TNRC Blog Uncovering corruption: The role of investigative journalism in combatting environmental crime and prompting accountability

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Uncovering corruption: The role of investigative journalism in combatting environmental crime and prompting accountability

Investigative journalists are often the first to uncover corruption in locations with limited enforcement or low rule of law. This is particularly true in environmental sectors that tend to be low priorities for law enforcement and governments. This blog post captures highlights from a TNRC Virtual Panel on 11 March 2021 with two journalists and an investigator who specialize in uncovering environmental crime and corruption. Insights were shared on their roles, their techniques, and how they engage with conservation practitioners. A recording of the panel is above, and a PDF of slides from the event can be downloaded here.

Key Takeaways

  • Environmental crime and corruption are linked through convergence to many other crimes. Trade data and open-source commercial data can provide many clues for investigating the trafficking of natural resources. Trade discrepancy analysis is a good starting point for uncovering red flags, but it takes a lot of digging and follow-up.
  • Focus on the financial flows behind the trade to uncover corrupt or criminal actors who may be profiting at various levels. If this does not happen, journalists raise a scandal, but nothing changes.
  • Inadequate legal systems, along with silos separating law enforcement from financial intelligence units, enable money laundering and corruption. This is supported by an entire industry of white-collar enablers who misuse legal and financial systems to help traffickers.
  • There is need to strengthen and enact legislative reforms that prevent the leakage of money from sanctions and penalties back to the same corrupt actors. Legislation such as the United States (U.S.) Lacey Act can be helpful in prosecuting cases with a U.S. nexus, but given that the law only applies to lawbreakers in the U.S., suppliers of illegal material in producer countries may seek ways to continue to engage in corrupt activity (such as by reappearing under a new name or in a new jurisdiction).
  • Journalists and investigators who focus on conservation crime and corruption operate in a very dangerous space. There is need for more programs to train, support, and protect whistleblowers.

The reflections below were contributed by Giannina Segnini, Director of the Master of Science Data Journalism Program, Columbia University Journalism School; Khadija Sharife, Senior Editor, Africa, OCCRP; and Andrea Crosta, Executive Director and Board Member, Earth League International. This panel was hosted and moderated by Dr. Louise Shelley, Director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center of George Mason University (TraCCC).

What is “data journalism” and how is it used in uncovering conservation crime and corruption?

Giannina Segnini, Director, Master of Science Data Journalism Program, Columbia University, Board Member ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists) and member, IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors) and GJIN (Global Investigative Journalism Network)

There is a lot of trade data and open-source commercial data available for investigating the trafficking of natural resources. Any good that is traded has an HS Code which can be found in the UN Comtrade Database. Once you select the specific good that you are interested in, you can match up the exports of that good, reported by the country, with the imports reported by the country’s trading partners. When there are major discrepancies, i.e., the importing country reports twice as many imports as the exporter claims to have exported, you have a discrepancy to analyze. Then you start gathering more granular information, such as bills of lading that show the specific vessel, port, date, etc. from commercial databases and other sources, and you start looking for patterns and clues. (See list of recommended data sources in this presentation.) It’s a bit like knitting. You have to put all the clues together creatively to come up with the picture.

But this is only the beginning. Criminals have many tools available to mask illegal shipments: multiple transactions, transshipments to different ports, use of secrecy jurisdictions, fake certifications, etc. There is a whole group of educated people specializing in these kinds of logistics, and this is where the corruption comes in. Customs agents, shippers, port officials, etc. all need to get bribed. So, you need to investigate at this level, as well, and follow the transactions.

What do you see as the role of a journalist in investigating environmental crime and corruption?

Khadija Sharife, Senior Editor for Africa at Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Board Member, Finance Uncovered, Poynter Fellow in Journalism at Yale University and author of “Tax Us If You Can: Africa”

As a journalist, you can only convict in the court of public opinion. After that, law enforcement and civil society can pursue and prosecute, but journalists can’t. So, they need to be very careful and methodical in building their stories to make sure that the evidence is formidable, ethically obtained and contextualizes the truth and the facts. Journalists in Africa are very vulnerable, and so are sources. There are only eight countries in Africa with laws providing whistleblower protections, and even those are mainly on paper and contradicted by other laws.

Too often, environmental journalists focus their investigations at the early levels of the crime, concentrating on the poachers and the ivory, rather than tracking the money and value behind the crime that flows through the international financial system. So, it raises a scandal, but nothing changes.

The problem stems in part from the fact that environmental crime and financial crime are prosecuted in separate silos. The banks don’t share information with the Financial Intelligence Units and law enforcement does not follow the money. But they need to work together, so that we get to the financiers of the crime and corruption that drives the $2 trillion dollar business model. This is an international problem. To follow the money, we need to track what is valued and look for clues. It is easy enough to crack open by identifying the stagecraft or language to veil their activities. Much of it relies on the same legal and financial camouflaging used by corporate companies. Often, criminal financing intersects with corporate investment at the level of forestry, fisheries and the wildlife trade.

