OCCRP 2014 End of Year Letter

Published: 30 December 2014


Dear Friends, Colleagues and Supporters,

It’s been a year to remember at OCCRP, though in many ways a hard year - and for some of us, a dangerous year as well. Our thoughts are with our reporter Khadija Ismayilova, who will see the dawning of 2015 from an Azerbaijani jail cell. We’ve had to fight off multiple lawsuits and a few of our reporters have had to make midnight runs to escape detention. To our colleagues and friends in prison, and to those who still face legal harassment, we wish them all a better new year.

The year got off to a flying start in Ukraine when the Yanukovych Leaks team, supported by OCCRP resources and our local partners, made history at the palatial estate of the absconded president. Documents dredged from the lake were the starting point for dozens of stories describing the many facets of corruption in the former president’s inner circle. The stories resulted in investigations, prosecutions, multiple awards and a shower of invitations to YL team members to tell their story to investigative journalists and data specialists around the world.

Yet Viktor Yanukovych and his cronies formed just one of many inner circles intent on their own enrichment. The year showed that corruption continues in many capitals in the region and cooperation amongst thieves remains a booming business. Our Laundromat series exposed a complex, multi-national process for laundering more than $20 billion through an ingenious system involving Russian, Moldovan and Latvian banks (including some connected to a Putin family member), offshore phantom companies signing fake deals and bribes paid to Moldovan judges. The money was pilfered from the Russian state by corrupt politicians and oligarchs or amassed through organized crime.

The response has been gratifying: the UK just joined Moldova and Latvia in starting investigations, with more expected. A well-known luxury hotelier may have pulled out of a deal for a Montenegrin coastal resort after the owner was identified as a ring member. For all that he has done for organized crime and corruption, OCCRP members have selected Vladimir Putin as their organized crime person of the year.

Speaking of Montenegro, our Unholy Alliances project broke ground in proving the intimate connections between the country’s long-time president and organized crime. We showed how drug traffickers were getting free coastal property from municipalities run by the president’s political party, brokered by members of the president’s inner circle. We showed cigarette smuggling was still ongoing from islands controlled by both the president’s best friend and his head of security. Both the European Union and NATO have backed away from embracing Montenegro this year, and both gave corruption as a cause. The EU’s Annual Progress report for Montenegro referenced our work.

One significant impact came after the airing of our full-length documentary called The Assassin’s Trail – the first we entirely self-produced. Broadcast in Moldova and Romania, it was partially responsible for a decision by the Moldovan government to ban the pro-Russian political party Patria on the eve of the elections. This was because we proved the ties between the party’s leader, professional assassins and funding from the Russian state railways. The leader, fearing arrest, fled the country shortly after the documentary aired– another crime figure featured in the video had already been arrested. The documentary is already nearing 150,000 views and an English version will be launched shortly.

In Bosnia, our stories detailing alleged connections between drug king pin Naser Kelmendi and one-time presidential frontrunner Fahrudin Radoncic contributed to his defeat at the polls. In Georgia, a reporter working undercover proved sweatshop conditions in textile factories that supply major Western clothing outlets. Factory conditions improved as soon as her story was published. In Serbia, Stevan Dojcinovic published a book exposing the operations of alleged drug lord Darko Saric, and its reach in the EU, US and Latin America. And these are just a few examples of the work we did this year.

Working in hard places continues to be our specialty: we are global, virtual and committed. Reporting is ongoing in Belarus, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and other places deeply hostile to an independent media. The impact is already evident. Last month, we cooperated with a Norwegian business journal to show Norwegian telecom giant Telenor may have paid bribes to the president’s daughter in Uzbekistan. Telenor will soon face parliamentary hearings and investigations are ongoing.

Ruling elites in Azerbaijan were a central feature of Khadija Ismayilova’s research, and the start of 2015 will see the formal launch of the Khadija Project: our initiative to finish her work in cooperation with the International Consortium of Investigative Reporters (ICIJ). Reporters around the world are already starting to look at assets and review the activities of the Azerbaijani government, its foundations, businesses and proxies. We want to acknowledge the immense efforts that our members and partners are putting into this initiative, and into the wider campaign for Khadija’s freedom.

We have great tools for supporting this work in 2015 and beyond. The Investigative Dashboard (ID) is gaining more researchers and processing growing numbers of requests from inside and outside OCCRP. Our Investigathons in London and New York showcased the capacities of ID and are inspiring further investigations. ID is now partnering with researchers from Connectas in Latin America, the African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR) and the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ). The Visual Investigative Scenarios, now remodeled, have provided the graphics for imaging some of the most complex relationships we uncovered this year.

As usual, our members have won awards or been recognized by international organizations including Deutsche Welle, M100 Sanssouci -Allianz Cultural Foundation, Knight News Challenge, South East Europe Media Organization and the European Press Prize. We won local prizes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and elsewhere. Reporters Without Borders listed Khadija Ismayilova and Assen Yordanov among their 100 Information Heroes.

We have more work and more journalists than ever before and we continue to mint new reporters and editors in some of the toughest countries. We have been formally joined by two new partners: Slidstvo.info from Ukraine and RISE Moldova, and we continue to expand our relationships worldwide. Having operated for so long on a shoestring, OCCRP is now building its internal administrative capacities, and enhancing our ability to respond to donors and partners alike. Multilateral projects continue to be our major strength. Conflict in the world and the increasing Cold War mentality can make our lives difficult, but we keep doing what we always have done: letting our reporting speak for itself.

We give thanks to our partners and supporters who make this work possible, among you our board members, both new and longstanding; as well as USAID, the Open Society Foundations, the International Center for Journalists, the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Press Institute, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the Stockholm School of Economics media program in Riga and Google Ideas.

Best regards,

Drew Sullivan, Editor 

Paul Radu, Executive Director