An interview with the Indian Express‘s Raj Kamal Jha and Ritu Sarin on the process – and importance – of collaborative investigative journalism.
The Panama Papers, a set of 11.5 million documents detailing more than 214,000 offshore companies listed by Panamanian law firm and corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca, has highlighted the extent of secret offshore dealings among the world’s rich and famous.
An anonymous source leaked these documents to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung in early 2015, starting with a cryptic message. “Hello, this is John Doe. Interested in data?” Over the next few months, as the source sent the newspaper a series of encrypted emails, a five-member team at the respected Munich-based publication got down to the task of verifying and studying the contents of the emails.
Given the sheer magnitude of the information, Süddeutsche Zeitung soon turned to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a collaborative international network of more than 190 journalists. Journalists across the world were then invited by the ICIJ to be a part of the investigation, with new information coming in ever so often from the source. Part of the information was revealed to the public on April 3 through ICIJ and its international partners. Meanwhile, Mossack Fonseca has claimed that the documents were released through an “external hack”.
In India, the investigation was handled by the Indian Express. Editor-in-chief Raj Kamal Jha and head of the investigative team Ritu Sarin spoke to The Wire about what it was like to be a part of an effort of this magnitude, the importance of collaborative investigative journalism and future possibilities for collaboration.
How did this project and The Indian Express’ involvement in it begin?
Raj Kamal Jha: Ritu Sarin is a long-time member of ICIJ, and the reason The Indian Express and she are part of this group is because this paper has always been very investigative, that’s our core. Ritu has led our investigative team for 20 years now. We believe investigation is the only way to value-add a story when much of it is out instantly. We can do that because we are very privileged to have a newsroom that our publisher has ensured is a sacred space. We wouldn’t be able to do investigative journalism with a herd of sacred cows walking around. Because good investigative journalism will almost always be adversarial, it will always try to tell a story that the powerful and the privileged do not want to be told. That’s why we have a special investigative team, and Ritu and her team, P. Vaidyanathan Iyer and J. Mazoomdaar (the lead reporters on the Panama Papers), got eight months to work full-time on the project, no other work. No questions asked. Once in a while Unni Rajen Shanker (Editor of The Indian Express) and I did make them feel guilty.
Ritu Sarin: I’ve been a member of ICIJ for about ten years now. It used to be quite a different sort of organisation earlier, but now as social media has come in and the numbers of members has grown, their format has also changed. Earlier they would occasionally assign you a story in your country and pay you something for it, but as their own projects became more ambitious they decided to have your organisation also on board. Taking a week or two off to work on a story for ICIJ is one thing, but you can’t devote the amount of energy and time Panama Papers took while also doing your regular job. This is the third time a large international project has been done, though it is by far the most expansive of the lot. The first was the British Virgin Islands (BVI) account investigation of a company called Porternicus Trust Net in 2013 and the second was the HSBC story. I was a part of both of them, and these stories took about two or three months.
Four months after the HSBC project ended they called again, saying we have a new project. The nature of ICIJ projects has moved over time. For the BVI story, ICIJ had a list of names. They sent that list out to their journalists, saying make a shortlist that you are interested in. I gave them a shortlist of 40-50 names, for instance, and they sent me the documents for those names. So I had the documents only for the names I had sent shortlisted. For HSBC, there was a search engine. So you could put in whatever name you were looking into and the documents would be available to you. This search engine is limited to a certain computer number, for security reasons.
This time too there was a search engine, into which they kept feeding the data as it was analysed. That was the problem, the information available kept changing for 6-7 months. It was a total of 2.6 terabytes.
In terms of the content of the stories coming out of this investigation, what they tell us is really the extent of money outflow from the country by prominent people. This is only the case of one incorporating law firm. So what’s important is the hint it gives us on the extent to which this happens.
What do you see as the importance of collaborative journalism?
Raj Kamal Jha: Most of the big stories in the world now – international terrorism, climate change, pandemics, global economic slowdown, migration and displacement – these are stories that know no borders. They come in waves across the world, and how different regions react to them define these stories. When the nature of a story is global, the nature of storytelling has to change. This then calls for collaboration. If I am tracking Zika in India, for example, I need to talk to Bangladesh where the first case was reported a few weeks ago, which is what our health reporter did. She spoke with doctors in Dhaka to understand the patterns they were looking at and their relevance to India.
