The Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA) hosted investigative journalist Matthew Caruana Galizia and Board Chair of Transparency International Oya Özarslan today at a seminar on investigative financial reporting titled ‘Follow the Money’.
Co-Director of MLSA Barış Altıntaş opened the seminar with an introductory speech before inviting Galizia to share his personal experience of analyzing the Panama Papers for the International Investigative Journalists Consortium in recent years. He focused on the intensive and lengthy process which such reporting requires. "It took almost a whole year for everyone to get their pieces ready for publishing." Galizia has a deeply personal connection to the work. His mother Dapne Caruana Galizia, an investigative reporter who was assassinated in October 2017, had been following leads from the Panama Papers up until her death. He described how "I then started travelling to Malta more frequently, in order to work more closely with her."
Galizia provided practical guidance by explaining a few methods of identifying suspicious financial movements. For example, he recommended that journalists keep an eye out for the use of ‘buyer shares’ or layering techniques which some companies use to obscure the identities of their owners. The use of ‘nominee directorships’ or ‘nominee shareholding’ is another clue which could indicate financial malpractice.
Galizia also explained where the hubs of such activity are and how tax havens exploit the underdeveloped contexts they situate themselves in. "People who live in the British Virgin Islands or Panama are paid a couple of hundred dollars per year, in exchange of their signatures. These are generally people with very low income such as waiters, bus drivers etc. and they are unaware of what they are doing."
Galizia then proceeded to provide a practical demonstration of how he might use publicly available information to support his reporting. His first step is to search for names in trade registries such as OpenCorporates, which displays the registration of 164 million companies from around the world. Some countries, such as Turkey, are not included. His next step is to use government gazettes. "Now that we see the Turkish trade registry is not involved in this database, we can move on to our second public source, which is the government gazettes. There is this database where many government gazettes are collected, it is called 'Open Gazettes'. For example if I know for a fact that this person I am investigating has set up a company in France, I can search his name in the French government gazette." Some countries such as Malta have online platforms where government contracts are periodically published, another useful tool which Galizia drew attention to.
'All this data was gathered from public sources, there is no leak'
Galizia then focused on the work being done by International Investigative Journalists Consortium to support the work of journalists around the world, such as the Consortium’s Offshore Leaks Database. He recommended it as another tool journalists can use to find publicly available information. Galizia emphasized that the Database only uses lawfully gathered and publicly available information. "In public sources, you have to search the company name which is usually a very random name, and really hard to access. All we did was to gather and collect information from various public sources in one place. So now when you type in someone's name, you can actually obtain information on which companies they own etc."
Galizia also mentioned the Egmont Group, an international organization which fights international financial crime, and the Turkish Financial Crimes Investigation Board. He observed that both of these organizations possess large quantities of useful data which journalists can use, while noting that it is often hard to contact the two organizations.
'Corruption is not only an economic issue, it is also an issue of human rights'
Özarslan then took the floor to explain the mission of Transparency International. "Matthew has evaluated the issue of corruption from a journalist's perspective. I would like to show you how we see it as a non-governmental organization. TI is the first global organization founded against corruption. We see it as an issue of human rights, not just an economic one."
Özarslan began by analyzing the steadily decreasing trust felt by the Turkish public in government institutions. "We asked people whether they had trust in these 15 institutions (Court of Accounts, judiciary, media etc.) based on criterion such as transparency, honesty, accountability and measured the strength of these institutions. The data we gathered showed that citizens saw all of them 'weak', except for the Court of Accounts which scored a 'medium'. We had then stated that a large dark shadow of the executive power wanders over these institutions. This survey was conducted before the presidential system was established, now we can say, that shadow is black as a skillet."
Özarslan drew particular attention to the plight of the Turkish media. "It is very hard for citizens to be informed now. Reporters are facing judicial processes, we had conducted a research among media workers in 2014 and found out that journalists are inclined to censor themselves especially when it comes to news stories covering corruption."
Özarslan also provided some practical tips for investigative journalists working in Turkey by drawing attention to useful sources of information. "The government gazette, Trade Registry Gazette, official reports of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM), reports of the Court of Accounts, finance-budget-exchequer data, annual reports etc. I am aware that these sources are insufficient and they get attenuated everyday. However they still include valuable information. I can say that the only journalist in Turkey to deal with these issues is Çiğdem Toker. I wish more people worked on them."
'Can the exception of something cover 28 per cent?'
Özarslan then closely analyzed Turkey’s public procurement laws, which have changed 205 times over the past 16 years. "This law has a scope and exception. The second article is related to its scope and if we look closely to it we can see it is being used to exclude so many projects, such as social housing (TOKİ) and mega projects. Article 3 of the public procurement law states its exceptions and we can see that covers around 28% of public expenditure. Do you think this rate points out to an exception? Let's see the exceptions stated here; for example all goods and services regarding the G20 summit, all spendings of the Supreme Committee of Elections (YSK), all purchases of Turkish Airlines and BOTAŞ (Petroleum Pipeline Corporation), all repairment spenditure regarding cultural and natural properties etc. Most of all, after the elections of 24 June, another provision was added to this article. That is, all purchases of the Presidential Palace”42% of public services are excluded from the public procurement law, a gap which Özarslan lampooned.
Özarslan finished by noting the particular difficulties which confront Turkish investigative journalists. "Journalists all around the world reported the Paradise Papers. Even in Russia. Of course measures were taken to block these stories however none of the journalists faced criminal investigations except for the ones based in Turkey. Pelin Ünker and Çiğdem Toker were sued for their journalistic work. I am aware that it is not easy to report these issues, however people who do are working in favor of the public."
Updated: December 6 2018