Kill one and a dozen return

Stephen Grey

There is a folk law that crooks say to themselves: don’t kill a policeman or a journalist. That would only, as American reporters put it, “bring too much heat.” But is that true anymore?

The death of two journalists in the European Union in winter of2017/2018, plus the fiery popular rhetoric of President Donald Trump against media workers, raised widespread concerns about the danger.

The threat against reporters is not new. Over 1900 journalists have been killed between 1992 and 2020, according to the Centre to Protect Journalists, including both cases where the motive is confirmed or unconfirmed (CPJ, 2020).

Most have them died in wars in which they shared the danger with combatants and civilians of those conflicts. Most were not individually targeted. But the assassination of two journalists in the European Union who were both actively investigating corruption, Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta on October 16, 2017, and Jan Kuciak in Slovakia in February 21, 2018, highlighted what appears to be a growing direct threat to freedom of expression in apparently peaceful places.

In the face of those concerns, something positive did happen: the revival of a strategy first pioneered in the United States in the late 1970s of bringing together a group of journalists from normally fierce competitors to continue their dead colleagues work. The previous project was called the Arizona Project (Lindsey, 1976). It followed the death of a reporter in that US state, Don Bolles, in 1976. Three decades later, the new version was christened the Daphne Project, taking up the work of Caruana Galizia. It involved up to 45 reporters from 15 countries and resulted in 86 articles (Forbidden Stories, 2020).

Laurent Richard, a French journalist who played a key role in founding the project, summed up why, as a collaboration, it was special.

It was not only about investigating a big leak, like WikiLeaks, and then doing a story, which is extremely important and difficult and tricky, but it was a bit more than that. Because it was about sending that strong signal at the end that you cannot kill the message (Richard, 2019).

This chapter explains how the project came together, organised itself, worked in practice and deployed techniques to make it successful.

The Arizona Project

The car bomb on June 3,1976, in downtown Phoenix that killed the 47-year-old state capital reporter Bolles of the Arizona Republic sparked outrage — but also a new way of working for journalists. The atrocity' came not long before the inaugural conference of a new US organisation to promote journalistic sleuthing, the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE, 2020). At the time, investigative reporting was already in fashion - with the efforts of journalists at the Washington Post and other outlets credited for exposing the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon from the White House. But many' of the rules of the investigative craft were still evolving.

Bolles was remembered in an IRE account of the project as a veteran sleuth: “the lone-wolf type, the kind who would attach a piece of Scotch tape to the hood of his blue Datsun to make sure that nobody' had tampered with his engine” (Kovacs, n.d.). No one knew the motive for his death, but his colleagues believed it was revenge for articles he had written about land deals.

The death of Bolles inspired the fledging IRE to create what it called the Arizona Project. A team assembled in Phoenix at a temporary headquarters, the Adams Hotel, and together assembled a multi-part report with the help of 38 journalists from 24 newspapers and broadcasters. That report, which began publication on March 13, 1977, ran to about 80,000 words long, and at least some of its 23 parts were run in many papers, to support an objective as some described to “get revenge on deadline" (Wendland, 1977).

In an introduction to a book on the project, one of the reporters, Michael Wendland of the Detroit News, set out the objectives:

First, the team attempted to pay' tribute to a slain colleague by' finishing what he had started, by' getting to the heart of the political corruption and organized crime in Arizona that had made Bolless killers believe that murder was a logical response to a reporter’s work. Second, by clearly demonstrating the solidarity of the American press, the team effort would reemphasize the old underworld adage: “You don’t kill a reporter because it brings too much heat.”

One of the outline discussions is described between two reporters involved with the IRE:

“The intent should not be to bring Don Bolles s killers to justice per se. The cops and the local papers are doing that right now. Instead, we should go into Arizona and describe the particular climate that caused his death.”

“In other words, we should carry on Bolles’s work, do the kind of stories that Don himself would have done if he had had the time and resources?”

“Precisely.”

(Wendland, 1977)

This was a vital principle. The Arizona Project recognised from the start that reporters were not and could not be murder cops, but they could report on the wider context of the crime and continue the journalist’s work. Established editors were not in favour, either of interfering in local media or of collaboration.

