Touching sore spots – The important work of investigative journalists

‘Journalists talk to people. Investigative journalists talk to people who don’t want to talk.’ Thomas Muntz (Investico) and Klaas van Dijken (Lighthouse Reports) have gotten many people to talk throughout their careers. They also sift through databases and public sources with their colleagues. It is impossible to conduct a large-scale, successful investigation on your own. It requires plenty of connections with specialists and the media.

Numerous examples of cover-ups

“The core of investigative journalism is to uncover matters around which people want to throw up a smoke screen. But it’s important that the public knows about such things.” In his investigations, Lighthouse Reports Director Klaas van Dijken witnessed numerous examples of cover-ups or parties willfully turning a blind eye. “Journalists focus on the link between a policy choice and the implementation of that policy. To give you a concrete example: refugees are stopped at Europe’s external borders and even sent back before they can apply for asylum. These so-called push-backs are accompanied by extreme violence. These violent actions are a direct consequence of the policy of the European Union. EU member states are collectively turning a blind eye. To put it bluntly: the political climate gives off the message that Europe would rather not have asylum seekers come here. In the media, European governments have even used the imagery of asylum seekers as weapons, which dehumanizes them. All these factors combined have given regional police forces and armed groups considerable latitude to use force.”

Journalists filmed masked men beating up asylum seekers.

When things are going wrong

Pushbacks were an open secret for years. There was no concrete evidence, so the EU ‘was unsure whether they really happened’. “EU countries did know that these push-backs actually happened, at a large scale even. It was up to us to find that proof. We secured footage of masked men beating up asylum seekers. It went viral on news outlets and on social media, and society at large was shocked. People could finally see it with their own eyes and the EU could no longer deny it.”
Thomas Muntz, Editor-in-Chief of the investigative journalism platform Investico, emphasizes the relevance of journalists calling attention to controversies. “A democracy brings conflict and issues to the heart of our governance system. We choose our elected representatives – which is really important – but that is not the heart of our democracy. Rather, it’s the fact that these representatives discuss problems together, in the public sphere, whether in the House of Representatives or a city council. Investigative journalists uncover problems that are not yet on the political agenda, informing representatives of issues that they need to address. To alert them to things that are going wrong. If they believe that the issues are not problematic, so be it. We journalists will have taken it as far as we can.”

Touching sore spots

Exposing important issues does not happen overnight. Thomas: “As an investigative journalist, you follow your instincts. You have to have the time and freedom to do that. If you’ve read the newspaper and watched the news, you have to remind yourself to think about what has not been said. That’s where we come in. Then the digging starts: is it justified or unjustified, or are they holding something back? We always touch the sore spots if we do our job well. We talk to dozens of people, analyze data and hold surveys. It’s a time-consuming but rewarding job, which editors sink their teeth into for months on end.”

Investico brought to light that unregistered migrant workers did not receive a corona vaccine.

Failed to generate audience

Klaas: “Only news outlets such as The New York Times have the capabilities to launch investigations for which they deploy specialists, including in the field of data science. European media outlets can only do such projects if they work together. On the other hand, the media in Europe have built a huge audience. It usually takes years before you pull enough readers to your articles.” Contacts at media platforms Klaas and fellow journalists Ludo Hekman and Daniel Howden are all seasoned investigative journalists and have published their investigations on their own websites. One of these investigations – all of them shocking in their own right – brought to light the case of illness-causing basmati rice from India, which unfortunately failed to generate the audience and impact it deserved. The three journalists therefore decided to set up Lighthouse Reports, a network that brings together investigative journalists from all over Europe, including journalists from well-known media platforms, ‘digital’ specialists and data analysts.

Building a reputation

Lighthouse Reports deliberately does not publish the articles under its name, but ensures that the stories are published by established media so as to reach a large audience. Klaas: “Ludo and I are experienced journalists with good contacts in the Dutch media landscape, and Daniel had a network in Great Britain and beyond. After that initial phase, it was a question of building a good reputation. We carried out investigations and pitched our stories to big names in the industry, such as the French daily Libération and the British newspaper The Guardian. All of our investigations have to be extraordinary every time for us to stay relevant for the prominent news outlets in Europe.” Over the past six years, Investico has worked hard at building a good reputation across the Dutch media landscape, and has initiated collaborations with De Groene Amsterdammer (a topical weekly magazine), Trouw (a Dutch daily), LINDA. (a popular magazine) and current affairs TV shows EenVandaag and Nieuwsuur. “For the past few years, thanks to the philanthropic support Adessium and other partners provided, we have been able to create a space at Investico where our staff can explore their curiosity. It’s like a good marriage, because the funds were given to us in good faith. The donation is a way of our partners telling us: we think you can do this. And it comes without any restrictions, such as ‘you have to write at least this number of articles’. This allows us to say to our journalists: listen to your instinct, do follow up on that lead. I believe in Investico’s approach, which in the United States is referred to as investigative non-profit. We are free to follow our intuition.”

