The EU border agency Frontex has the largest budget of any EU agency. “We don’t meet with lobbyists,” they claim – an investigative team proved them wrong. Hear how to find your own story in their data.

If a public institution is reluctant to share information with the public, how can we use our right to file freedom of information (FOI) requests to obtain documents from them – and push them towards more transparency? Luisa Izuzquiza, researcher and campaigner with FragDenStaat, and Vera Deleja-Hotko, investigative journalist, will share with us how they used FOIs to build the first lobbying transparency register of Frontex.

This happens on the very first day of Dataharvest 2021, Tuesday, May 18, at 11am.

See the full Dataharvest program and buy your ticket

“Frontex is the golden standard of opacity,” says Luisa Izuzquiza.

Among journalists and researchers, Frontex has the reputation of being a secretive institution, from which it is difficult to get information and documents.

“EU institutions are not FOI user friendly, but Frontex is the golden standard of opacity. It is remarkable how difficult they make it to request information,” explains Luisa Izuzquiza.

For instance, the agency will usually ask repeatedly for a request to be narrowed down, will then ask you to pay for the documents, might require multiple clarifications while using “scary bureaucratic language,” and will, basically, stall you for as long as they can.

In June 2020, Izuzquiza, Deleja-Hotko and a couple of their colleagues decided to start researching Frontex.

“When we published, we got 1,8 million hits in the first 5 minutes, and our website crashed,” says Vera Deleja-Hotko.

“We thought it was weird that the EU border was being surveilled with military technology. But we weren’t searching to get the answer we eventually got. We initially didn’t know what we were expecting to find. Everything happened organically,” explains Deleja-Hotko.

The European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, does not meet with lobbyists from the weapons and surveillance industry. Or that is what they repeatedly claimed. On its website, Frontex includes only partial information about invitations to their meetings and does not reveal who was invited or what was presented. The team has revealed that Frontex holds special events for security industry lobbyists who seek to promote “solutions based on techno-fixes, from biometric surveillance to firepower.” The same lobbyists seek to shape Frontex’s approach to border control and benefit from the contracts.

In 2020 Frontex was granted a €5.6 billion budget, the largest of any EU agency. They have an army of 10,000 border guards; they got an extension of its powers and mandate, and the ability to acquire and lease its own equipment (vessels, vehicles, airplanes, drones, radars etc.).

The research team, of which Izuzquiza was part, requested the documents and analysed them; the journalistic team, of which Deleja-Hotko was part, analysed the documents and looked for the story in them.

“We used small bits of information to make people interested. And people were interested! When we published the story, we got 1,8 million hits in the first 5 minutes, and our website crashed…,” Deleja-Hotko says.

Izuzquiza and Deleja-Hotko’s team published the original documents in their entirety. They say that there are more stories to discover and delve into in the data they made available. Join the presentation – and maybe find your next big story!

See Corporate Europe Observatory Lobbying Fortress Europe report

See Frontex Files (ZDF)

 

INSTANT INSPIRATION is a new concept at Dataharvest 2021 – an investigation that you can use for inspiration or just plainly copy in your own country. First, we follow the journeys that our clothes make – both the used clothes donated to charity and the clothes bought online and then returned to the vendors. Finnish reporters Minna Knus-Galán and Jessica Stolzmann followed the clothes with hidden gps trackers, and their findings were not pretty.

Minna Knus-Galán checking used clothed that go into a secretive global business. Photo: Jouni Soikkeli

Minna Knus-Galán tracked 6 pieces of used clothes, given to charity organisations, presumably with the expectation of helping the poor or recycling textile to new material. Most of the clothes were worn out, even ragged. All 6 pieces went abroad from Finland, and as the trackers beeped away, the reporters proved that we outsource a waste problem to Africa and Asia, and that used clothes are a secretive, global business.

The final destination of our used clothes is not known to experts or even the charity organisations themselves. 

“Oops! That didn’t go according to our script”, the director of Fida, one of the biggest charity organisation in Finland commented. “Our clothes are supposed to stay in Europe. I’m really sorry the sweater went all the way to Nigeria.” 

After the publication, Fida terminated its agreement with some of its partners in Europe in order to secure that the clothes don’t travel outside Europe.   

Too big, too small, wrong colour – Jessica Stolzmann checked where returned clothes from online stores end up.

Jessica Stolzmann followed what happens to the clothes that we buy online and send back. Online shopping has increased during the pandemic and so has serial returners, people who buy items and then return them. The reporters used trackers to find out that many of our returned clothes travel many extra miles to countries like Estonia where a large industry has been built up to handle and repack returned clothes.

Sometimes the clothes cannot be sold again, and the reporters could follow the returned clothes to Iraq where they were sold or ended up in a garbage dump – again exporting the European waste problem to other parts of the world.

What did the reporters learn? Which conclusions could they draw, and what happened afterwards? And how can you use their ideas and experiences for your own investigations? This is what Instant Inspiration is all about! Come and meet Minna Knus-Galán and Jessica Stolzmann in the very first on Wednesday May 19 at 17 pm CET.