By the time of the Daphne Project in 2017, the value of collaboration had been well proven. After first running shy of it, even the New York Times joined collaborative projects such as the 2010 publication of State Department cables from WikiLeaks, NSA files leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 and in 2016 the so-called Panama Papers (ICIJ, 2016).

In Arizona, law enforcement had been only partly successful in its work. A millionaire rancher, Kemper Marley, suspected at the time by reporters and prosecutors to have ordered Bolles’ killing, was never prosecuted, and the convictions of two suspected middlemen in the arrangement also did not stand on appeal (Associated Press, 1990). Only the person who planted the bomb, John Adamson, who confessed, ever had a conviction sustained and served 20 years in jail. Both Marley and Adamson are now dead (Ruelas, 2016).

Yet many of the journalists’ allegations of land fraud and corruption were sustained, and the series was widely praised by law enforcement. As the IRE account described: “The Arizona Project exposed widespread corruption pervasive in the state and was one of the first nation-wide efforts to bring together competitive investigative journalists to work as a team” (Kovacs, n.d.).

How the Daphne Project unfolded

It was on October 21, five days after Daphne’s death, that I first got a call from a friend working in Switzerland who had been in touch with her family. They were shattered and “feeling confused” about how to seek international support. He was in touch with Daphne’s sister Corinne and her three sons.

I already knew Matthew, Daphne’s eldest son, as we were both members of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the organisation that organised the publication of the Panama Papers. Once I had heard the extent of her allegations about corruption in Malta, it seemed obvious that we needed a big team to investigate.

Meanwhile, at a gathering of investigative reporters in South Africa, a similar idea took shape: that an “Arizona Project” Mark II could be created to look at Daphne’s journalism. A new organisation based in Paris, Forbidden Stories, led by a French TV veteran, Laurent Richard, stepped up to provide leadership.

Just as I sent an email to fellow reporters asking who would like to join a collaboration, I got word from Laurent Richard that he was already trying to form such a group. The Guardian newspaper, which had a relationship with Daphnes family already, was also considering how it might cooperate with others, and they quickly agreed to join together. In a secretive meeting at a countryside hotel outside London, soon after the murder, The Guardian had taken the delivery from the family of one of the last collections of leaked material that Daphne had been working on.

Forbidden stories

Laurent Richard, a French television producer of 20 years’ experience, was one of the first at the scene of the massacre of journalists and cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo magazine on January 7, 2015. This profoundly shocking experience convinced him of the need for a journalistic response to such crimes.

Richard had read of the Arizona Project and what was called the Khadija Project in 2015 (OCCRP, 2015). This was an attempt by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) to continue the work of Azeri journalist Khadija Ismayilova while she was in jail.

Other examples inspired him, too, such as the work of reporters from the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism, ABRAJI, a non-profit, who kept alive the work of Tim Lopes, a reporter burned to death by drug traffickers in 2002 (ABRAJI, 2017).

During a sabbatical break at the University of Michigan, Richard developed the idea behind Forbidden Stories. It would be used as a platform systematically to continue the work of murdered and imprisoned journalists and to provide a technical system for reporters in dangerous situations to upload their secrets as a kind of insurance. In the event of their death or imprisonment, the secrets could be released.

The point was to focus on the journalism, not the outrage. “I was personally really looking for really what I can do as a journalist. I don’t want to work for a NGO. I don’t want to do advocacy. I don’t want to do campaigning, because this is not what I am able to do and I really want to stay a journalist.”

As he wrote later:

Cooperation is without a doubt the best protection. What is the point of killing a journalist if 10, 20 or 30 others are waiting to carry on their work? Whether you’re a dictator, the leader of a drug cartel or a corrupt businessman, exposure of your crimes is your biggest fear. Journalists are the enemy of the corrupt ecosystem that you have constructed. But what if this exposure becomes global, and the message amplified? Wherever you go, you will be questioned by the world’s press. Whatever you are trying to hide will be magnified.

(Richard, 2018)

To Richard, Daphnes case seemed like a perfect one to investigate. Before her death, she had alleged widespread corruption among the elite in her country and there was outrage across Europe about her death.

