The Cashier of Dubai: Investigative Journalism with Impact
Moldova story leads to international legal cooperation in anti-corruption case.
An IWPR-supported investigation into the dealings of a fugitive Moldovan oligarch has prompted international collaboration on an arbitration against an illegal passport scheme.
In 2022 Black Box, the investigative journalism programme of Moldova’s independent TV8 channel, took a deep dive into the business affairs of Vladimir Plahotniuc, who left his home country in June 2019 to avoid corruption charges.
“Disinformation is the main driver of instability."
Black Box found that money continued to flow into his pockets long after he fled. Reporters acquired documents showing that Plahotniuc, currently residing in Turkey, profited from every document Moldova’s Public Services Agency (ASP) issued between 2014 and 2019. The scheme involved Garsų Pasaulis, the Lithuanian printing house that had won the public procurement for supplying the blank cards ASP uses to issue Moldovan documents, including passports. The financial circuit lead Black Box to a network of offshore companies registered in Cyprus, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
“We started looking for evidence in 2019 as there have been rumours for a long time about illegalities in the field of passports,” explained Mariana Rață, TV8’s head of investigations.
“In 2021, after the change in the political leadership [following an election win by the pro-Western party], the ASP admitted that it had detected the scheme and informed the prosecutors. To avoid prejudicing the investigation, no one from public institutions agreed to collaborate with us, but in 2022 we obtained enough data to start the journalistic investigation.”
For months, journalists followed leads, collaborated with colleagues in Bulgaria and others of the network of the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and analysed piles of documents on off-shore financial transactions.
Their work was supported IWPR’s Amplify, Verify, Engage: Information for Democratisation and Good Governance in Eurasia (AVE) project.
“We investigated very influential companies and people who employ very good lawyers; we were threatened several times that we would be sued,” continued Rață. “It did not happen, which proves that it was only a tool of pressure, but also that we were right.”
In November 2022, the investigation aired on TV8 and in January 2023 was published on IWPR’s website. It was then that it caught the eye of a lawyer in France.
“After the publication, I was contacted by a Paris-based lawyer who represents the interest of the Kyrgyz Republic in an international arbitration against Garsų Pasaulis,” explained Rață. “He was looking for additional evidence to prove that the firm applied illegal schemes to evade money in the interest of some local oligarchs in the states where the company had won tenders for passports.”
In March 2023 the French attorneys and the lawyers at Moldova’s ASP started collaborating with the aim of increasing the chances of winning a lawsuit against the firm.
The story, dubbed “The Cashier of Dubai” confirms the critical role that investigative journalism plays to hold the powerful to account, especially given the myriad challenges of Moldova’s media environment.
“Disinformation is the main drive of instability as it directly threatens information security,” emphasised Tatiana Puiu, IWPR’s media law expert in Moldova. “The political landscape is deeply polarised while the media sector is highly concentrated and dominated by outlets connected to political parties and oligarchs.”
Puiu noted that journalists investigating corruption schemes regularly face harassment and threats and were often subjected to defamation lawsuits initiated by the subjects of their investigations.
The high cost of such work also adds to its complexities, making IWPR’s support in this investigation key to its success.
“Funding for investigative journalism is precarious and it relies on grants offered by international organisations,” said Rață. “Donor support is crucial. In a country where the justice system remains weak and still being reformed, the role of watchdog largely belongs to the media and civil society.”
This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.