Even where companies, criminals and corrupt politicians seek to alter their behavior by disrupting existing patterns or attempting to make efficient chaotic systems, this inevitably creates a new pattern – one that can often and easily be tracked.

Organized crime benefits from the fact that international legal and financial systems are set up to facilitate secrecy in many jurisdictions. Capital is deregulated and flows instantly across borders outsourcing a nationality that hides the origin and character of its activity. Meanwhile law enforcement is stuck within national borders and must rely on foreign governments, including tax havens, to help them get answers. The hypermobile flow of capital is exacerbated by legal blind spots that react instead of presenting injustice. Financial Action Task Force (FATF) sanctions are based in large part on politics. They punish North Korea, but not Switzerland, the Netherlands, or the City of London, controlling most of the world’s small island “tax havens” such as the Cayman Islands. Different secrecy hubs specialize in different activities from hedge funds to maritime secrecy. For example, Liberia, Panama and the Marshall Islands are “flags of convenience” for vessels and even oil rigs seeking to avoid labor and environmental law. The same laws that benefited Transocean, the owners of the Deepwater Horizon rig from vast liability also financed and enabled Liberian warlord Charles Taylor who trafficked timber and other resources in exchange for weapons and cash. But even when everything miraculously works out right, less than 5% of assets are recovered, and when these assets are confiscated from one corrupt government they sometimes end up being returned to their equally corrupt successors. To make a real change we need to change the legal frameworks, both domestic and international, that serve to protect criminals. Ecological crime is a cost that can never be repaid.

How is an investigator different from a journalist? What is the role for intelligence in combatting corruption in natural resource management?

Andrea Costa, Executive Director and Board Member Earth League International (ELI), Founding member of the Wildlife Justice Commission, Board member of the Africa Conservancy Foundation, creator and project manager of WildLeaks. His investigative work was featured in two documentary movies “The Ivory Game” and “Sea of Shadows”.

To counter terrorism and other global threats, we rely primarily on intelligence collection and analysis, but not when it comes to wildlife crime, where law enforcement, governments and media concentrate mostly on the beginning of the supply chain (the poachers) and the end of the supply chain (consumers). Rarely is intelligence used to map out the rest of the supply chain and trafficking networks, and that is where ELI comes in. By mapping out the high-level organized criminals involved in wildlife trafficking and producing actionable intelligence to use in their prosecution and for disruption, we can be more effective in our efforts to curb wildlife trafficking and dial back on the militarization of anti-poaching strategies. ELI does not work at the poaching level, but at the level of trafficking and transnational organized crime (TOC).

How do we work? We are intelligence professionals and investigators, not journalists, although we work with journalists. We focus on environmental crime, but we collect information on the convergence of all kinds of serious crimes, because they are often linked. When we started investigating jaguar parts trafficking it led us to seahorse, shark fins, and timber. Our sources led us to money launderers who laundered money for organized crime and then to a customs official, who facilitated all kinds of smuggling out of the country, including human trafficking. This is what convergence looks like on the ground and where crime and corruption meet.

We work undercover and develop long-term relationships with our targets in order to produce actionable intelligence. We use the information we gather to do further research, using network analysis and different software products to develop additional leads and understand the connections between individuals and how they are linked to organized crime groups and trafficking networks. We produce CIBs – confidential intelligence briefs – with lots of information, including video and audio recordings, and actionable intelligence that we share with law enforcement. We are currently working with 12 law enforcement agencies around the world, including in the U.S. Where possible we look for a U.S. nexus to the crime to facilitate prosecution in the U.S.

We partner with NGOs and journalists because we have more information than we can use. These are complex stories and we want to ensure that journalists understand all the angles and don’t jump to false conclusions based on partial information. Our NGO partners are IUCN Netherlands and IFAW. Our journalist partners are Mongabay and Reuters. Journalists can be very vulnerable, and we have programs to support and protect local journalists who are in danger, by helping them to “export” the most sensitive information out of the country where they live. We are about to launch an internship program for young investigative journalists, who will be embedded in our teams.

Further Reading

Operation Fake Gold

Operation Jaguar

Sea of Shadows trailer

Targeting corruption and its proceeds: Why we should mainstream an anti-corruption perspective into “follow the money” approaches to natural resource crime

Trade-Based Money Laundering and Natural Resource Corruption

The WildLeaks Report

Whistleblower protection: A tool for stopping corruption that threatens the world’s forests, fisheries and wildlife

© WWF-US / Zachary Bako

Image attribution: © / Jen Guyton / WWF; © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF; © Georgina Goodwin / Shoot The Earth / WWF-UK; © Hkun Lat / WWF-Aus