Updated: Feb 12, 2020
by Ntombi Mkandhla
Investigative journalism holds the powerful to account and when that type of journalism is executed through a collaborative journalism project, it has a far wider reach and impact.
“The impact is bigger, because more people, in multiple countries, will pay attention to what you publish. And this is important in a time when readers and viewers have millions of news pieces that reach them every second,” said Scilla Alecci, head of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ (ICIJ) Asia Desk.
Alecci is also part of the ICIJ team which recently published the Luanda Leaks, the international intensive investigative project which scrutinised Africa’s richest woman, Isabel dos Santos’, source of wealth.
Over 120 journalists from 36 media organizations in 20 countries scoured through over 700 000 financial and business files revealing a vast network of shell companies allegedly used by Dos Santos and her husband, Sindika Dokolo, to build wealth through real estate, energy companies, telecommunications and more.
African whistleblowers advocacy group The Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF) presented the documents to ICIJ.
In a statement released on January 27, PPLAAF revealed their whistleblower as Portuguese hacker Rui Pinto who wanted “to expose activities that are illegal or contrary to public interest”.
“Global collaborations allow for dozens of journalists to build cases based on evidence that connects the dots to transnational systems of illegality and criminality,” Henri Thulliez, PPLAAF co-founder told frayintermedia.
“ICIJ put together a team of international journalists for this investigation precisely because we understood early on that the story was not only about Angola but about a global system,” said Alecci.
Dos Santos, who is the daughter of former Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos, has her fortune mapped across the world.
Luanda Leaks highlights that Dos Santos’ wealth is concentrated in Angola where she and her husband hold or have held a stake as shareholders in 81 companies.
The Luanda Leaks team included reporters, fact-checkers, data reporters, videographers, and illustrators.
“You have journalists with different expertise and background, people who are excellent at interpreting complex financial records, and others who have many sources, or are best in the field interviewing people,” Alecci said.
Alecci added that pulling together different talents through collaborative journalism gives a project a more “nuanced coverage of the topic benefit from everyone's skills”.
African media houses involved include The Namibian, Mozambique’s Jornal@Verdade, L'express Maurice from Mauritius, South Africa’s Financial Mail as well as freelance reporters from Cape Verde and Angola.
The records also allege that Dos Santos has five different financial interests in Mauritius, nine financial interests in the Netherlands, as well as thirteen financial interests and a consumer staple venture in Malta.
“Having journalists in Malta, the Netherlands, Mauritius and other so-called tax havens, helped everyone get a better picture of the nature of her business dealings, and how a web of intermediaries outside Angola helped her and her associates,” Alecci said.
While the records of Dos Santos’ supposed dealings have been made publicly available on ICIJ’s website, Dos Santos vehemently denies all the allegations made against her.
Axcel Chenney, head of multimedia and an investigative journalist at L’express Maurice who was part of the Luanda Leaks project said from his personal experience, a common “reflex” of people accused of malpractice is accusing the journalist of working for their opponents.
“They simply ignore past events where I also uncovered malpractices of previous governments who are now opponents (whom they accuse me of working for today),” he said.
As Dos Santos story continues to unravel, Reuters said Dos Santos is taking legal action against ICIJ through international law firm Schillings Partners.
"We cannot have the same common opponents. This would be crazy. Now can you imagine 120 journalists from all around the world acting as mercenaries for one common purpose? This is why Isabel dos Santos’ comment on the motive of ICIJ doesn’t stand,” Chenney said.
Joe Admitis from Montclair State University’s Centre for Cooperative Media said people and organisations are starting to take collaborative journalism seriously “as one of the best ways forward in an industry that remains racked with uncertainty and mistrust” in a Nieman Lab article
“Imagine only one Angolan journalist revealing the Luanda Leaks. Put it next to Dos Santos’ actual comments […] it would have stood better. This might sound very cliché, but it’s never been so true: United we stand,” Chenney said.
Alecci said collaborative journalism allows reporters to tackle international topics without feeling alone.
“I think collaborations (big and small) will be more and more frequent because they allow small newsrooms with little resources for investigative journalism to do in-depth reporting and benefit from partners,” she added