Bucharest, May 2016
What’s your professional area activity?
When I was a kid, I read a lot and I wrote as well. I was very interested in science fiction, I wrote small sketches, novels and short stories. But by reading books written by journalist, I started to be more into journalism. It seemed to be a good fit for me, a journalist had to travel a lot, continuously learn in order to keep reflecting the reality. Some books written by editors of investigation journalism behind scandals as the Watergate inspired me a lot. I studied journalism in English at university and then I met some really interesting journalists, one of my teacher was from Belgium working for “Le Soir”, and he was doing a major work about crime and corruption from formal soviet place. He was a real inspiration, he told me back in 1999-2000 about I.C.I.J Investigation Centre for Investigation Journalism. And soon I became a member of ICIJ. There were a few factors that played an important role in the game. So I have always been a journalist.
Is it link to your project in a way?
It’s connected to all the projects I have got involved since I have started to get into journalism.
What’s your project?
So in Romania I created with some other colleague RISE Project. On a large scale it’s about investigation of the corruption and organised crime in Eastern Europe and work with journalists from countries of the region to reveal truth, hidden connections between criminal organizations, politicians and businessmen. We are now a larger community of journalists, programmers and activists, which allows us to use advanced techniques of investigation. All the articles and content created from the investigation are not only publishing website, they are also interactive enlightenments of underground networks in Romania that bring exposure of all that has to be changed in our country. To work cross border and on larger projects even outside Europe, Rise became part of “organised crime and corruption reporting project” OCCRP which in fact I’m the director. It’s a larger organisation all over Eastern Europe that also includes Rise Moldova.
When did you start?
Rise started at the end of 2011, beginning of 2012.
How was the idea born?
It born out of a burning need because there was a lot of corruption inside Romanian media and there still is unfortunately. This came also from the fact that I travel, visited and worked in various countries. In 2000-2001, I was studying in Slovakia, while I was speaking with some colleague from Ukraine, Lithuania, Hungary, we realised we don’t have information about organised crime and corruption in each other’s countries. From there came the idea of a bigger organisation working on Eastern European investigative journalism. Then the idea has kind of scaled back when I got back to Romania. So before Rise, with some other journalists we established another organisation called Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism. But it didn’t really work out because of we had different approaches on the way we saw our activities. I wanted the centre much more proactive. Something that would have been really more alive. At the same time I already established the OCCRP and cross border projects that were very successful. So with some other journalists we established the Rise Project because in Romania it was still not that much activity. And this is how the idea was born.
What changes do you want to create?
I always believe in changing things, changing the status quo, helping few people making decisions. In Eastern Europe, investigative reporters always complain that they are doing all those great reporting and nothing happens because the authorities are all corrupt, which is most of the times true.
Then with the new ways of spreading information like Facebook, we realised that we don’t have to wait for the authorities to act. With those new ways we can gain the public trust. If we write about organised crime and corruption in a very transparent way, we don’t only present them with the narrative but also with the proofs and evidences. We explain how you get the proofs and then the impact will be direct without the involvement of the enforcement. For instance we got for a few times, some letters at OCCRP or at Rise, from people that we mentioned, asking us to remove the information from our website because it bothered them and their business. It works. Like one time we received a request from a man trying to have a loan from a bank, and the bank used an article we wrote to refuse him. So it has a direct impact, for us it’s stopping criminal from doing their business as usual. And that’s very important and of course if they start to be under investigation that’s even better but it’s not in our power. We do our job, we investigate and we are journalists. Even if institutions as DNA ask for cooperation, for getting access to documents during an investigation, we refuse until the article gets released. Then we contact them to propose them to go online. There they have access to documents that usually they use. Besides this what we do, is giving workshops and trainings about how to use data to follow money and there we train journalists, activists, prosecutors that participate in police, activists… We do this in Romania and even outside as in Switzerland where we have trained some federal police and journalists. What we share is methods, to use open data and be efficient. Because we want more people to be able to investigate, even if not everybody can become investigative reporter in the sense that not everybody can write a good narrative but everybody can be a researcher. So everyone can do a bit and contribute. We need to have more researchers to help the few investigative reporters around the world.
And lately, our involvement with OCCRP and Rise Project in Panama Paper is quite substantial. Some of the most powerful stories were made by us, some great articles were made with our contribution. And we are very proud of those because Panama Papers is a new level of worldwide collaboration, and OCCRP and Rise was part of it.
What’s next, what do expect? Any more details?
We are working on few large reporting projects, so keep working. In the same time, there are more and more people working on computing information, so getting information becomes easier and better in our work.
In the investigative reporting process you get information and documents from various data sources like maybe a leak as in panama paper or just start from some piece of news from other media. There is a lot of ways to start to investigate and we get more efficient and more independent technics to work now, looking into money laundering for patterns like the same address used by different companies. And then we can extract that pattern and use it to look into other data and cases all over the world. Like this you can get new incentives, clues of the same money laundering system that can be also sent to other journalists that can also work on those stories that are generated. Those patterns can be used by programmers and machines to create algorithms that will be applied over large data sets that keeps on blowing. So I think investigative reporting is going to grow a lot in the future and part of it will be automated but it always will be a need for humans to verify content at some level, to connect the information from organic patterns and write the stories for people to understand.