, and I felt like my piece was sort of a failure. But what has happened over the years since then is very interesting. My article was posted and re-posted countless times on adoption forums, because these foundations were very big in the USA and they were bringing lots of children from Eastern Europe and elsewhere for adoption. Each time my article was posted, people would discuss it, saying, “Okay, I probably won’t use this foundation to adopt. I should use a different one because it seems that these guys are crooks.” That hurt their business.\ \ It went so far that a few years after I published my article, the Foundations involved created a website to counter it. Finally, in 2008, these people that I had reported on were arrested, for exactly the actions I had described in my story. It was seven years before they were arrested, but the fact that I was hampering their business in the meantime was as important as their eventual arrest.

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Your style of investigation is a very time-consuming process that requires a lot of patience and persistence. What motivates you?

It is always a challenge. The edge comes from the challenge. It is always motivating to be able to investigate very smart people, because you learn from them. You learn from criminals. That is motivating and it keeps you going. And when you realise that the exposure you create is hurting criminals and helping people, that is a really good reward.

A lot of energy comes from the network, and this is an important characteristic of cross-border investigative reporting. We operate across many countries, and in some countries nothing will happen. In other places, thanks to other nodes of the network, something will happen and that fuels us as well, even if our work is not yet producing any outcomes in our own country.

We reported on companies involved in money laundering, and the cgovernment in New Zealand decided to shut down about 1600 companies, many of which were part of that network. That happened far away, but it still encouraged us, because when you hurt a criminal network in any of its loci, that matters. You don’t just expect the police in Bucharest to do something, you expect something to happen somewhere in the entire world.

You often refer to collaboration as a strength in the way you operate. Your collaborators come from different backgrounds and cultures; how does this work?

Meeting personally with people who work within the network helps a lot. Investigating together with, for instance, journalists in Egypt, you get to know a little bit about their culture. You go drinking with them and you hear their stories, you hear what they think about you, what Egyptians think about Romanians, or what Romanians think about Egyptians, and so on. All this keeps you going, because you learn new things. That is one of the main features of investigative reporting, you are constantly learning. It is as if you’re always in school – and it is nice!

Ideally, if your work is effective it should bring about change. Would the ideal scenario in this context be to have more investigative reporters, or better law enforcement?

Well, I do not hold out much hope for law enforcement, to be honest. So, yes, more reporters, but not just investigative journalists, more reporters from other walks of life, such as activists. I would like activists to be investigative reporters. I would like them to go out, to check databases and gather local information and regional, global information, and then cooperate with other people, because there are too few investigative reporters worldwide. There is a lot going on around us. Even if you have the the most skilled journalists, you will only be able to report on a fraction of the wrongdoing that is happening right now in the world. We need other members of society to contribute and become investigators themselves, and then to feed the information they uncover into the global networks.

Sometimes people are content with what the government makes available. They think, “There are good freedom of information laws in this country, and that solves everything, because the citizens have access to information.” But there are a lot of data beyond what comes from governments: there is information that sits above the national level, and is sometimes much more important than the anything at the local, national level. If you combine both kinds of information, you create a considerable investigative power to tell the truth, to tell what's going on.

When young journalists ask you for advice, what do you tell them?

The first thing I would say to any journalist would be that they need to be part of a network or networks. They need to take advantage of information flows, because information is indeed knowledge, and they would get to know more if they were part of a network. I would also advise them to team up with journalists, or with activists, that have already been investigating for a while, so that they learn by doing. This comes down to the educational system. Right now, there are very few universities in the world that run investigative reporting classes. I mean investigative reporting as a cross-border process, rather than the kind of journalism where you investigate quality-of-life stories, which is also very important. Even in schools, the idea is not yet present that you need to form a new breed of investigators who are able to work across borders. So, my first advice would be, be part of a team. Then I’d say, be very open and transparent about your work, and always keep learning. It’s very important to read the latest books and research in your field, not only research into investigative reporting but other types of research, too, because you can borrow from it and use those skills in your own work. 

Not all of your investigations are successful. What makes you decide to stop investigating a particular case?

We stopped some of our investigations because we realised that there was no wrongdoing. You always start with an assumption in investigative reporting. You have to start your work very open-mindedly and sometimes you fail. And this is why we create backup systems. We do not just work on one investigation at a time, we work on several. At other times, our initial assumption might be right, but we can’t prove it, and therefore again, we can’t publish anything. So, there are indeed times when you have to stop your investigation. However, by the time you’ve stopped, you have already collected a lot of data. We index all of these data because they might prove useful later. In the end, nothing is wasted. Even if you fail, you’ve learned something new.

First published on July 10, 2015

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