In some sense, Malta’s stories might seem like quite small scale — local news, in effect, that might never reach the front pages of major international media. “But as a story I think this was universal,” recalled Richard.

You have one woman who was the last independent voice in the island, of this very tiny island which is part of European Union, but you have so many dirty businesses inside this island, so many corrupt people and some organized crime groups so active in this tiny island, that it makes the story extremely interesting for a journalists point of view and extremely important that the public opinion should know.

The key thing was though that Daphne, he felt, had died isolated. “Daphne was fighting alone or almost alone.”

Very soon after the killing, Richard spoke to Daphnes son, Matthew, and also got Bastian Obermayer, an investigative editor at the Süddeutsche Zeitung who was famed, with his team, of taking delivery of the so-called Panama Papers, involved. Also involved early was a Sarajevo-based organisation called the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. With a powerful technical infrastructure and experience of handling some of the most corrupt and dangerous people in the world, they would become the backend of the project. We also knew we would need a local partner, and Jacob Borg, a relentlessly dogged reporter who, unlike many local journalists, was shunned by the Times of Malta, was brought on board.

For Richard, a key moment was realising the quality of reporters coming forward. Although it was impractical for everyone to be invited, some of the best-known figures in investigative reporting in Europe were coming forward to help. Those early meetings showed, said Richard, “that I had some really very rock-solid reporters who could start working right away on continuing Daphnes work."

But a close look at that work also showed that an investigation presented some challenges. Daphne was a not a regular beat reporter or an investigative reporter who gathered only facts. She was an opinion writer who also took aggressive stances. The accusations she had made, such as that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his wife had received a one-million-dollar bribe from Azerbaijan, were subject to challenge, exemplified by the more than 40 libel suits she was fighting at the time of her murder (AFP, 2019).

The challenge for the Project was to continue her work as a reporter without endorsing her opinions or attempting to validate every accusation she had made. That string of libel suits, several key people argued, were a measure of the persecution she had faced before her death, an example of the global phenomenon of piling on pressure, particularly against freelance journalists, with intolerable legal threats that threatened freedom of expression. Nevertheless, until the team of journalists that became the Daphne Project re-investigated and verified her work, some involved felt there was need to be cautious. The act of being murdered was not proof that what Daphne wrote was correct. And what would be the impact on Daphne’s family, for example, if the result of the project was to discover that Daphne had, in key respects, got it wrong? Said Richard: “We committed from the very beginning that if Daphne was wrong, we need to say that she was wrong. If she was not able to fact-check something that she was publishing, we need to say it” (Richard, 2019).

Still, as happens very often, key people involved trusted their gut instinct. After all, if Daphne had got everything wrong, why invest months following her leads? Juliette Garside of The Guardian, unlike many involved in the Project, had been to Malta and had met Daphne’s family, if not Daphne herself, prior to the murder. She felt strongly that, even if Daphne had made some mistakes, she was ‘onto something.’

Said Garside: “I was already convinced before she was killed that what she was investigating was of huge importance, a political corruption scandal that went to the top.” After she was killed, she was certain: “Why was she murdered if she wasn’t uncovering things that were true? She must have been killed for what she was about to expose or had exposed” (Garside, 2019).

Still, Garside, Richard and I all agreed early on that to protect the integrity of the investigation, Daphne’s family should be treated as sources, not as an integral part of the Project. Since Matthew is a fellow journalist and known to me and others, it did make things awkward at times. But the arrangement was also good for the family, since it left them free to comment and campaign without being restrained by the need to stay neutral as the facts were investigated.

There was also an early emphasis on security'. With the mastermind of the killing at large, no one knew what dangers awaited anyone else who looked at what Daphne had been investigating.

Tools and techniques

In leading the organisation of the Daphne Project, the team at Forbidden Stories, advised by its experienced team, made use of evolving techniques and procedures that had been refined by leading media groups and the ICIJ in dealing with major projects like WikiLeaks, the Snowden files and the Panama Papers. For example, each journalist joined up with a formal, written participation agreement that bound not only the journalist but his or her editors to respect common rules, a stipulation that helped to neutralise the inbuilt tension when highly competitive reporters from rival organisations joined together for a common goal.

