Who are the masked men at European borders? – Three journalistic investigations of Lighthouse Reports

Lighthouse Reports brings together European media, journalists, and investigators with specialist knowledge and skills. Co-founder and investigative journalist Ludo Hekman tells us about three Lighthouse Reports investigations that caused controversy this past year. He explains why they chose to investigate these particular issues, their methods, and the outcome of the investigations.

1. Europe’s shadow armies

Our most recent investigation, ‘Europe’s Shadow Armies’, has many elements that are characteristic of Lighthouse Reports’ procedures. Displaced people are being stopped on Europe’s external borders and returned without them being able to apply for asylum. These actions are known as pushbacks and are often violent. The most violent pushbacks are carried out by men wearing balaclavas and uniforms without any insignia. A team of journalists from Germany, Switzerland, France, Greece, Romania, Croatia, and the Netherlands as well as our own open source investigators spent eight months investigating these masked men to find out who they are, who their commanders are, and how they are financed.

Information from whistleblowers

It turned out that in each of the countries these men are government-controlled official troops, financed for the most part with European Union funds. We were able to come to these conclusions by combining on-site reporting with the analysis of online videos, documents, and information from whistleblowers. Our findings were published and picked up by the international media, from Germany to Greece, from France to the United States, and from the Balkans to Denmark. Croatia and the European Commission have since announced investigations.

Gripping documentary

In the Netherlands Lighthouse Reports cooperates with Pointer, an investigative journalism TV programme of broadcasting company KRO-NCRV. The gripping documentary Het schaduwleger van Europa is available on their website (in Dutch only). On the site of the German Der Spiegel there is a background article about the masked men (in English).

2. Junta in Myanmar uses EU technology

The military coup in Myanmar and the deadly crackdown by the military in Myanmar have drawn strong condemnation of the G7 and the EU and a call for an end to violence against protesters. In addition, the EU has imposed sanctions on Myanmar: no weapons, no surveillance equipment and an extensive list of persons and entities that are not allowed to do business with and whose financial assets have been frozen. However, our research has shown that the unscrupulous junta has access to European technology to spy on its population.

Aided by Western companies and EU subsidies

We started the investigation because there is still little attention for the risks of the export of surveillance technology. Myanmar is a strong example, because being spied on can be a matter of life and death. Prisoners who we spoke to told us how they saw student associations leaders being carried off, hooded, never to be seen again.

Our investigation revealed that the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s ruthless army which spies on its own population, was aided by Western companies and EU subsidies. The deals were concluded when Myanmar still had a civilian government, before the coup. However, the army had a bad reputation and the role of the army was already well-documented: from persistent genocide to the violent suppression of activists and journalists.

Places with a high risk of abuse

This investigation shows what can happen in the absence of serious monitoring of the export of surveillance technology. It raises the question how Europe should regulate the export of surveillance and forensic technology to places with a high risk of abuse, particularly if such technology was built with public means.

Documentary Al-Jazeera

The investigation gave rise to an Al-Jazeera documentary, which was nominated for a Venice TV award.

3. Danish company arms Emirates

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been accused of perpetrating serious war crimes, including starving and bombing civilians in Yemen. As a consequence, the Danish government revoked all arms export licences to the UAE in late autumn 2018. We investigated what this means for companies that maintain close ties with the UAE. The research shows that largest IT company of Denmark, Systematic, is arming the armed forces of the UAE operating in Yemen, despite the Danish export ban.

British subsidiary

Only three weeks after the announcement of the export ban, the British subsidiary of Systematic applied for an export licence to the UAE for the same products that had previously been sold from Denmark. And to this day Systematic continues to supply military software to the UAE from Denmark, but now simply through its British subsidiary.


For this investigation, which lasted about four months, we used official documents obtained through freedom of information requests, combed the internet for job ads with which we could monitor Systematic’s international activities, and analyzed social media to reconstruct how the Danish company Systematic circumvented the arms export ban for the UAE. Based on our findings, experts and human rights organizations hold that Systematic is partially responsible for possible war crimes, and that the export of arms violates both EU and UN rules on arms exports. The publication has led to a criminal investigation into possible malpractices at Systematic.

Media attention

The Danish media has paid a lot of attention to this story. On this page you can see a timeline and photos on the subject (in Danish).

About Lighthouse Reports

Lighthouse Reports pioneers collaborative journalism and creates spaces to make it happen. These spaces are newsrooms built around critical topics – migration, climate, conflict, corruption – that serve multiple platforms, crossing borders, languages and formats. The newsrooms provide editors, tools, specialists and resources to working journalists with the results reaching the public on the mediaplatforms they already trust. Lighthouse choses not to be a publisher so they can channel their energy and resources into collaborations. They lead complex transnational investigations that blend freedom of information laws and money trails with emerging techniques like open source and data science.

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 in creating innovative journalistic reports on socially relevant themes.

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