2023 Shortlist

Fuelling war — how European ships keep Russia’s economy afloat

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: Greece

Publishing organisation: Investigate Europe, Reporters United, Der Tagesspiegel, Meduza, EUobserver, Bergens Tidende, Il Fatto Quotidiano, Onet, Público, Frontstory, infoLibre

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-09-29

Language: English, Greek, German, Russian, Norwegian, Italian, Portuguese, Polish, Spanish

Authors: Chris Matthews, Lorenzo Buzzoni, Nico Schmidt, Amund Trellevik, Maria Maggiore, Paulo Pena, Ingeborg Eliassen, Sotiris Sideris, Nikolas Leontopoulos, Konstantina Maltepioti, Thodoris Chondrogiannos, Kirk Jackson, Lennart Troebs, David Meidinger, Hendrik Lehmann, Helena Wittlich, Aleksey Kovalev, Bendik Nagel Støren, Manuel Rico


**Investigate Europe** is a consortium of reporters from 12 EU countries. Our working method is to research issues simultaneously, share all information and report in our respective national media, having crosschecked facts and potential national bias.

**Reporters United** is a network of reporters aiming to support investigative journalism in Greece, collaborate in cross-border investigations with international journalists and media, and publish stories that often struggle to find their place in the Greek press.

Project description:

Reporters United joined forces with Investigate Europe in a data project that monitors how European shipping firms continue to transport millions of tonnes of fossil fuels from Russia, despite the ongoing war. The investigation found that European vessels have exported more than half of all fossil fuel shipments from Russia since the start of the war.

The project started as a data monitoring mechanism into how Greek shipping dominates seaborne transports from Russia. With the collaboration of Investigate Europe, it evolved into a cross-border investigation which revealed how this network of European ships continued to help provide profits to Moscow.

Impact reached:

The investigation series resonated across borders. It revealed how European ships – and their high-profile owners – helped to fuel Moscow’s war machine by exporting fossil fuels after the invasion of Ukraine.

Combining in-depth data analysis, investigative reporting, unique visualizations, multimedia elements and traditional storytelling, the 9-months long investigation is presented in a diverse and creative way across several platforms.

Beyond Greece, the main findings were also published with nine media partners in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Russia and in 10 languages, offering not only a European perspective but also unique national narratives.

In Greece, the investigation prompted fiery parliamentary debates. It was used by a famous stand-up comedian in several of his gigs. It stands at the core of a big SLAPP lawsuit filed by one of the most active shipowners in the Russian fossil fuel transport against a member of the parliament.

The series attracted the interest of international media companies such as Japan’s Nikkei and Germany’s DW that traveled to Greece to follow up on the Greek reporters’ leads. [DW made a video report for its “Focus On Europe” programme](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6RuDhWaWso) filming Greek reporters while they investigated in the waters south of Greece.

Other colleagues were inspired by our investigation. The head of investigations at a hub of African journalists reached out to us to ask for a potential collaboration in the expansion of the project to Africa. A Moroccan freelance journalist contacted us to request research support and our dataset.

After publication by our media partner in Portugal, Publico, Portugal’s Prime Minister was confronted with the findings by an opposition politician during a parliamentary session.

The series has also been highlighted and shared by notable organisations including the [Global Investigative Journalism Network](https://mailchi.mp/gijn/newsletter-oct12-2022) and Global Witness.

Techniques/technologies used:

The starting point for our investigation was the [Russian Tanker Tracker](https://twitter.com/RUTankerTracker): A Twitter bot of oil and gas tankers leaving Russian ports, automated by Greenpeace. The bot retrieves and publishes shipping data (such as a ship’s position, movement, name, IMO number and other unique identifiers) in real time from the online ship tracking service [Marine Traffic](https://www.marinetraffic.com/).

To download Greenpeace’s bot Twitter feed we used the online tool vicinitas.io. To retrieve details about the performance of each vessel and its managing companies, we scrapped [Equasis](https://www.equasis.org/). We did that by feeding the unique IMO number of each ship (extracted from Marine Traffic) to the search box of Equasis using selenium.

With more reporters from different countries joining the team, with new editorial challenges and on-the-ground developments, and with our drive towards enriching and diversifying our sources, we needed to review and rebuild our methodology to meet the new circumstances that greet our investigation’s long-term objectives. That’s why we decided to merge our data with data acquired data through [CREA’s API](https://energyandcleanair.org/). A valuable addition that came with this hybrid methodology was entries regarding coal transportations by bulk carrier and general cargo ships, previously not available in our analysis.

