Black Box East: how journalism NGOs hijacked the 'Democratization of Romania'

Since the West is trying to teach democracy to the former Eastern bloc, media and journalism NGOs funded with Western money have become a job generator for white men from the Global North. Meanwhile, the precarious or unpaid jobs are reserved for Eastern Europeans. Stefan Candea, a reporter from Romania, was part of this machine – until he dared to criticize the power relations.

I was one of two white dudes in their late 20s traveling to Sierra Leone, parachuted straight from Romania, landing in the dark near Freetown, to serve a global cause. It was sometime in the late 2000s, the booming years for the globalization of non-profit cross-border investigative journalism. Our research trip was investigating the activities of a Romanian businessman setting up poisonous mining operations to the detriment of local communities. Needless to say, his operations were protected by offshore structures across the world.

Our US American self-assigned editor of our non-paid assignment, himself parachuted to Eastern Europe as part of the global evangelist US truth-teller paratroopers, focused most of the preparation work before the trip on imagined threat scenarios, instead of contacting local reporters and activists. He was following the playbook of security workshops that the media assistance industry has produced. 

A minor detail was forgotten: at that time there was no roaming available and newer types of mobile phones didn’t get service in the GSM band of Sierra Leone. A lot of security theater had been discussed with our editor involving ideas such as hiring a security detail, but the main piece of protection was resting on us sending him updates on our locations and future directions twice a day, by telephone. Only that our phones didn’t work. After more than a day or so we got local numbers and put to work my phones, the equivalent of burners today. I was carrying them with me outside the “safety plan” script. Still, I couldn’t get much from what the editor was saying when we finally connected by telephone. Neither did he. It turned out that he was using a free Skype connection which was gibberish.

Result for Objective 1 “Design Safety Plan”: check.

The security concerns and preps turned out to be a joke since we were actually on our own after we landed. Nevertheless, when we met a US expert based in Sierra Leone later that week, a high-ranking guy in the UN developing journalism programs, he expressed his wish to design together with our editor safety training programs for journalists in Mexico, since our presence there was the validation of the successful American approach. He couldn’t be bothered with the details.

Result for Objective 2 “Improve Safety”: check. 

Without a security detail, we set out deep inside Sierra Leone, heading for the diamond area in the Kono district. The only danger that I could sense was the combination between the bad quality of the roads and the speed of some cars – not very different from what I was experiencing back home.

Since not much reporting was coming out from our trip in Sierra Leone, my colleague had this urge to lecture the few local journalists or NGO activists on how to “follow the money.” This was done by way of navigating a 10.000 USD per year LexisNexis service, unavailable to local reporters, while using the poorest Internet connection and computers powered by a gasoline generator. The heroic struggle to follow the money (albeit in training mode) was interrupted from time to time by the need to refill the generator with a few bucks worth of gasoline. 

Result for Objective 3 “Improve Collaborative Investigative Efforts”: check. 

Back home in Romania, none of that research collected from Sierra Leone was ever used to produce and publish a story. Almost a year long of unpaid back-and-forth with our full-time employed editor didn’t reach a publishing format that would satisfy their mysterious (read also: unspecified) US standards. It was also decided that the liability of being sued in London was too high of a risk for such a topic, as per advice coming from US and UK lawyers paid for with media development money that was supposed to be spent to our benefit in Eastern Europe. What better protection can one get than not publishing anything and not getting paid on top of it?

There was one, I would later find out: hiding the flow of media development money coming from USAID, aimed at building up investigative journalism capacity in the Eastern European “post-communist” context, behind a Postal Box owned by a US company based in Delaware, which was basically an offshore structure.

Unknown to me at that time, our unpaid gig in Sierra Leone ended up mentioned as one of many accomplished results for the capacity building objective in a report to USAID, just because we met journalists from the country and talked to them. The very same report mentions the security “expertise” gained from our actions and how it was further discussed with journalists as far as Mexico. You can’t make up such a chain: US public money -> Delaware -> Eastern Europe -> Sierra Leone -> Mexico. 

Result for Objective 4 “Knowledge Transfer”: check. 

Many similar events happened during the 2000’s at home and abroad, close and far, involving bigger or smaller investments and farcical outcomes. I am sure a lot more leads can be found buried in the USAID archives. The sample document linked above is a great start to unpack the claims that have been the bricks at the foundation of today’s non-profit cross-border investigative journalism. Striking but unsurprising, the report makes it sound like there was really no activity in this realm in that area, no matter that, for example, our Romanian Centre for Investigative journalism was established almost a decade before that report, doing cross-border stories and had already co-established the Global Network for Investigative Journalism. Cristoforo Colombo techniques. 