See Jessica Stolzmann’s web story (in Swedish, but easy to understand by following the pictures)

See Minna Knus-Galán’s tv program (English subtitles can be activated)

Buy your ticket for Dataharvest – the European Investigative Journalism conference

Robots write articles, select news, edit pictures. They research, they personalize our front pages and target them to the individual. How can we put robots – or artificial intelligence – to the best use and make sure that our ethical standards in journalism are still respected and maintained?

Andreas Marckmann Andreassen

Danish digital journalist Andreas Marckmann Andreassen has spent a year researching this, and his book “How automatization will change the media” hits the streets on September 14. It also hits the mail service, because it is considered so important that the Danish media industry funds that it will be distributed to all of 18,000 members of the Danish Journalists’ Union.

The book builds on Andreas’ international research and travel, including more than 70 interviews with media people, scholars and technologists – from New York Times to local media houses. An English version of the book will be published in 2021.

At Dataharvest Digital, Andreas will share his 9 principles for ethical automation. How do we safeguard journalistic ethics in automated journalism? How do we ensure transparency and avoid bias, how do we secure checks and balances in the system, and how do we take responsibility when it fails? Who needs to understand the system – and what about privacy?

Charlie Beckett

We are also proud to announce that the moderator of the session is professor Charlie Beckett of London School of Economics, founding director of Polis, the think-tank for research and debate around international journalism and society in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE.

The data journalism weeks begins on September 29 – register for Dataharvest Digital here! We open on Tuesday September 1!

The laws on access to information, often called FOI (Freedom of Information) for short, are some of our most important tools as investigative journalists. Following the paper trails is an art in itself, and many important investigations have reached their results through systematic – and creative – use of FOI. We have several sessions that give you tips and tricks during the conference. Among others, you can meet French Stéphane Horel from Le Monde, Swedish freelancer Read more

At Dataharvest 2020 there will be 3 full tracks of data skills training – from the basics to the super nerdy. One of the trainers is Adriana Homolova, Slovak living in the Netherlands and working freelance and for the OCCRP. Here is what she told us:

Read more

At Dataharvest we have three full tracks of data skills training with great trainers from all over Europe. Meet one of them – Jonathan Stoneman, freelance data and journalism trainer, “based in the UK, but a European at heart”:

What are you going to teach at Dataharvest?

This year I am teaching R with my good friend Luuk Sengers. Together we have come up with a method of teaching people how to get to grips with R’s “Tidyverse” suite of packages and leaves them with the capacity to go on learning after they leave the classroom. Read more

Brigitte Alfter received the Carsten Nielsen Prize from the chairman of the Danish Union of Journalists, Lars Werge. The prize consists of a small statue and an sum of money. Photo: Jonas Ahlstrøm

Sunday April 28 was our director Brigitte Alfter’s birthday. But that was not the only reason for her being happy. She had been told to go in secret to the congress of the Danish Union of Journalists to receive the prestigious Carsten Nielsen prize.

After the congress dinner, the union chairman, Lars Werge, went on stage to announce the surprise to the 400 delegates to the assembly. They welcomed Brigitte onto the stage with the birthday song.

Here is Lars Werge’s speech to Brigitte Alfter:

Dear Brigitte,
Congratulations on the award. And thank you for your contribution to the professional strengthening of Danish journalism and for your consistent work to promote journalistic cooperation.

You were nominated to receive the prize by a group of colleagues who among other things write:

“Brigitte Alfter is a freelancer, she is an award-winning cross-border and data journalist, and she is the epitome of collaboration and journalistic community.

She works in the area of European politics, which others may be reluctant to enter because it is such a complicated issue.

Brigitte has been central to many European journalists working together across borders today. For example, she has been:

  • Committed to SCOOP since 2005 – SCOOP supports, through the Danish Association for Investigative Journalism (FUJ), investigative journalists in Eastern Europe
  • co-founder of the annual European Conference on Data and Investigative Journalists – EIJC & Dataharvest. Brigitte developed it, and in eight years it has grown from 30 to 500 participants from about 50 countries
  • co-founder of Journalismfund.eu, which provides funding for research for groups of investigative crossborder journalists. For this, in 2013 she got the Leipzig Prize for the Freedom and the Future of the Media
  • co-founder of Wobbing Europe, a network of journalists working for public access to EU and national administrations

This year’s Cavling prize (the annual Danish Press Prize) went to the money laundering case in Danske Bank – a work that would not be possible without collaborating across borders, the kind of collaboration that Brigitte is helping to develop.

That’s why we recommend that this year’s Carsten Nielsen scholarship goes to Brigitte Alfter.”

The award is named after Carsten Nielsen, who was the first chairman of the Danish Union of Journalists.

Journalist Eva Jung from Danish newspaper Berlingske will open this year’s EIJC & Dataharvest with a keynote on how she and two colleagues uncovered one of history’s biggest money laundering cases.

Read more