Convicts, organized crime and COVID-19: Going undercover for the story

by Aliza Appelbaum
Sep 9, 2020 in Investigative Journalism
Sun setting over Bucharest

The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is connecting journalists with health experts and newsroom leaders through a webinar series on COVID-19. The series is part of our ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum — a project with our International Journalists’ Network (IJNet).

As the world focuses on combating the novel coronavirus, some governments are making it even more difficult for journalists to write about the impact of the global pandemic. In Romania, where the government severely limited access to public information, two investigative journalists went undercover to track the country’s supply of dysfunctional masks.

The two journalists, Ana Poenariu and Andrei Ciurcanu, spoke with ICFJ Director of Community Engagement Stella Roque to explain how they went undercover to carry out their reporting. 



“You have to be a really good actor when you're doing undercover, and you have to believe your covers so much,” said Ciurcanu. “We were reporters, but we really believed that we were businessmen.” 

Poenariu and Ciurcanu worked with RISE Project Romania and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) to produce their reporting. 

They originally started looking into the issue when one of Poenariu’s friends who worked in a hospital sent her a photo of masks and other protective equipment that were constantly breaking and were not usable. They tracked the faulty masks back to a Turkish company, which turned out to be exporting the faulty masks in collaboration with organized crime in Romania. 

Recent government restrictions on journalists made verifying this information much more difficult. 

“One of the first things that our government did was to restrict access to information during the crisis situation,” said Poenariu. Normally, information requests take 30 days, but since the pandemic started it’s been increased to 60, she added.  

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Once they had identified the local players, they realized one of them had ties to the Prime Minister’s office. Another was a well-known Romanian gangster who had a record of theft, extortion and kidnapping. After publishing an initial story about the Turkish company, several local informants reached out to them about the organized crime connection, said Poenariu. They decided to go undercover as potential mask buyers in order to get the proof.

The meeting with the Romanian organized crime ring was set for a gas station, and they had already established their cover as buyers, said Ciurcanu. He acknowledged that two people undercover can be trickier than going alone, but added that they managed it well because of their experience working well together. 

“When we first arrived in the gas station, we had no idea with whom we [were] going to negotiate,” said Ciurcanu. “But we had all the elements, as in how the industry is working...We can say we were bulletproof from this perspective as we were posing as businessmen. We knew how the market was developing. We knew how to negotiate. And it was really easy to do an undercover in two persons because we are really good friends. So we had a really good chemistry together.”

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Ciurcanu described how they played the part by renting an expensive car for the meetings. They also always made sure the location tracking on their phones was turned on so their colleagues could see where they were at all times. 

Both journalists make frequent television appearances; since Romania isn’t a large country, they acknowledged that they could have been recognized. But one benefit of the current situation, said Poenariu, was that it was normal for them to show up wearing masks, which helped them go incognito. 

Poenariu and Ciurcanu published their first story about the faulty masks in April. The follow-up reporting, for which they went undercover, was published in early July. The government has taken no official action since. 

“If you ask me, it should have been the authorities to investigate the way this phenomenon evolved in Romania,” said Ciurcanu. “Unfortunately, even to this day, I am not aware of a big investigation led by an authority in Romania to discover the criminals behind this phenomenon.”

Aliza Appelbaum is a Program Director at ICFJ.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Andrei Terecoasă.