Celebrating cross-border journalism with praise and prizes

There were sad and sombre moments at the #UNCOVERED 2021 online conference, remembering murdered journalists Giorgios Kavaitaz  Daphne Caruana Galizia and Jàn Kuciak.

Yet the atmosphere was mostly one of celebration, with top-level speakers stressing the importance of cross-border investigative journalism and four teams collecting handsome trophies (pictured above) as well as 5,555 euros each in the first-ever Impact Award.

Sabine Verheyen MEP, who chairs the European Parliament CULT Culture and Education Committee, stressed in the opening panel discussion, chaired by European Centre for Press and Media Freedom Lutz Kinkel:

 “We have increased the budget – nearly doubling it – for Creative Europe. To support investigative journalism is one of the core tasks we should concentrate on.”

Backing up this promising statement, the European Commission’s Anna Herold told the online audience of more than 300 registrants:

 ”We’re extremely proud of this project where full independence of the media is ensured by the arm’s length approach”.

The IJ4EU grants are provided by funds from the European Commission, administered by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) and managed by the International Press Institute (IPI).

The FINCEN Files project investigated global money-laundering through major banks

Discussing how the FINCEN Files exposed massive moneylaundering, Fergus Shiel of the International Center for investigative Journalism (ICIJ) told the conference how  – in spite of the pandemic lockdown – they were able to track a billion dollars from Turkmenistan to Scotland, and follow another money trail from Hong Kong to California, where it led to the death of a man.

“This is what investigative journalism is about” he commented.

His colleague Ariel Kaminer of BuzzFeed News found it a sobering experience, noting that some of the reporters involved work in settings where they were literally putting their lives on the line to do this work.

The next panel on Political Influence provided more examples of the dangers and difficulties facing the cross-border teams.

Assassination attempt

Moscow-based freelancer Anastasia Kirilenko told how one of their whistleblowers survived an assassination attempt and another received death threats, too. Zoltán Sipos of Átlátszó Erdély described how he and ethnic Hungarians like himself living in nearby countries such as Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Serbia and Croatia live in “a parallel reality” which is funded directly from Budapest by Viktor Orbàn’s government with the aim of spreading illiberal values and undermining democracy.

Those values spilled onto the streets of Poland’s cities when the new anti-abortion law was passed in October 2020, forcing the team investigating the ultra-conservative TFP global network to publish earlier than planned.

In the panel debate chaired by Timothy Large of the international Press Institute (IPI), Anna Gilerwska explained that the TFP was collecting millions of euros from a base in Kracow by selling rosaries and pictures of saints. Then they traced the money – and the political influence  – to its branches in Slovakia, Croatia and France – where her colleague traced them to a château and found they were living in it!

Winners of the Impact Award

#UNCOVERED 2021 hosts Lutz Kinkel and Ali Aslan

This high point of #UNCOVERED was the prizegiving ceremony. This rewarded four cross border investigations that have resulted in criminal charges or political change or changed European society in some other important way.

Jury chair Shaun Walker, the Guardian’s central Europe correspondent, praised the high quality of all ten shortlisted projects. On the Lost in Europe project, he commented that all the jury members were both impressed and saddened. The team tracked the movements of Vietnamese children who had disappeared from refugee reception centres across Europe and been trafficked into the illicit drugs business and prostitution. Accepting the award on the line from the Netherlands, Geejse van Haran commented:

“We learned how vulnerable children are, how important our journalistic ethics are and how important cross-border working is, because the criminals don’t respect border”.

Jury member Theresa Ribeiro, High Representative for Freedom of the Media at the organisations for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), announced the prize for The Daphne Project which continued the investigations started by murdered reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia:

“(She was) the Maltese journalist who paid the highest price for her journalistic work. In times of mistrust, this work is more important than ever”.

Accepting the award on behalf of himself and the 45 journalists on the  project team, Jules Giraudat paid tribute to Daphne’s family, saying “I have a special thought tonight for sons Matthew, Paul and Andrew. They are a true inspiration.”

Surprise, surprise!

Sarunas Cermiaukas of the OCCRP celebrates his Impact Award with his son. Photo: private

Sarunas Cermiaukas of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) was caught by surprise when he got the message to say that he had won an award for their Troika Laundromat investigation of global money-laundering. He was out buying a birthday cake for his son – and they enjoyed a double celebration. Yet it also had a worrying background: Sarunas explained to the conference that the early preparatory work for the exposé was done by Roman Anin, a Russian reporter whose apartment was recently raided by the FSB.

For the fourth winner, the prize was totally unexpected too, since only three were originally planned. Mattias Carlsson of the organized Crime And Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) explained that their project The Fraud Factory exposed a Ukraine-based global scam that was defrauding pensioners of their savings by claiming to invest them in Bitcoin. Yet although they had a whistleblower – who is now in a witness protection programme – no-one has been charged and there have been no arrests.

As conference host Ali Aslan remarked, there’s a need for a follow-up. The prize money will go to continue all the investigations, since as ECPMF Managing Director Lutz Kinkel observed:

“This is money to keep on working. As we all know, the investigations are costly”.

#UNCOVERED continues on Thursday 15 April 2021. Registrants get access to an exclusive undercover documentary film screening.

Read full details here of all four winning projects from the #IJ4EU Impact Awards.

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