Threats to Press Freedom Undermine Investigation of Dark Money

UNESCO’s celebrations for World Press Freedom Day in Addis Ababa this week are meant to recognize an important turnaround for press freedom in one of the world’s least free countries. Since coming to power last year, Ethiopia’s new prime minister Abiy Ahmed has begun to reform its oppressive political system, releasing imprisoned journalists and lifting bans on independent outlets.

Protesters mark World Press Freedom Day in Manila, Philippines. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)Protesters mark World Press Freedom Day in Manila, Philippines. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

But Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, and a handful of other countries that have shown improvements over the last year are clear exceptions, representing small rays of hope in a darkening world. For years, press freedoms have been on the decline in country after country, making it increasingly challenging — and dangerous — for the media to fulfill its role as a watchdog of democracy.

Many dozens of journalists, above all in Turkey, China, and Egypt, sit in prison for the crime of reporting the truth. More chilling still, at least 54 journalists were murdered in 2018 alone (by some estimates, the number is nearly 100).

On World Press Freedom Day, OCCRP recognizes the journalists across our 35-country network, and others around the world, who have paid the ultimate price in their work. We also honor those who press on, taking personal risks to hold those in power to account.

Most recently, the tragic shooting death in Londonderry, Ireland, of young investigative journalist Lyra McKee illustrates how, even in countries widely viewed as safe, reporting can be deadly. The killing of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives in Istanbul shocked the world and led to surprisingly few consequences for the Kingdom’s rulers.

Most painful for OCCRP was the brutal killing of our reporting partner Ján Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kušnírová in February 2018.

The young Slovak investigative reporter had been working with our network on a story about the infiltration of the Italian ‘Ndrangheta mafia into his country. After his death, our member centers continued his reporting. In two distinct projects — A Murdered Journalist’s Last Investigation and Unfinished Lives, Unfinished Justice — OCCRP pursued his leads and held the authorities to account about the missing pieces in the official murder investigation.

As a leader in collaborative journalism, OCCRP has also taken advantage of its experience to continue the work of other murdered journalists around the world — ensuring that killing any one journalist won’t kill the story.

In The Daphne Project, OCCRP collaborated with Forbidden Stories and over a dozen news organizations to shine a light on the death of Maltese reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed by a car bomb even as she dug into corruption in her tiny EU state.

In Death on the Border, we worked with six local outlets to investigate the kidnapping and execution of Ecuadorian journalists Javier Ortega and Paul Rivas and their driver, Efrain Segarra, by former FARC guerillas. Once again, the murdered journalists’ colleagues and loved ones were left unsatisfied with official explanations.

The chilling effect of both the threats and the impunity that surrounds them comes at a time when rigorous, independent investigative journalism is more needed than ever.

Secret financial flows — of the kind revealed by OCCRP and partners in the Troika Laundromat and the Great Gambia Heist — are drawing billions of dollars out of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. In many cases, this ill-gotten and secretly trafficked wealth represents a very real theft from the hungry, the sick, and the marginalized.

After taking detours through secretive offshore jurisdictions, much of that dark money ends up in Western capitals. Empty luxury apartments in London, New York, and Miami stand as an ugly set of monuments, a rebuke to the global financial system that enables such schemes. The same flows also acquire political significance, funding secretive lobbying groups, extremist political parties, and dangerous nationalist movements.

The result is a degradation of governance, an assault on rule of law that empowers only those who are already powerful, leaving those who expose crime and corruption at even greater risk.

This makes collaborative investigative journalism all the more essential. Networks of journalists across the world, whose local expertise is supported by the resources of an experienced investigative platform, are an essential “natural enemy” of the world’s most corrupt leaders and criminal networks.

On World Press Freedom Day and every day, OCCRP will continue to support the reporters and independent media member centers across our network and serve as a platform for fearless collaborative journalism. We thank our readers, friends, and supporters for recognizing the growing difficulty of this work and honoring the sacrifices it entails.