Does the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) really belong on Hack List 2017: No — and very most definitely, yes.
Let me explain.
ICIJ does good journalism and Jesse Drucker of the New York Times, who has teamed up with it, is one of the best journalists in the world.
Putting that (and Jesse) aside, how hard is it to take big donations from interested parties and publish leaked and hacked materials disguised as news (that benefits interested parties), all to great acclaim, including winning a Pulitzer Prize?
Answer: Not hard at all, and that’s what ICIJ does. And what’s worse, ICIJ’s stories are almost always boring. If you’re going to write about money laundering and offshore companies, for example, you have to sex it up. ICIJ manages to take these topics, which actually are interesting, and give them a bad name. To say that reading its work is like watching paint dry is unfair to drying paint.
Here’s another reason ICIJ richly merits inclusion on Hack List 2017. Journalists don’t like to examine each other, or their organs, and especially virtuous journalism non-profit organs like ICIJ and, to name just three more, Center for Public Integrity,InsideClimate News, and ProPublica, another Pulitzer Prize (PP) winner. They like to imagine and pretend that journalists and their employers are angelic virgins, which is about as believable as the Immaculate Conception.
(Disclosure: Washington Babylon is a for-profit corporation. We are neither virtuous nor virginic, nor profitable for that matter. So fuck that bullshit. Speaking of ProPublica, those are very well paid virgins. And, yes, I’d obviously pay myself the same amount if I could, but I expect the quality and quantity of my work would decline. Furthermore, I’ve been paid by an assortment of non-profits in the past, most recently Global Witness, which receives money from the oligarch George Soros.)
So, sure, ICIJ (et al) periodically produces decent journalism, but remarkably little given its resources. And much of what it does do involves publishing hacked materials. I have nothing against that in principle but let’s be honest, hacked material is typically obtained illegally by rich people or, more commonly, their minions. When journalists publish it, the tainted origins are obscured but the information is almost always released with a business purpose in mind.
“Hacking and leaking have now become industries,” Philippe Vasset, co-author of a new book on the topic, recently told me. “ICIJ is a big player in the leak farm field, along with other journalism enterprises, activists, blackmailers, corporations and intelligence agencies.”
Let’s step back for a moment.
A recent Vice News piece on HBO basically depicted ICIJ as a group of courageous crusaders fighting against the big, corrupt establishment under daunting odds. Except that ICIJ seems to be anything but a shoestring do-gooder organization, based on their slick website and lavish funding from pauper George Soros and other high rollers. Their media partners aren’t hurting for cash either: BBC, New York Times, Guardian and Asahi Shimbun, plus a long list of other outfits that don’t appear destitute.
In terms of its funders, what exactly is the Adessium Foundation? According to its website, it is “a private and independent grant making foundation, based in the Netherlands…Under long-term agreements Adessium Foundation periodically receives a donation from an affiliated foundation.”
Huh? And who, pray tells, funds that “affiliated foundation”? Adessium appears to be a discreet funding conduit for other outfits.
ICIJ’s other donors include Open Society Foundations — meaning George Soros — Ford Foundation and the ghastly Omidyar Network, the chief financier of The Intercept. The whole thing sort of stinks of Establishment hit pieces, not “citizen action” and “investigative journalism.”
The Soros money — plus suspected indirect cash from mega-oligarch William Browder, the main promoter of the RussiaGate conspiracy — may explain ICIJ’s obsession with Vladimir Putin, the superstar of its Pulitzer Prize-winning Panama Papers stories, which were dictated from hacked, stolen materials.
(Disclosure: I exposed Mossack Fonseca — the sleazy law firm for oligarchs and dictators, whose files were hacked and delivered to ICIJ — a year before ICIJ, in a story for VICE. I worked on that story for over a year, and traveled to Panama and Las Vegas in doing so. You can read about it here in a VICE story titled, “The Journalist Who Blew the Whistle on Mossack Fonseca 18 Months Before the Panama Papers.“)
It’s curious that ICIJ’s Pulitzer-winning series featured Putin so many timesgiven that Putin didn’t even have an offshore account with Mossack Fonseca. It’s also curious that so few Americans were exposed by ICIJ.
It’s even more curious that ICIJ didn’t report much on Browder, the former American turned Irish citizen, apparently for tax purposes, who has used plenty of offshore accounts to lighten his fiscal load. Browder — who was recently exposed in this story by 100Reporters — was for Putin, when he was raking in vast profits from his Moscow-based Hermitage Capital Management holding company, before he was against him, when he was accused by Putin of tax fraud. (Putin is a tyrant but he is, incidentally, right to be suspicious of journalists and NGOs, which he rightly views as agents of regime change.)
Browder is just one of many ICIJ donors to utilize offshore vehicles. In fact, according to 100Reporters, Hermitage Capital Management “was built on corporate registrations authored by the Mossack Fonseca law firm.”
ICIJ exposed Mossack Fonseca’s leaked emails and records, including paperwork that names Browder, but, as noted above, had surprisingly little to say about him. Indeed, it portrays him as a hero, highlighting his advocacy on behalf of his corporate accountant Segei Magnitsky — handily misidentified by ICIJ’s Pulitzer-winning reporter as a lawyer — who died in prison.
Compare this excerpt from the 100Reporters story:
A 100Reporters investigation, published in 2014, illustrated how Russian titanium company, Avisma, in which Browder was an investor, used an Isle of Man shell company to “buy” titanium at fake low prices and sell it abroad at higher market prices, cheating both minority share-holders and Russian tax authorities. A lawsuit showed Browder knew that was the business plan.
According to corporate documents, Browder’s holding company, Hermitage Capital Management, was built on corporate registrations authored by the Mossack Fonseca law firm. That firm is the source of more than one million documents made public by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in its Panama Papers investigation, involving assets hidden through the use of shell companies and secret offshore accounts. Its disclosures have led to resignations by government officials worldwide, criminal investigations and charges of corruption against bureaucrats and business leaders.
Mossack Fonseca set up two companies in the British Virgin Islands, Berkeley Advisors and Starcliff, to hold shares in Hermitage. The Browder family home in Princeton, New Jersey, is registered by a Mossack Fonseca shell, Pepperdine Holdings Ltd. Browder’s $11-million vacation home in Aspen is also “owned” by a shell registered in an agent’s name. The US taxes offshore earnings. In 1998, Browder traded his US citizenship for one in the UK, which does not.
With this hand job from ICIJ:
Hermitage’s London-based chief Bill Browder devoted himself to pursuing those he holds responsible for the original crime and Magnitsky’s death. In English and Russian website campaigns, Browder has presented evidence that he says proves the tax heist was an inside job.
The case has become one of the biggest headaches faced by Russia’s government because it is said to have the potential implicate many of those in authority. A recent commission, appointed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, found that police fabricated charges against Magnitsky.
My guess is that 100Reporters won’t be winning a Pulitzer any time soon. And I guess it isn’t fair to pick on poor little ‘ol ICIJ, when a simple Google search reveals that everyone from Vox to GQ has blown Browder.
Oh yeah, did I mention that Browder is suspected of funding the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a partner of ICIJ? And that the much-praised OCCRP has written extensively about Browder, in the most fawning terms imaginable, without disclosing that suspected funding?
Give me a fucking Pulitzer.