Such were the beginnings of an Eastern European investigative “network” that eventually did expand to Mexico as the UN hot-shot predicted. And further on, to other parts of South America, as well as to other continents like Africa and Asia. A “network” that brands itself today as the “People’s NSA” and the “Uber or AirBnB of journalism.” You won’t read much about these beginnings because the history has been re-written and specific Eastern European contributions doctored out. If you look from the outside, all you see is a shiny Black Box.

This specific investigative network that was supposed to be active in Eastern Europe for a short while and then dissolve as soon as local investigative centers in the region gain enough strength – this network started to expand towards the global South, like to Mexico transplanting work done in Eastern Europe. At that time me and my colleagues got off. Within days a new “Romanian structure” including a website were established, with funds channeled from the international network running on US public money. We got replaced. 

Overall Goal Capacity Building: accomplished. 

Leaving aside the urge to lecture the Other on how to use US tools such as expensive databases, I reflected on the lure of parachuting myself to a distant country on a different continent for a few intensive days, instead of assigning paid collaborative work to local researchers. I realized I was starting to replicate what was done to us at home. And I realized that as a true believer in such networks I suspended all my journalistic critical skills. 

But reflecting on that trip more than a decade later I also realized how we acted as agents of an expansion of neoliberal journalism networks from the Global North.

I can see now how my role as prescribed by the US networking bureaucrats was not that of an independent journalist with deep understanding of a post-totalitarian society, but that of a good decoy, an agent and recruiter of more bodies to the collection. And how this model was used and reused in other areas all over again, as well as at a global level (just look closer at the Global Network for Investigative Journalism – another “network” me and other Eastern Europeans were tricked into helping to develop in the early 2000’s). 

It turned out that our journalistic output was just a byproduct. The main product where the interactions between ourselves and the other journalists we could further recruit into this extractive model of Atlantic journalism financed by the non-profit industry.

Processing critical realizations: work-in-progress.

We were baited – and we baited others ourselves – with some gig work, be it research or training, but never with full time work contracts. Hence, we were expendable at any time. We were baited with speaker positions at international conferences and meetings and even with the possibility to hook up with the non-profit industry by gaining some small grants and, in the course of this, ultimately starting to replicate the system. Our independent names and structures built during years of front-line investigative work were used as a badge of experience to shield the “experts” flocking to advise and manage Eastern Europeans, “experts” that had no experience in the area, did not speak the local language, etc. – most of them actually at the end of their journalistic careers. Or even worse: some had not yet even started a career in cross-border investigative journalism before turning into investigative networks trainers and bureaucrats like with this example, where “stand up comedy” stands out as a relevant experience

I wonder how many abuses such male-run hierarchies are hiding, besides the blatant racism that I experienced. I was always given the impression of receiving something as a gift, just to be accepted at the table – while in fact we gave these experts, trainers, and bureaucrats a steady income for decades, exactly the decades that entailed tens of thousands of lost jobs in the Global North journalistic industry. As an example, the salary for an investigative non-profit manager is between 100 to 250k USD per year, at the most prolific fundraising organisations like ICIJ, OCCRP or GIJN

All of the above was camouflaged behind a constant lecturing of Global North journalistic evangelists claiming to know where we, “post-communist” latecomers, should head to, the constant portraying of people in Eastern Europe as some sort of romantic savages (both the corrupt leaders and thugs as well as the brave journalists fighting them). This had a deep effect in my region on the generation of journalists who grew up behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s. We wasted our time with helping others building a career and a business model around training and managing “savages,” their ideas and their projects, around granting, awarding, and curating applications, awards, and fellowships. All of these activities slowly but steadily took over the initial idea of connecting across borders to colleagues who face similar struggles. Hierarchies were shaped, as well as dependencies and, ultimately, control.

I woke up finding myself riding a neoliberal bandwagon that was just overriding journalism and dissent around the globe. To such an extent has this model proliferated internationally, that other powers started to copy it and give it their own political spin, of course this time being critically assessed by the West’s “ethical imperialism.”

Fortunately to climb a career while riding this bandwagon is available mostly to white, usually male, English native speakers. There are only a few spots in this new nomenklatura for their agents. I say fortunately, because that means that there will be more and more people from the margins who will understand that the current non-profit cross-border investigative networks are nothing but some well worded Ponzi scheme, relying on the ever growing flood of pitches, applications, project proposals, grants, awards, fellowships, and field work that justify the existence of a bureaucratic oligarchy and a cohort of global experts, consultants and trainers. 

Unsurprisingly, such critical reflections are quickly followed by the rejection by the international cross-border journalistic power structures. When voicing criticism, my access to the global network I contributed to take shape, had been limited. No longer an invited speaker, and then not able to get to the conference circuit at all. When voicing more criticism and asking for transparency and governance rules, the entire Global List discussion group was abruptly dismantled and privatized. Starting with last year, when joining the group, participants should accept that the group is “not for ideological discussions,” which goes hand in hand with the idea that “money is best kept out of the equation” as a prerequisite for participating in cross-border investigations.

But the scariest realization of how far-reaching this uncritical brainwashing has become is how we end up putting ourselves in positions of dependency. When starting a project to document underreported stories from around the Black Sea, we, as sole Romanian initiators, chose to start the journalistic website in the English language. Which made us dependent both on native speakers to be our editors, as well as international donors to fund us.

Closing the loop and starting over: done and done.

These reflections should contribute to Black Box East by shedding light on the underlying reasons of how three decades and hundreds of millions of media assistance money actually accomplished nothing in the “post-communist” space of Eastern Europe. Looking at the far-right and the authoritarian leaders growing stronger, it surely looks like democracy was not transplanted as promised and expected. Neither are any real and strong independent journalistic institutions in the real world (read also: outside the paperwork) created within the bubbles of the media assistance industry. No real solidarity exists between independent groups of journalists, the vast majority being burned out by writing applications to be permitted to do some gig work or newsletters for crowdfunding campaigns. 

Similarly, no solidarity exists between journalists and Eastern European people struggling at the margins, at home or abroad. This was to be expected, because the real audience for the non-profit media are not people. People are just data points for KPIs in some spreadsheet that feeds into a version of the Logical Framework Approach. On the other hand, journalists or not, the people from Eastern Europe do feed the neoliberal machinery of globalization as cheap outsourced workers, working on fields or behind computer screens.

But there is inspiration on the horizon. And it’s coming from Mexico, towards where I’ve assisted the non-profit cross-border journalism from Eastern European laboratories to expand. After decades of struggles initiated by the fight against globalized neoliberalism, a Caravana Zapatista left Mexico for a journey to Europe. They are an inspiration on how to turn the tables while connecting to the struggles of others.

After decades of globalized neoliberalism in cross-border journalism, we just need to tell our own stories and listen to other people’s stories exposing the insides of the Global North mainstream narrative about this field. Had it been inspired by such stories, my trip to Sierra Leone would have been organized in such a different way, if at all. Be sure there will be no funding for such dissent. There will be a lot of resistance against it instead. The Global North nomenklatura should take a step back, but thinking that they will do so by themselves overnight would be naive. 

When starting to critically document this field for an academic output, I got word that as far as the main investigative networks bosses are concerned, I’m on everybody’s shit list. Proud to be there! You’ll find me in that same place in case you think we should join our stories.

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This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s BLACK BOX EAST text series; its German translation is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more texts, artworks, and conference information on the English-language BLACK BOX EAST website. Have a look here: https://blackboxeast.berlinergazette.de

Stefan Candea
Candea is an award-winning investigative journalist from Romania, specialized in covering organized crime, now currently the coordinator of European Investigative Collaborations (EIC), which he co-founded in 2015. EIC investigations have covered, among others, the murky financial transactions in the world of European professional football, how Malta works as a pirate base for tax avoidance inside the EU, and the secret dealings of the International Criminal Court. Recently, while looking for a way to lower the barrier to investigative collaborations, he founded Liquid Investigations. During the last two decades Candea participated in co-founding the Global Investigative Journalism Network and helped kickstart several nonprofit ventures related to in-depth journalism (CRJI and The Black Sea) and technology (Sponge Lab) – thus contributing to building a backbone for investigative-related journalism initiatives that stretch across Europe and beyond. As a long-time member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), he managed the Eastern Europe research into the Offshore Leaks project, which in 2012 was the first large cross-border investigative reporting collaboration in history. He did his PhD on “Cross-border Investigative Journalism” at the University of Westminster, Westminster School of Media and Communication.

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