How It’s Made: Overseas Investigations

In the fall of 2010, students from the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism started what became a yearlong investigation into the multi-billion dollar deals of The China International Fund (CIF), a Hong Kong-based company with investments in African oil, diamonds and minerals.

Published on the cover of the Chinese business magazine Caixin and by iWatch News, the story details how CIF’s network of more than 64 companies struck opaque deals with African leaders such as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Eduardo dos Santos in Angola.  They followed CIF to Guinea, where the company is connected to the country’s former military regime.  

In addition to analyzing international oil sales, locating public documents in foreign countries, and finding sources overseas, two students went to Guinea to investigate CIF’s investments on the ground.

Below, the four reporters describe their methods.

[expand title=”Understanding the World of Oil Sales – Himanshu Ojha” trigclass=”contentLink”]
Oil trading is as complex as it is lucrative, and comes in many forms—only some of which actually involve the sale of oil for cash. We knew that CIF’s sister company, China Sonangol, was purchasing Angolan oil and selling to the Chinese national oil company Sinopec. After some digging, we decided that we wanted to focus on Angolan crude oil exports to China. But first we had to find the data.

The US Energy Information Administration’s website offered a brief, accessible introduction to the energy industry, with separate pages for major oil producers and consumers.

For specifics, we went to Comtrade –  a free website that tracks the import and export data of commodities. It’s a complicated, Internet Explorer-specific interface, so it takes some fiddling. To use it you need to know four things:

  1. The code of the commodity that you’re researching.  In our case this was HS2709 – crude oil from petroleum.
  2. The country reporting the statistic.  For us this was China’s import figures sourced from its customs office.
  3. The “partner” – i.e. the other country. Angola in our case.
  4. The time frame.  Comtrade provides annual data, which we searched starting in 2003 – when the first CIF-related company was incorporated.

Using Comtrade’s shortcut query, we were able to generate figures showing the annual dollar value of Chinese imports of crude oil from Angola.

For monthly figures, we went to TradeMap.  Though it is a pay service, they do offer a trial version. They also often provide their services free to NGOs.

Though we would have liked to look at Angolan exports to China to see if they matched the Chinese import data, Comtrade does not hold export figures from Angola, and oil export figures from Angola’s government were too aggregated for our purposes.

The data that we got from Comtrade gave us some context for China Sonangol’s oil sales to China.  Whenever we found specific information regarding a sale, we were able to estimate what percentage it represented of the overall oil trade between Angola and China.
[/expand] [expand title=”Finding Public Documents in Foreign Countries – Beth Morrissey” trigclass=”contentLink”]
When we started researching CIF, we pulled together all the news articles, NGO reports, and government research we could find.  After combing through these documents we had dozens of names of companies and people connected to CIF, but we knew very little about each company and person.  For the companies, we wanted to know about their directors and how long they had been incorporated.  For the people, we wanted to know about their previous work experience and what role they performed for CIF.

Step 1: Finding Hong Kong Pubic Records
Because both public and private companies are required to keep their records on file with Hong Kong’s corporate registry, we started by searching that database for the names of every company we knew was connected to CIF.  This gave us a the names of directors, the address, and the date of incorporation for each company.

We were also interested in court records related to CIF-connected companies and people, but Hong Kong does not have a public online database of court records.  Instead we found a pay-for-use database called D-Law, which has a large cache of Hong Kong corporate records. We used D-Law to check the court records for the name of every person and company connected to CIF.

Step 2: Cross Referencing
To make sure we weren’t missing anything, we then compared information we found in the court records and the corporate registry.  For example, if a court record mentioned the name of a new person, we would then run his or her name through the corporate registry.  If that person was the director of any Hong Kong companies, we’d also run the company names through the D-Law database.

Finally, we took all of the addresses listed in the corporate registry and court records and ran them through Hong Kong’s land registry to find out who owned the buildings mentioned in the documents.

Step 3: Filling in the Gaps
Not all of the CIF-related companies were in the Hong Kong corporate registry, however, so we knew that they had to be incorporated in other countries.

We used the Investigative Dashboard to locate the corporate registries of places like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.   When our other research didn’t indicate the location of a company, we used trial and error, running the names of CIF-related companies and people through the corporate registries of likely countries to see if we could find any documents.

Step 4: Keeping Track of It All
We used Document Cloud to keep track of our documents and share them with the members of our team.  Document Cloud is online service that allows you to upload PDFs, JPEGs, and other documents and share them with other people who have an account.  It also converts all uploaded documents to text, making them searchable. Though Document Cloud accounts are only available upon request, services like Evernote, Scribd, and Dropbox perform similar functions.

[expand title=”Finding Sources Overseas – Laura Rena Murray” trigclass=”contentLink”]

One way of digging up information about a company is by contacting their competitors.  As part of my research, I went looking for the CEO of a company that was competing with CIF.

After calling the company’s main office several times, however, it became clear that no one intended to speak with the press nor would they pass along my messages.  After calling several of his former offices and companies looking for information, I realized that the CEO was better known by his middle name.

Doing a search using his middle name, I was able to find and confirm his family residence in the US, which ultimately led me to his private consulting firm.  When I called, the phone rang through to voicemail, but the message included his London cell phone number.  I used Skype  to call his London number and he immediately answered.

Another way to find sources is to identify shareholders or directors who are particularly active in your target company.  CIF has a director who held high-ranking positions in state-owned companies. I had more luck getting him on the phone, in part because he was harder to track down and had not been contacted yet by other reporters.

Finally, when looking for information about foreign companies or individuals, search in the native language of your sources; the same goes for email communication.  Web searches for the CIF directors and their companies yielded skimpy results in English. By using Chinese characters to search for information, I was able to track down a lot more background information and up-to-date contact details.  In this situation, Google Translate is your friend. Do not rely on it when writing emails, however. Find a native speaker to help, and then use Google Translate to decipher the replies.

[expand title=”How to Plan a Trip Overseas – Patrick Martin-Ménard” trigclass=”contentLink”]
When investigating another country, there is only so much one can do over the phone or online.  Visiting a place, even for just a few days, can make a significant difference in the documents you obtain and the information your sources may be willing to give you.

That is not to say, however, that you should simply jump on a plane and go on a “fishing” trip.  Careful advance planning is required to make sure that the time and resources you invest have a good chance of yielding results.

Contact sources long in advance
You want to know what you’re doing and who you’re going to be talking to before you arrive.  Otherwise, you’ll be wasting valuable time on the ground looking for sources.

Find a Fixer
A fixer is someone who helps you with the logistics of the trip and works with you on the ground, helping you make contact with sources and organizing travel arrangements.  Fixer fees vary greatly from place to place, in part depending on the level of danger and difficulty involved.  You’ll also want to hirer a driver, so you don’t have to negotiate the local roads on your own. In your negotiations with your fixer and your driver, make sure that they will be with you at all times during the day for the duration of the trip. Be sure to establish specific working hours and dispositions for extra time. For good fixer and driver recommendations, contact foreign correspondents who have worked in the area.

Stay Safe
This may seem obvious, but it’s important to think about your own safety above all.  Make sure you are aware of the risks associated with the subject you’re investigating well in advance.  Sensitivities differ from place to place, and you don’t want to jeopardize your story or yourself by discussing controversial issues too openly.