There was a need to make some sacrifices, recalled Richard.

We are trained to be lone-wolf reporters [and] to never share information with the others. We are trained to scoop the others. We are trained [to work| in a very individualistic way, to be honest. But, but we know that for that kind of project, Daphne Project or for the Forbidden Stories entire project, that the paradigm is extremely different. That’s the opposite we need to do. We need to let our egos somewhere far away from this kind of group.

(Richard, 2019)

What made the Daphne Project different from other “typical” collaborations was its multi-dimensional aspect. This was not a look at one story or one set of documents that Daphne was working on. It was an attempt to pick up on multiple threads. She had written about and accused a large array of characters in the Maltese establishment. There was also an added dimension of danger inherent in looking at the case of a murdered journalist. This was not a matter of sharing access to and parcelling out a common set of documents, as was the case with the Panama Papers, but instead a story that involved developing and handling sources, many of them confidential. The handling of a secret source was not something that fitted naturally to a team approach.

Unlike the Panama Papers but like the Arizona Project, this was a locally focused project, turning global attention to a very small island. As in the Arizona Project, the question could be asked: why should readers of other foreign publications be interested in the ins and outs of Maltese characters and corruption? It was not clear that readers would be, but most felt readers would agree that this work was the right thing to do. The idea of the Project appealed to many editors, and substantial resources were invested.

There were five key principles by which the Daphne Project functioned:

First, there was a solid technical infrastructure. Unlike the original Arizona Project, the members of the Daphne Project did not all get dispatched to the scene of the crime and install themselves in a dedicated office. Instead they operated mostly virtually. At the core was a central hub for information run by the OCCRP. This included a Wiki (a user-updatable website), protected by various security measures, including encrypted connections and multifactor authentication. In general, it is safer to store information in a central hub in the cloud rather than distributing information by email, even if those emails are secured by encryption as strong as PGP. Chats between reporters generally took place through chat groups within Signal, a peer-to-peer encrypted chat network. But reporters were advised not to use such chats to store information, as, while the communications might be secure, the local copy of that chat on a phone or laptop is highly vulnerable to being compromised.

Second, a division of labour in seeking out sources and materials and analysing it, combined with a pooling of the product. There were many complicated strands of Daphnes work, each requiring considerable effort to investigate, so it made sense to divide the reporters into teams. Seven teams were set up to probe the assassination, Malta’s energy' deals, political corruption, Malta’s scheme to sell its passports to rich people, fuel smuggling, gambling and finally Pilatus Bank, an Iranian-controlled bank in Malta with close links to Azerbaijan and Maltese politicians. Every team went away and did reporting and then shared the results with the whole project. At the beginning, it was not clear which avenue would take us furthest.

Third was mutual trust. To enable teamwork, reporters needed to trust both the quality and integrity' of other peoples work and know they would not use their stewardship of one inquiry line to gain advantage. This requirement was underpinned by' a selecting, as far as possible, the best and most trusted investigative journalists to join the project.

Fourth was individual responsibility for publication. The idea here, replicated from successful ICIJ and WikiLeaks collaborations, was to pool raw material but to make every' partner responsible for his or her writing, editing and publication of finished material. For the ICIJ, refining this step had been critical for it in coordinating research into large and controversially obtained sets of data without risking legal liability' for publication. For the media partners, it was also far more efficient to concentrate on their own editorial copy' rather than wasting energy by' attempting, as was done in the Arizona Project and early ICIJ collaborations, to edit and publish a commonly' agreed-upon output, little of which might end up actually being published. A drawback of this approach, however, was that it limited the involvement of freelancers.

Fifth was an agreed deadline. A principle that holds together collaborations is an agreed-upon publication date and time that can be shifted only by' mutual agreement. With a mixture of publications, including TV, radio and print, weekly' and daily' publications, any chosen time is rarely good for everyone.

The points of principle were formulated by' Laurent Richard at Forbidden Stories and endorsed at the Projects first and only joint meeting, held in Paris early' in January' 2018. The key' point, he recalled, was “We are not a human rights organization. We are not campaigning, we aren’t doing advocacy'. We are not here for defending the rights of Daphne. We are not here to make a tribute for Daphne. We are just here to make journalism. We’re here to use journalism to defend journalism.”

