In the recently released Pandora Papers, the largest reporting collaboration the world has ever seen, more than 600 journalists globally sifted through millions of files to expose how politicians, business leaders, celebrities and more conceal their money.
Resulting stories, among others, have revealed how one prominent political donor in the U.K. became involved in a major corruption scandal in Europe, how the Qatari ruling family avoided millions of pounds of taxes on a mansion in London, and how the King of Jordan used offshore properties to finance a secret spending spree on properties in the U.K. and the U.S. Led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the Pandora Papers follows in the footsteps of the 2016 Panama Papers and 2017 Paradise Papers.
Last week, ICFJ President Sharon Moshavi spoke with three ICFJ Knight International Award winners — Pavla Holcová, a Czech Republic-based investigative journalist and founder of the Czech Center for Investigative Journalism; Joseph Poliszuk, a three-time finalist for the Latin American Prize for Investigative Journalism and co-founder of Armando.info, from Venezuela; and Umar Cheema, a Pakistani investigative reporter for The News International, and founder of the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan — about their involvement in the Pandora Papers.
Holcová’s work helped bring awareness to how Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis moved millions of euros through offshore companies to buy luxury real estate in France; Poliszuk was part of a team that shed further light on the Odebrecht corruption scandal in Latin America; and Cheema’s reporting revealed that key members of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s inner circle own companies and trusts with hidden wealth.
The panelists provided insight on the critical role collaboration played in this project, and the importance of discretion during an investigation of this magnitude and sensitivity. They also provided tips for how to figure out your work-life balance when involved on a large-scale reporting project, and how questioning everything pushes your investigation forward.
Here are their takeaways:
Working together is key
Journalists have historically had an independent streak in them. This is less and less the case today. Collaboration among many journalists was imperative for carrying out an investigation of the magnitude of the Pandora Papers.
“We have grown up in a time when we used to think that one journalist can make a lot of difference, but with the world we are living in we are facing enormous challenges and it’s not a one-person job,” said Cheema. “More collaboration means a greater impact.”
The ability of the Pandora Papers to expose intricate financial crimes on a global scale is due largely to the cross-border collaboration initiated among journalists and newsrooms. It took journalists from over 100 countries working together to dig through nearly 12 million files from 14 offshore companies to expose the secretive financial practices of the world’s elite and powerful.
“The codes of investigative journalism are changing, and it’s amazing because if the crime is sophisticated then I think that we have to organize and set up another way of investigating,” said Poliszuk.
Discretion is paramount
When working on investigations, it’s important not to do anything that will jeopardize the story or your safety. Discretion is critical, including with your sources.
“You really [have] to be aware of the fact that the more people who know about what you are working on, the more you might be putting yourself at risk,” said Holcová. “Especially at the initial stages, when you are still trying to understand what’s going on, you don’t share this information.”
It’s also important to ensure your online safety, and that of your colleagues.
“Digital security is very important, and ICIJ always asked us to maintain security with our work and inside our team. These kinds of measures are ones you should follow all the time, not just with these kinds of projects,” said Poliszuk.
Work-life balance is vital
Pursuing a major investigative story can be time consuming, and it comes with challenges that may extend outside the job. Panelists stressed the importance of creating a routine and determining what risks you are willing to take.
“Everyone needs to find some kind of work-life balance for himself or herself. It’s important to know what level of risk you are willing to take to do this job,” said Holcová.
She suggested asking yourself the following questions to help establish a sustainable approach to your reporting:
- How can I balance the risks I am taking on the job with my personal life?
- Am I okay with the possibility of being attacked or targeted for my reporting?
- What can I do to ensure my safety, and protect my mental health?
Skepticism drives your investigation
When conducting an investigation, determining what is true and what isn’t can be difficult. It’s important for reporters to question any and everything. Doing so will push your story forward.
“You want to doubt yourself and what everybody else is doing, because without doubt you cannot proceed forward. Doubt is the origin of questions, and this is how we follow things,” said Cheema.