Lessons learned: IJ4EU and the future of investigative journalism

By Jane Whyatt

It was Hungarian Green MEP Benedek Jávor who summed up the success of the long fundraising campaign for investigative journalism in the EU: “This is an emotional moment for me.” More than 350,000 euros had been invested in 12 cross-border teams, and at the UNCOVERED conference they presented their results.

IJ4EU - the future for investigative journalism Benedek Javor MEP in discussion with Elisa Simantke (Investigate Europe) and Ides Debruyne ( at the UNCOVERED conference. Photo: ECPMF

The UNCOVERED conference marked a great achievement: twelve cross-border IJ4EU investigations published in countries across Europe, a strong co-operation between the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) and the International Press Institute (IPI) and a great return on investment for the European Commission and the Norwegian Fritt Ord foundation, which provided the funding. The IJ4EU fund disbursed 315.000 euros from the EU and 25.000 euros from Fritt Ord. However, this is not a time to rest on our laurels.

All conference participants and organisers learned important lessons about the challenges faced by reporters, funders and decision-makers. 

Barbara Trionfi, Executive Director of the Vienna-based International Press Institute, noted in her wrap-up of the UNCOVERED conference that at the start of the project, there were worries that the reporting teams who received the grants would not be independent from funders’ own interests. As it turned out, those fears were unfounded. Indeed, two of the stories revealed, in separate cases, that EU funds were being misused in Bulgaria and Romania, and that 2.5 million euros had gone to fund the activities of far-right anti-European activists.

Trionfi comments that: 

At IPI we were glad to see that the structures we put in place to ensure that the grantees are selected entirely independently from the Commission, but also from IPI and ECPMF, and that they can operate without any interference by these organisations, worked. This was an important lesson learned - not so much for us as we have managed disbursement of grants for journalists before - but for the Commission itself.”

Receiving grants from particular sources can bring its own challenges. For example, funding from the Open Society Foundations, founded by George Soros, can make journalistic teams and NGOs a target of hostile governments. This is already happening in Hungary and other parts of Eastern Europe. This problem was discussed in the UNCOVERED conference panel on funding. The lesson here is that a diversity of different funding sources strengthens the independence of investigative reporting teams and NGOs.

Panel - how to create an enabling environment for investigative journalism. Photo: Lamm/ECPMF

You cannot kill the story

One of the IJ4EU-funded teams continued the work of murdered investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was assassinated with a car bomb near her home in Malta in 2017. The Forbidden Stories team went ahead despite the obvious risks to their lives and the legal threats surrounding the Daphne files, where more than 30 lawsuits are still attacking her family one and a half years after her death.

The political mood of impunity for those who attack journalists represents a major challenge across Europe. Jan Kuciak and his fiancée were murdered in Slovakia after he investigated local organised crime and corruption in public life.

Sadly, in Slovakia it took the murder of a journalist to mobilise people to go to the streets in protests and force the prime minister and other high representatives to step back.”

 What is more, Trionfi observes, even heads of states and government openly attack and insult journalists, for example the Czech President Milos Zeman, former Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn, are leaders that control large shares of their countries’ of media through funds. In Italy the, Ministry of Interior publicly calling for police protection of a well-known investigative journalist to be removed. There is a feeling that more countries in the EU are moving towards authoritarianism and it will be increasingly difficult to do investigative journalism in the EU.

Another important lesson learned, and shared in the conference discussion ’Creating an enabling environment for investigative journalism’ chaired by Margo Smit, is that politicians and EU Commissioners should challenge the anti-journalism rhetoric and reach out to the families of murdered journalists. It is also important for policymakers to reach out to journalists that are currently in jail and those facing vexatious lawsuits such as those being deployed against the Caruana Galizia family, which are known as SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation).

Trauma takes its toll

In this atmosphere, it is common for investigative reporters to feel scared, stressed, hunted and traumatised. 

The Dart Centre Europe, a think tank specialising in journalism and trauma, sent Jeanny Gering to the IJ4EU conference with lessons learned from 28 years of helping media workers, who have covered wars, genocide, disasters and abuse. Gering emphasised the need for journalists to be aware of the effects of trauma, to practise self-care and to look out for their colleagues. Her advice: "Take a phone number with you in your pocket" - the number of an organisation that can help you.

Not only journalists and camera crew but also sources and whistleblowers are also at risk in cross-border co-operations. Barbara Trionfi emphasises that whistleblowers and sources need better protection and urges journalists to press for this, at national and EU level.

Uncovered conference hall with attendees Richard Kühnel, Head of Representation EC Germany. Photo: Lamm/ECPMF

Digital self-defence

Alongside the UNCOVERED conference, workshops in digital self-defence helped to equip participants with the knowledge and kit they need to protect their confidential material. Daniel Moßbrucker, also working for Reporters Without Borders, delivered the training. Sanne Terlingen of the Lost in Europe project observed that in addition to the technical knowlege, local awareness is also vital. Her lesson learned came from an experience of being the only person in Djibouti who was equipped with two satellite phones and an encrypted laptop – something, which drew unwelcome attention, rather than enhancing her security.

Throughout the conference it was apparent that the old days of journalists racing to “scoop” their rivals with exclusive stories are long gone. Co-operation and collaboration enabled the twelve projects to succeed, and the media outlets that published them reflect a wide range of print, online and broadcast media that complement each other rather than competing.

This leads IPI’s Barbara Trionfi to conclude:

There are concerns about disinformation in the context of the upcoming elections in Europe so we need quality journalism. As we listened to these wonderful investigations that were the outcome of the IJ4EU, my thinking all the time was how much can be done and achieved with very limited funds. Not only the quality, but also the diversity (geographic and topics) of the investigations is impressive – And many projects were funded that directly scrutinized the EU itself.”

As the EU parliamentary elections draw closer, the stories from the twelve investigative teams continue to be updated and shared with new audiences thanks to the reporters and correspondents who covered the IJ4EU conference.

Under ECPMF's Creative Commons International Share-alike Licence 4.0, the conference materials on this overview page can also be re-published free of charge...

Furthermore, the recommendations drawn from the event, by the ECPMF’s managing director Lutz Kinkel, are available here.