A Lighthouse Reports investigation revealed how at the height of the coronavirus pandemic migrants were exploited on European farms.

Legislative changes

The persistence of two Investico data journalists landed them the Dutch journalistic award De Tegel for their investigative piece on nitrogen emissions. The report on a turkey farm was picked up by the national media. The farm of this particular farmer emits more nitrogen than the effect achieved with the national speed reduction to 100km/h. Thomas: “Of course, we are pleased to receive these types of awards, but we feel it’s more important that the investigation leads to legislative changes. A good example is that during a lockdown in 2021, our editors discovered a bizarre scheme between the Asian hospitality industry in the Netherlands and the Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service, the IND. Apparently, there was a shortage of people who wanted to work in Asian restaurants. So these restaurants were allowed to bring over chefs from China and East Asia. As long as the chefs continued to work at the restaurants, they received a residence permit. Well, this is a recipe for exploitation. Our editors looked at the numbers of people arriving in the Netherlands under this scheme during the coronavirus pandemic. It turned out that those numbers were consistently high, despite the temporary closure of the restaurants. Our story resulted in a spread in Dutch daily Trouw. The outcome was that this particular scheme was terminated one month later. Fortunately, we live in a country that is able to respond swiftly to such facts.”
With the support of Adessium, Investico invests in both a national and local network of journalists and media outlets. “A quarter of our productions is local. In an ideal media landscape, regional journalists have enough leeway to investigate regional issues. If the issue in question occurs in multiple regions, you see the national media picking up the story. But sometimes it is just a regional problem. And if local journalists are unable to address such issues due to a lack of budget, then who will?”

Online editorial board

Co-responsible for the stories Lighthouse Reports uses online newsrooms, where they bring together their in-house experts, such as data analysts and open source intelligence investigators who follow digital leads, with journalists from all over Europe. Klaas: “A newsroom is best described as an online editorial board around a certain topic, organized much like a traditional journalistic editorial office. Everything takes place online, because we are based in different countries. Each newsroom runs several investigations at the same time. For instance, the ‘Borders’ newsroom, which was also responsible for our investigation into violence against asylum seekers, currently conducts six different investigations which are all interlinked. We discuss who investigates what, and agree on angles and deadlines. A newsroom editor is a sort of editor-in-chief. So, Lighthouse Reports does not publish articles under its own name, but is co-responsible for the stories.”

An employee of a Spanish slaughterhouse which, according to a Lighthouse Reports investigation, was guilty of exploitation.

Violent push-backs are a reality

It has been a winning formula, considering the controversy the investigations caused throughout Europe, such as the publication on a Danish company that provided arms to the United Arab Emirates, and the one about workers being exploited in Spanish slaughterhouses. Klaas: “Two years ago, we never imagined that we would be at the point we are now. The articles are published in countries that have more clout than the Netherlands and that influence decision-making, such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain. An issue receives attention precisely because it is addressed throughout Europe. One example is the investigation into the violent actions against asylum seekers at Europe’s external borders, which Ylva Johansson – the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs – even mentioned twice in the first sentences of her opening speech. An independent investigation into the push-backs has since been launched in Greece and police officers have been suspended in the wake of an investigation in Croatia. The main outcome is that the European Commission is now exerting pressure to acknowledge that these things actually happen. Croatia has admitted for the first time that violent push-backs are a reality.”

Journalism is never ‘done’

Disinformation, fake news, the rabbit hole in which we might get trapped looking for news from various sources: all of these developments are detrimental to public confidence in journalism. Thomas: “People tend to forget that good journalistic products are the result of an extensive decision process. Investico is very transparent about this process; it’s available on our website. However, we are not mirroring reality. As journalists, we make decisions, but we invite scrutiny and can be held accountable.” Young journalists at Investico and Lighthouse Reports learn these lessons when taking part in the programs for journalistic talents. Thomas: “My number one lesson to young journalists is: all data, all laws, all rules – everything has a backstory. Our job is to find out: who created it, who has an interest in it and who uses it? At the end of the process, we explain to our audience how we ended up where we are now and how the problem came into being. That’s what I like about our work: journalism is never ‘done’. Time and time again you can ask yourself the question: what is going on here? If you lose that curiosity, you might as well quit.”

Public interest – Availability of high-quality information

Adessium is committed to achieving an open, democratic and just society. We strive for a society in which all citizens can be involved and are able to gather information from independent and reliable reporting. We therefore support organizations such as Lighthouse Reports and Investico in creating innovative journalistic reports on socially relevant themes.

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