After collecting all the data, four different datasets were created:

* One with the bot’s tweets.
* One with the position and course of ships as reported by Marine Traffic.
* One with ship ownership data as registered with Equasis.
* One with CREA’s tracking of ship movements.

Each dataset had to be cleaned and corrected in order to create our master dataset. This was done in Python (pandas) and OpenRefine.

For the publication of our graphics, we built a framework using d3. All graphics were translatable and customizable in a purpose-build backend built with Django REST-API and a frontend built using Vue and a UI framework (Vuetify).

Context about the project:

Finding all the relevant data provided many levels of challenges, mainly due to a lack of transparency in the sector and the complexity of tracking a ship’s movement in an automated way and in almost real time. In our hunt for data on European shipping firms we have used a wide range of techniques. In addition to scraping websites or extracting structured data from APIs, human handling was also required to eliminate duplicate records and to match the managing company of a vessel with the people behind it.

The resulting “Fuelling War” project is an ongoing cross-border and data-driven investigation of Investigate Europe and Reporters United with 8 media partners and contributions from more than 20 investigative reporters, data journalists and visualisation experts in 10 languages. It comes with a subheading that gets straight to the point: “How European ships keep Russia’s economy afloat.”

In fact, hyprocicy is the main issue of this project. We didn’t want to show how many millions of tonnes of fossil fuels European vessels have shipped from Russian ports since the invasion started without examining the bigger picture. Our team of “national” reporters confronted companies and shipowners, challenging their hypocrisy as most of them in their public stance condemned “Russian atrocities” while profiting from the war and enriching Putin’s regime. [The series exposed several high profile shipowners](https://www.investigate-europe.eu/en/2022/shipping-tycoons-trading-with-russia/). Among them well-known owners of national media outlets, global art benefactors, football club owners and other public figures.

The focus of our stories was shaped by the data we used. This structure allowed us to combine on-the-ground reporting with exclusive data wrangling and visual storytelling in a compelling narrative across countries, platforms and formats.

In Italy, the key was to look into the ports of arrival for bulk carriers and oil tankers. As a result, we were able to pinpoint specific locations on the map and send our Italian reporter to Sicily with his camera on hand to capture [the arrival of an oil tanker at the port of Milazzo](https://www.investigate-europe.eu/it/2022/sanzioni-ue-cosi-l-italia-ha-aumentato-l-import-di-greggio-milazzo/). Both the main article and visual reportage were also published by the Italian daily newspaper il Fatto Quotidiano.

In Greece, we detected multiple ship-to-ship (STS) transfers – where ships unload cargo onto another vessel at sea and switch off tracking systems to evade detection and country sanctions. Our Greek team travelled to the Laconian Gulf in the south-eastern Peloponnese, which has become an international hotspot for STS loading, to investigate those transfers.

In Norway, our team look into the data to investigate [the issue of sanctions and the key role of the insurance industry in stopping oil exports from Russia](https://www.investigate-europe.eu/en/2022/eu-sanctions-will-still-allow-half-of-european-insured-russian-oil-shipments/). They found that more than 20% of all fossil fuel shipments leaving Russia between 24 February to 31 August were covered by Norwegian insurers.

This contextualisation was highlighted by the shared visual language of all publications. The shared data visualizations by the Innovation Lab at Tagesspiegel allowed for each graphic to be translated and adapted to match the language and the look and feel of the publication medium.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

We see this as a project about the ethical and – with new sanctions, and EU bans on Russian fossil fuels in effect – legal implications of topping up Putin’s war chest, despite his brutal invasion of Ukraine.

While there is no shortage of write-ups about Europe’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels, follow-ups on recent attempts to cut Moscow off of Europe’s energy budgets, and reports on sanctions against the Kremlin, our long-term cross-border investigation shines a light on the European shipping companies and operators that continue to export fossil fuels from Putin’s Russia.

Central to the series is data. Our teams of reporters and researchers have spent months analysing ship movements, ownership details, vessel routes and import records to document the extent of Europe’s role in shipping fossil fuels out of Russia. The visualisations were produced in partnership with the Innovation Lab at Tagesspiegel, our media partner in Germany, and are being updated on a regular basis.

By making our methodology and data openly accessible, journalists can contextualize the extent of the European shipping sector’s involvement in exporting oil, gas and coal from Russia since the invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022. Journalists can also monitor seaborne exports of Russian fossil fuels to their own countries or transfers carried out by companies registered in their countries. Further, links between European shipping firms and their owners can be observed and investigated in detail.

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