I believe every good story is essentially collaborative. One straightforward reason for this is that more heads are better than one. For the Panama Papers, the volume of information was so formidable, 11.5 million files, that it couldn’t humanly be done by one person. Also, you always need people smarter than you. I don’t have the expertise or the time to devise a search engine that can go through these documents, sort them through layered directories, etc. but someone else does. Our strength is to report the hell out of the Indian names and connections, which we are doing. In short, you focus on your strength and hope that there are talented and generous people elsewhere who will cover for your limitations. And that’s what happened here.
This also shows the strength of an institution. Where you need a newsroom. Where lone wolves may not be sufficient. In the Panama Papers for example we had 25 reporters, 10 editors, six designers. Ritu went to Munich and did several workshops there to understand what we were dealing with. That’s what a good story needs, back and forth between all these people. It takes a village. I think we tend to forget that in our focus on the 9 pm star.
Somebody leaked the papers, somebody used technology to classify them, somebody said let’s get 106 news organisations together to make sense of it. We were one of them. Or job was to sift through this digital haystack for needles, look into the eye of many of these needles. Check and double check everything. In this case, the checking was the old-fashioned trusted way – sending reporters to addresses, going to a chawl in Bombay, a house in Bhopal, and checking physically the addresses, knocking on doors. Getting phones hung up on you. We love this at the Express. It makes our heart race.
How did the collaboration between journalists work on this project? Were there any negotiations on how much would be shared?
Ritu Sarin: ICIJ set up a forum, a community wall for people working on the project. To access the wall you needed a double password and then an authenticator. They made it very clear from the beginning that they want a lot of interaction, that’s how the stories will develop. For instance, if someone else found information they thought might be useful on India or had any leads, they would put it up there on a group I created. There were also thematic groups – on art dealers, intelligence agencies, etc. Lots of different groups. And everyone kept putting up whatever they would find. You could also interact with particular journalists or ICIJ staff if you needed anything.
By the end of it there were 250 journalists, and the collaboration was really in that forum. What was amazing was also how well ICIJ handled it – you send them an email at any time of the night and you’d get a reply within a few minutes. For them to be coordinating this massive effort was absolutely amazing. They also did a lot of data crunching, and gave us very useful tools. By the end of it they had also put up structured data, where you had entire lists of clients, beneficiaries, directors.
We [journalists] compared notes with each other throughout the process. I had a three-member team. Other countries had up to 25 people working on just this project. There was a mid-project conference in Munich that I attended, there were about 100 journalists there. Some of us even gave presentations on our early facts, and people were very excited. It was also a chance to speak to each other – someone from Ireland told me about an India connection and that turned out to be one of our best stories.
There were some cases where we knew other organisations would also publish the same story, for instance the Pakistan story. We were very interested in Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, and given the names we knew that the story would break on Day 1. The embargo was suited for European papers, it was 11:30 pm India time. So we put it up online as soon as the embargo was up. But information on these stories had also been shared earlier.
What is the future of this investigation? Will questions like the legality of the Panama accounts, that governments are promising to look into, also be investigated through the collaboration?
Raj Kamal Jha: We are mining the information and have some important leads, we will continue to follow them. It’s an ongoing investigation, we will follow every lead that we get. I am sure others will too now that we have put a bunch of verified names out. And this is scratching the surface of the surface – as Bobby Ghosh put it so well, these are from one office in one law firm in one tax haven. We hope there will be more [leaks/investigations of this kind].
Ritu Sarin: We’ve opened up lots of fronts of investigation, and hopefully we will be able to continue following up all of them.
The rules of the game are very clear with ICIJ. I’m not supposed to share documents with anyone, all requests have to be routed to ICIJ. There has been a message from them that they are not going to share any documents with any government agency, and we should not either. Our business is to put out the information. They will be putting up an interactive list soon, of about 2 lakh companies. That’s what the government agencies have to look at, along with the reports we have written.
Are investigative collaborations of this sort possible at the national level, for instance if you are reporting on a drought?
Raj Kamal Jha: Absolutely. At the Express we have always had sources we will die for. They collaborate with us. We could look at very interesting ideas of collaboration, maybe between the regional language media and the English language media. There’s important work happening in some small papers, rural spaces, exciting work happening online. We have to be open to ideas of collaboration, because if the goal is to tell a story fairly and accurately, you need more than one person. If you’re lucky you get it in your office, if not, you look out. We have to realise that the news room no longer has a monopoly on story leads – there are people outside who are much smarter than us, who know a lot about a specific subject. Our job, as journalists, is to get in touch with them. Win their trust and respect so that they share their knowledge with us.
Featured image credit: Nick Ares. Flick/CC BY-SA 2.0