OCCRP's Miranda Patrucić: 'Journalism is your defense'

by Sam Berkhead
Oct 30, 2018 in Investigative Journalism

Journalism has been a part of Miranda Patrucić’s life for as long as she can remember.

Starting at age 16, she took jobs at local news outlets in her home city of Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. After working as a project assistant at Freedom House, she became a translator and fact-checker for the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo.

“I was walking on the streets in Sarajevo and I saw a job board saying ‘journalism development group,’” she said. “I looked at the board and said ‘Journalism needs to change in Bosnia.’”

She quickly found that her background in business, combined with a keen eye for scanning documents and data, made her well-equipped for exposing wrongdoing in society’s upper echelons. This first became evident after she joined a team that was investigating how Bosnia’s government gave an apartment to the prime minister for free — a story that led to his resignation.

From there, Patrucić joined the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). As a lead investigative reporter and regional editor at OCCRP, Patrucić’s work has uncovered corruption in governments across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, spurring government investigations, prison sentences and resignations for corrupt officials and more than US$1 billion in penalties and seized properties.

“I feel like this is what I was meant to do with my life, and I feel fulfilled because I can really see that we do have the power that we can make a difference no matter where we are,” she said.

Recently, Patrucić played a role in this year’s Panama Papers investigations, uncovering the hidden offshore wealth of the Azerbaijani president and his family. She also helped lead the “Khadija Project,” an investigative effort named for her friend and colleague Khadija Ismayilova, who had been jailed in Azerbaijan because of her investigations.

Days before she accepted the 2016 ICFJ Knight International Journalism Award, we spoke with Patrucić about investigating the powerful, exposing corruption and changing the world:

IJNet: How do you decide what to investigate?

Patrucić: One of the most important things for journalists is instinct, especially if your instincts are good. Sometimes I just read something and I think, 'This doesn't sound right.' I look into it, and it turns out that it's not right. I think this really helps if you have time and resources. Of course not everybody can afford it, but I think if you're very systematic about your research, turning every stone you can and paying attention to the details and if you work hard, work long hours and you don't give up, you get the story.

How do you find the right people to interview? Obviously the government officials and leaders you’re investigating likely won’t talk — where do you turn?

I think my advantage is I seem quite naive to people. I start with lower-level people, and I'm not trying to ask any hard questions. What I do is I listen. I think that's very often a problem for journalists. I think people say great things, but we don’t listen. So I just go and meet people and ask them about their job. I ask them how things work and what's the system. First, it helps them relax. They don't see you as a scary journalist who’s their enemy. And also because they relax, they start talking and telling you things. Very often, these people never get the chance to talk about what they're proud of, what they do. It’s eight hours of their day. I start there and then I slowly get closer and closer to what I'm really interested in.

When you’re skimming through documents, are there any things that automatically stand out to you?

Names and dates. I'm crazy about timelines and I'm crazy about lists of names. Sometimes, these names will not mean anything to you. Very often, you’ll feel like you see them for the first time. But then weeks into the investigation, suddenly somebody mentions it again or you see it somewhere else and it starts making sense.

Have you ever worried about possible repercussions from your reporting? What kinds of things do you do to stay safe when investigating people in power?

Nobody can tell us to stop what we are doing. Very often I do get warnings, like ‘You shouldn't be doing this, it's too dangerous, you should not do this story.’ I was told I would be killed. So obviously I had my share of problems doing stories.

On the other hand, I always believe that journalism is your defense. I think journalism is not a revenge. You’re not there to make up all these false things and twist the facts. If you did something wrong and I discover it, it's the truth and it's fair game. You shouldn't have done anything wrong if you didn't want it to be published.

The reporters we work with, they all face consequences. We try to protect them by not giving out their names, by being very smart with how we work with them. I wish we could publicly say ‘Here are all the people that you're working with, here are the people who should be admired for their strength or for the work they do.’ Unfortunately we can’t because they will be in danger. But I think their work speaks for themselves and I think as a journalist you should never give up, because if we all give up, the authorities will just take the message and then the investigations will stop. It has consequences not just in one country, but all over the world.

What drives you to do the type of work that you do?

Because of the way the world is going, there is so much more repression. There's so much more silencing of reporters. If I can help it, I want to keep giving a voice to people who don’t have a voice. I want to make the world a better place. I don't know which country that will be, or with which regime it's going to be, but I would like to do some work to make a difference.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Main image taken by Sam Berkhead.