From the first meeting, research continued intensively with multiple group chats via Signal, conference calls and trips to Malta and around Europe.

Issues and problems

Some potential issues in such a collaboration needed to be carefully thought through. And some journalists, including myself, felt a joint approach to sucha serious matter risked compromising ethical standards, just as some had criticised the original Arizona Project. Unlike some collaborative projects that involved parcelling out a single major “leak” or were tightly focused on a single story, the Daphne Project involved investigating several allegations made by Daphne, all of which were contested, and where proof often relied on sensitive confidential sources who needed protection.

Given that Daphne had so firmly accused the Maltese government of corruption, it also required a careful approach to maintain objectivity until her allegations were evaluated. That meant, for example, not including in the team some journalists who had already made up their minds and said so publicly, however correct they might have been.

Some key dilemmas were:

  • • How publications should approach sources. As they approached people for comment, disclosing the existence of a secret collaboration could scare off some sources from commenting or encourage them to actively try to undermine the project. On the other hand, many felt it could be unethical to approach someone to comment on behalf of, say Reuters, and for those comments to then appear in, say, Le Monde. A compromise was to re-approach people closer to deadline and explain that comments might be shared with others.
  • • How do you reconcile different media cultures: for example, willingness to publish unproven allegations or to use undercover footage? An example was French TV footage that secretly captured the occupants of a village bar describing how one of the alleged killers of Daphne, Alfred Degiorgio, had shared a drink with Chris Cardona, minister for the economy, investment and small business. Cardona denied the encounter. Some Daphne Project members published the conversation, while other media like Reuters and the New York Times, who had concerns about using undercover footage, ignored it.
  • • How do you reconcile different commitments of time and money from different publications? While the principle was to share all the reported material freely, in practice, different publications made considerably different contributions, particularly at later stages. Should they share all their material with others who had done less? As in other matters, these could be shared by good will — with discretion and appropriate credit where credit was due. But it was an issue that needed careful management.

The investigation

Publication began in April 2018 that confirmed the weakness of the inquiry into Daphne’s murder, verified as true some of the accusations that Daphne had made and also advanced some of her work.

Among the stories published were:

  • • How evidence against three suspects charged with Daphnes murder had been pieced together from mobile phone records but how the police focus on the people who planted the bomb had, so far, left the masterminds who ordered the killing at large. None of the people that Daphne was writing about, and could have been considered potential suspects, had been questioned by police (Garside & Kirchgaessner, 2018; Grey, The Silencing of Daphne, 2018).
  • • How documents in the Panama Papers indicated two senior figures in the Maltese government, the prime minister’s chief of staff and a former energy minister, had secret Panama companies which, correspondence suggested, intended to receive cash from two mystery Dubai offshore companies, one called 17 Black and the other, Macbridge. Both people denied any wrongdoing or any knowledge of these projected cash flows (Pegg, 2018).

Further investigation by Reuters and the Times of Malta later identified the director of a major power station project that was promoted by the Maltese government, Yorgen Fenech, as the secret owner of 17 Black (Grey & Arnold, 2018).

  • • How the same power project (a joint venture with Azerbaijan and Germany’s Siemens) may have resulted in higher energy costs for the country (Garside, 2018).
  • • How Malta’s passports-for-sale scheme was being abused as a cheap way of acquiring access to the European Union (Obermayer et al., 2018).
  • • How Malta was a centre for the fuel smuggling business (Rubino et al., 2018).
  • • How the Iranian-owned Pilatus Bank had seduced Maltese government ministers, been subject to lax regulation and then been used to funnel cash from Azerbaijan to secretly purchase property' and investments across Europe (Chastand & Michel, 2018).
  • • How Minister Cardona frequented a bar regularly used by the one of the three people accused of Daphne’s murder (Borg, 2018).

