2023 Winner (joint)

Border Outrage: Uncovering the truth about deaths in Melilla

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: Netherlands

Publishing organisation: El Pais, Lighthouse Reports, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, Enass, The Independent

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-11-29

Language: English, French, Spanish, German, Arabic

Authors: Jack Sapoch, Beatriz Ramalho da Silva, Bashar Deeb, Maud Jullien, Klaas van Dijken Arthur Weil-Rabaud, Aziz Alnour, Alison Killing, Javier Bauluz, José Bautista, Javier Bernardo, Maud Jullien, Salaheddine Lemaizi, Steffen Lüdke, María Martín, Georgia Bempelou, Stefanos Bertakis, Javier G. Angosto, porCausa


This collaboration was initiated by Lighthouse Reports. Lighthouse Reports is a non-profit based in the Netherlands that leads complex transnational investigations blending traditional journalistic methods such as freedom of information requests with emerging techniques like open source intelligence and specialisms like data science.

Our collaborative newsrooms pioneer new formats and pay particular attention to fresh ways of framing complex issues that will capture public attention and challenge misconceptions. We believe investigative journalism helps people navigate complexity, so we create spaces to make this happen.

Prize committee’s comments:

The Prize Committee jointly recognized two entries on the same topic, and with overlapping partners, for their groundbreaking investigation into the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers and migrants attempting to enter Europe.

The teams comprised Lighthouse Reports and its partners, El País, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, SRF Rundschau, and Republik.

In the first entry “Border Outrage: Uncovering the truth about deaths in Melilla“, the team used advanced visual investigation techniques to reveal the tragic events that led to the deaths of 23 people and the disappearance of 77 others at the border post in Melilla, Spain. The investigation’s impact was significant, resulting in extensive questioning of the interior minister in Parliament and follow-up reporting that confirmed the deaths on the Spanish side. This story sheds light on the challenges that asylum seekers and migrants face when seeking protection in Europe.

In the second entry “Frontex Involved in Illegal Pushbacks of Hundreds of Refugees“, the team obtained the internal Joint Operations Reporting Application (JORA) database via a Freedom of Information Request and conducted a data-driven investigation that confirmed Frontex’s involvement in 22 pushbacks concerning 957 people. This investigation was remarkable in its combination of data mining, cross-referencing, and visual evidence to expose the secret agency’s illegal activities. The investigation led to the resignation of Fabrice Leggeri, Executive Director of Frontex, the day after the publication, as the evidence presented was damning.

These projects are a testament to the importance of collaborative, data-driven investigative journalism in exposing abuses of power and holding those in authority accountable. The Lighthouse Reports and partners’ outstanding work showcases the potential for journalism to make a real difference in the world, even in the face of threats and challenges.

Project description:

On June 24 2022, at least 23 people died and 77 remain missing after a group of African asylum seekers attempted to enter a border post in Melilla, a Spanish exclave on the coast of North Africa. Despite the appalling death toll,
serious questions remain unanswered by Spain and Morocco over what happened. Lighthouse Reports and partners El País, Le Monde and Der Spiegel undertook the most advanced visual investigation to date to establish what happened at the border post and how an attempt to seek protection in
Europe led so many people to a violent death.

Impact reached:

Our report, published initially in El Pais in Spain, was which featured made headlines in the entire country, the interior minister was extensively
questioned in Parliament and accused by all but two parties of having lied. Spanish MPs used photos and evidence from our film to question the minister.
Our film was showed by an MEP at a European parliament debate on the issue and there was extensive follow up reporting on the death we were able to prove happened on the Spanish side.

Techniques/technologies used:

The shock, confusion and sheer number of people involved in the Melilla deaths left behind a fragmented trail of
digital clues. Graphic but often meaningless in isolation, once located in time and space these clues can begin to
be pieced together forensically to make sense of an event and compare conflicting accounts of what has
happened. Our team sourced and analysed 145 video clips, mainly shaky phone camera footage, scouring all
available online platforms related to the events of June 24. By spending time on the ground we were able to trace
40 survivors (many of whom are visible in the videos of the day) and obtain previously unseen visual evidence. We
then geolocated, and synchronised this material, placing it on a timeline. Our reporters gained access to the
border post at the centre of the deaths and took footage of its interior and layout. Using this material as a
reference alongside LiDAR (light detection and ranging) data, we built a detailed animated model of the border
crossing and the surrounding area. We used this model to understand the layout of the crossing and to map the
video evidence onto it, as well as to help survivors walk us through the events, allowing them to place the incidents
on each side of the border.

Context about the project:

There was secrecy and defensiveness on both the Morrocan and Spanish side around the border deaths, which meant we had to go to great lengths to obtain the information we needed. Spain essentially wanted to cover up the events and Morroco considers all its migration related security activities to be highly sensitive and confidential. It was extremely difficult to access the border post of Barrio Chino, our team was initially declined access by Spanish officers and even removed from the site during a visit with the EU Parliamentary left. It tooks months of work to persuade officers to give us a tour. The inside sources that agreed to speak with us on the Spanish side took great personal risks to do so and show us footage that no other journalists were able to see. On the Morrocan side, human rights activists warned us not to speak to any locals ourselves because that would put them at risk of retaliation by the country’s security forces. Along with our Morrocan media partner, Enass, we had to be extremely cautious to make sure the victims we spoke to on the ground would not be at risk for agreeing to be interviewed.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

The takeaway is that combining emerging techniques and working with newsrooms from different countries make these complex and highly sensitive investigations possible. Journalists can learn from the methods and technologies we used to create a timeline of events, to reconstruct the border post and to match videos filmed on the day onto it. The fact that we had journalists from both Spain and Morroco on the team meant that we had unique access to sources and inside knowledge on both sides and Le Monde’s and Der Spiegel’s commitment to the story helped other partners withstand internal pressures. None of the partners we worked with could have done an investigation on a topic this sensitive and obtained so much information individually. This is a great example of the practical and political gains that come with collaborations.

Project links: