Marine Madatyan

''It’s much better to have a million people give you one dollar, than one rich organization giving you a million,'' says ICIJ's Marina Walker-Guevara

An interview with International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) Deputy Director Marina Walker-Guevara.

The ICIJ  recently published The Paradise Papers, a set of 13.4 million confidential electronic documents relating to offshore investments that were leaked to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. The newspaper shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and a network of more than 380 journalists.

The interview with Marina Walker-Guevara was conducted during the Global Investigative Journalism Conference, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Marina Walker was a speaker at several conference panels.

A native of Argentina, Walker Guevara’s investigations have won or shared more than 40 national and international journalism awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting and Honors from Long Island University’s George Polk Awards, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Overseas Press Club, Bartlett and Steele Awards, and Columbia University’s Maria Moors Cabot Award for Distinguished Latin American Reporting (special citation).

- Marina, I have noticed that the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has recently started crowdfunding, and you also regularly email your readers to support ICIJ. Does this model of self-financing work for you?

- The majority of our funding still comes from foundations and from a few wealthy individuals, but mostly from foundations, traditional foundations like the Ford foundation, OSF-Open Society foundation, etc. But we are increasingly trying to create a membership model, where we can fundraise from just regular citiizens, who value our work. It’s a much better model for us, and even though we are very independent from our funders, but it’s much better to have a million people give you one dollar than one rich organization give you a million dollars.

- And do people, I mean ordinary readers, financially support you?

- Yes, ordinary people are contributing. For example, in the first few days of the Panama Papers, we raised something like $30,000. Those are like a lot of new individual donors, that before had never contributed to ICIJ and now they have contributed, even if they have contributed five dollars, ten dollars, fifty dollars… These are people that are likely to come back and maybe fund us again and give another donation. We are trying to make relationships with them. Sometimes, if we have a trip to New York, we would look at the database and see whoever the donors in New York are, and sometimes we will go and meet them. We would call somebody, not necessarily the ones who have donated the most money, but somebody who donated two or three hundred dollars. We would say welcome to New York, would you like to meet, to have coffee? We would like to tell you more about the ICIJ. We are connecting with those.

- And what percentage of your funding comes from ordinary people?

- Oh, I think at this point we just have started, and so it’s probably like maybe 5%. We have some individuals who are wealthy, who have donated significant amounts of money. So, if you count the wealthy, what is called high-net-worth individuals, then you know 12-15%. But if we count just small donations, it would be like 5%, so we are working on that.

- After making such a large contribution, don ‘t the high-net worth donors try to influence your work?

- No, when they donate to ICIJ they know from the beginning that they will have no access to any knowledge. They are not allowed to influence anybody, we don’t talk to them about stories. We don’t accept any donation that are directed to something. We only accept donations that we call “general support”. Basically, money that we can use however we see fit. So, no individual comes to us and says, I will give you money to investigate this hospital in Chicago. If somebody says that, we decline the money. We just say thank you very much, we appreciate that you like ICIJ, but we are not for hire, so if you want to contribute to us, you just give us money and we will use it the way we see fit. We’re really transparent in our website, in our stories, in everything about how we spend our money.

- Are business corporations interested in your activity?  Do they support you, besides the foundations?

- No, we are not seeking their support that much. I’m not calling Coca Cola to get their money. These are the companies that we are investigating, so why do I want to create a conflict of interest. We are trying to improve our business following, and maybe there are companies that is possible to get their sponsorship for training, for travel, for other things. But so far, we don’t have any private corporations giving us money. What we do sometimes is we accept in-kind contributions, for example there is a private company that creates a software that we use for our investigations. And they allow us that software for free, and recently they have funded a fellowship for a technologist to come and work in our team to improve our reporting, our data analysis. So that would be an example of a corporation who is giving us an in-kind contribution without any influence on our work.

- Does the support of ordinary readers grow after prominent investigations like the Panama Papers or Paradise Papers?