Investigations by the Daphne Project were, however, not able to verify Daphne’s claim about a Panama company' called Egrant that Daphne had alleged belonged to the wife of the prime minister, Joseph Muscat. (An official inquiry completely rejected the allegation; Willan, 2018.) In fact, no direct evidence was found to prove personal corruption by Muscat or any of his team, even if revelations, for example, about the planned transactions around the company 17 Black, suggested a need for further investigation. Instead, the articles broadly indicated a broader climate of corruption and favouritism.

Follow-tip

For her family and friends, the publication of the Daphne Project was a huge step forward, leaving them feeling her work would not be left ignored. In the week of publication, Daphnes husband, Peter, travelled to England and attended the daily editorial conference at The Guardian. Speaking on CNN, one of her sons said it “felt like some kind of justice” (CNN, 2018). After her murder, the family had doubted if anyone outside Malta would take an interest in what she had been writing about. The Daphne Project proved that wrong.

But the family pointed out that many of the key people whom she accused of corruption remained in office at the helm of the Maltese government. The Project was not enough in itself to achieve justice. It certainly focused the minds of many in Europe on what Malta needed to do to improve its record in fighting corruption. But the task of getting justice was colossal.

After the first publications, and revelation of the project, others took it as an inspiration. For example, after the death of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic in July 2018 (Russian journalists killed in Central African Republic ambush, Guardian, 2018) exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had funded them, set up his own initiative to fund investigations into the journalists’ deaths.

Forbidden Stories, meanwhile, moved to a more wide-ranging investigation, called the Green Blood Project, for journalists killed or silenced for environmental reporting, which was to investigate mining (Forbidden Stories, 2019).

Elsewhere, Daphne Project inquiries continued, albeit with a smaller core group. The ultimate mastermind of the killing has not been discovered. A key development came in November 2015 when it emerged that one of the three suspects, Vince Muscat, had secretly provided an account to the police of how Daphne was murdered. His evidence led the police to a middleman, Melvin Theuma, who, when arrested, told police he had passed on a contract to kill Daphne from businessman Fenech, the same man the Reuters/ Times of Malta investigation had named as the owner of 17 Black. Theuma was granted immunity' from prosecution in return for his testimony against Fenech and the other co-accused. Fenech was charged with complicity in Daphne’s murder and denied the charges.

At the time of writing, all the accused are awaiting trial. Police are continuing to investigate if there are others involved. Like the Arizona Project, the Daphne Project had focused attention on key people later accused of involvement in a journalist’s killing. The Maltese judiciary will decide if those accusations hold water.

Conclusion

Whenever a colleague is slain, there is always a temptation to get “revenge on deadline,” but that emotion should not cloud judgement. If retribution is required, it is best delivered by an effective police investigation and prosecution. As articulated well by Forbidden Stories, however tempting it is to play detective and try to unravel the murder plot, the best thing that reporters can do is to continue the work of the murdered colleague. Continuing the thread of their investigations may provide material that ultimately proves vital to the official murder investigation — but that generally should not be an end in itself.

Sometimes, however, a police investigation may be weak and a justice system compromised. In those cases, it is vital that journalists be ready to hold those investigations to account, for example, by highlighting leads that the police are not following or weaknesses in the case they may be advancing. As with any aspect of our work, we are detectives of last resort. The case for our work is most obvious when authorities that rightly have greater powers to gather evidence (for example, by arrest or seizure) are evidently not doing their work. That is true just as much for authorities that should be looking at corruption allegations as it is for holding the murder investigation itself to account. After Daphne was murdered, both the murder case and the wider examination of corruption allegations in the country were weak.

Some cases, as with Daphnes murder, simply cry out for a collaboration, in particular where, as with Daphne, the victim is a freelancer or works for a small publication that does not have the resources to continue the journalist s work or where the journalist’s work is of major public importance, even if that importance is mostly local and, finally, where that murder threatens to create a sense of impunity that threatens the wider liberty of expression. In some places where the deaths of people through murder or war are rife, there may be fewer good reasons to focus disproportionately on the death of our colleagues.

Even so, there comes a time when good reporters need to band together and show that — when it comes to murder and intimidation — even the fiercest of media competitors are willing to take a collective stand and work as a team. I hope the Daphne Project can provide a model and inspiration.

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LEGAL THREATS IN THE UNITED

 
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