The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is connecting journalists with health experts and newsroom leaders through a webinar series on COVID-19. The series is part of our ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum — a project with our International Journalists’ Network (IJNet).
As the public remains focused on the global health crisis, pandemic profiteers are expanding their reach by whatever means necessary, journalists investigating crime and corruption across the globe said in an ICFJ webinar.
The panel, moderated by Louise Shelley, director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime, and Corruption Center at George Mason University, featured Roman Anin, 2020 ICFJ Knight Trailblazer Award winner and founder of IStories; Aubrey Belford, global editor for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP); and Indhira Suero Acosta, SembraMedia ambassador and CONNECTAS reporter in the Dominican Republic.
“This is going to be a big opportunity for some bad actors to try and make money out of people's fear and the chaos and confusion,” said Belford, who along with his fellow reporters Anin and Acosta have investigated corrupt government officials, organized crime groups and unethical companies amid the pandemic.
New regulations and a lack of information have created a huge opportunity for the cronies of Russian president Vladimir Putin, Anin said. “What we see in Russia and in former USSR countries is that the coronavirus led to a huge monopoly in terms of procurement,” he said. “All the mechanical ventilators in Russia during the pandemic were sold from a single producer, who belongs to a holding led by Putin’s former KGB partner.”
Anin and his reporting partners found that those same ventilators were faulty. “Some even burned out and killed a couple of people in hospitals,” he said.
Anin also said the government racked up fines from citizens who violated quarantine by leaving their homes. People were required to download a tracking app on their phones. “The app was badly developed, so people who didn’t leave their apartment got four or five fines a day,” Anin said.
Anin and his team investigated what happened when people challenged the fines in court. They discovered that one regional judge had decided 252 cases in just one day - or about one case every 16 seconds.
Who is breaking the rules?
The presence of China in most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean comes with corruption and propaganda, Acosta said. “It's sort of a Wild West environment,” with private companies and the government each contributing to corruption in their own ways, she said.
Belford agreed, in particular, when it comes to profiting from medical equipment and antibody tests. He says a lot of people rushed to buy these tests because they thought the tests would show whether they were infected. Not only was it not a useful diagnostic tool, Indonesia’s state pharmaceutical company bought 300,000 copies of it, and are still using it to decide whether people are allowed to travel, he said.
“What we found also was that one of the major Chinese brands that had already been independently tested and found not to be terribly accurate was being sold under American or European brand names as if it was made in the USA or in the Netherlands, when in fact it was made in China and repackaged,” said Belford.
“In the Dominican Republic, we see that the government only dedicates 1.8 percent of its entire budget to health” and years of impunity for corrupt government officials has left the country in the state that it is right now, Acosta says. “In countries like Cuba [or] Costa Rica, where you have the most budget for health systems, you see that it's different.”
Using the pandemic for political ends
In Russia, reporters found that the government had misrepresented the number of COVID-19 fatalities in order to hold the election earlier this summer that put Putin in power for the next 12 years.
“When they announced they are going to hold this vote, all of a sudden the data about the number of the dead changed,” Anin said. “The state was claiming that we are very good at fighting coronavirus and we are controlling everything. So let's organize the vote because it's not dangerous anymore [to go out and vote].”
Anin said that though the state was claiming it had spent hundreds of millions of rubles on buying masks and antibacterial gels, doctors were complaining about a deficit of equipment. In their investigation, they found that the state had spent money on the election rather than on the needs of doctors and hospitals.
To cover its tracks, Anin said, the state used the pandemic as a pretext to crack down on the media, suing a couple of outlets for their coverage of the government’s coronavirus response.
Tips for journalists
Belford: “Just trying to think like a crook. Because it's a new situation and everyone's rushing, it's often not terribly sophisticated and not that hard to find.”
Belford and his team stumbled upon a surprising find when searching the databases of Scandianavian countries. They found that well-established, liberal democracies with supposedly a long history of transparency have become some of the most difficult, true black holes for data during the pandemic. “Whereas former Eastern Bloc countries, where there has been a lot of pressure from foreign governments and donors to bring in systems of greater transparency, that’s actually where we've been more successful in getting some of the information,” Belford said.
On succeeding as an investigative journalist during a pandemic, Anin said: “There are two types of reporters today: those who spend the majority of their time investigating what is in online databases and the old style of reporting, you know, when you meet sources.” What type is he? “I love to kind of mix both approaches. So I love to meet people and talk to them,” said Anin.
The main challenge of reporting under quarantine has been a lack of time, he said “Everything was changing so fast that we had to investigate fast,” said Anin. Investigations that would have normally taken months or years had to be completed in a week.
To get the most out of your reporting, Acosta said: “This pandemic has remarked for me the importance of collaboration. It's extremely important to open our minds and to open our world to other countries. There are issues that we may think only happen in our country, but those issues also happen in other countries.”
Anin says international collaborations can help when regional partners don’t have the same access to resources, time or data. “The best stories I’ve done were in collaboration with my partners in OCCRP. The real power of journalism is actually not in competing, but in uniting all forces.”
Roman Anin is the winner of the ICFJ Knight Trailblazer Award 2020. He will accept the award at the ICFJ Tribute to Journalists on Oct. 5. Register to attend the virtual gala here.