- Yes. We always see an increase in contributions from ordinary citizens. After Panama Papers it was very noticeable, now it’s again very obvious with the Paradise Papers. And we see people that are also doing very cool things, like they donate and then they even tweet, “I just donated to ICIJ, because I believe in their work, follow my example”, whatever… So you know they share, they are proud you know, these people they feel so disconnected from their elected officials in their communities, they feel like they contrast anybody, and they feel that some media organizations like ICIJ give them hope. We take every contribution very seriously, sometimes I think why do even people bother to go on PayPal and do all the stuff for a dollar, but those are the most valuable ones, these must be some teachers, some bus drivers, who literally can only contribute a dollar.

- Do GIJN conferences help ICIJ widen its network?

- They are really important, because people here are like four times as big as our partnerships, so we are always finding new partners, learning from others, being invited to join our projects, we never miss this conference, because it’s really important, a lot of collaborations happen.

- Marina, are the leaks you have published legal?  If not, how do you avoid prosecution?

- We have always been passive recipients of leaks that come to us. Our journalistic responsibility is to never cross that line of breaking any law to obtain any information. We are passive recepients, and the information is in the public interest. It's not for us to judge or investigate how the information was obtained. Most of these disclosures came from people who share data they shouldn't have shared probably, but they did it for a bigger cause, for the public interest.

- So, law enforcement has never been interested in where you’ve got the information? Do they have the right to approach you and demand that you reveal your sources?

- No, because they know that we are protected by the First Amendment in the US, and other laws around the world. I think they also know that we are not the ones going and obtaining anything, that we are a trusted organization to which whistle blowers are coming. And it would be completely wrong to focus on ICIJ.

And the issues we are reporting of, about national security, I think there might be some provisions that if we are reporting something that is of national security where they can try to take us to court …. But this is the extreme situation. I can say in 99% of the cases nobody has the right to come and force you to reveal your source.

- And how does that First Amendment protect you?

- The First Amendment is the constitutional protection that journalists have in the United States, that allows you to publish information that is in the public interest and to generally conduct their reporting in a safe environment. You are protected as long as you have not broken any laws or crossed any line that you should not have to cross.

- And what is that line?

- It's breaking the law. It's like if I go and hack somebody.

- And if somebody gives you the information, it's ok?

Yes, if you are a passive recepient, it’s like a Watergate. In the old days, sources were talking to you in the garage, in the parking garage and perhaps give you information, documents, and now it’s large disclosures of digital data given in different ways electronically, because nobody goes to meet you in the parking garage. So, it’s the same as Watergate, only that it’s via technology.

- Were there any cases when you suspended your cooperation with any media organization in the world, and if yes, what were the reasons?

- I don’t think we have ever suspended cooperation during the course of an investigation, because that would create a liability. But, what we have done is we have not worked again after we published the project; we have not come back to that partner. One reason is they didn’t share their findings. They had access the data and the documents, but the requirement is you don’t get access and then go to your corner and don’t tell anybody what you found in Armenia.

The responsibility is that you go back in the platforms we provide, and you share your findings and your reporting and research. If the partners do that systematically then why are we even cooperating with that partner. We try to train partners and give them an opportunity, and in 98 % of the cases we go back to them, they are great partners, and there are few cases in which we change because the journalists or media organizations are not ready to play high level and it’s riskier than rewarding to work with them.

- And my last question. How can journalists or media organizations cooperate with the ICIJ? Do you have to be a member?

- If ICIJ has official members of the network, you don’t need to be a member to work with us. All we say is you need to be a trustworthy and an established reporter. If you have a great story or if you found something in the public offshore leaks database and you want to try to continue to follow the money and get access to the documents we have, you can come to us. And if you have a legitimate story, and you are a journalist who is also a good team player then we will be likely to want to work again. They can also e-mail data@icij.org, they can go to our website and find phone numbers and other e-mails and get in touch with us.