Passport Papers – a joint investigation into the sale of passports as a legalised transaction

Country/area: Malta

Organisation: The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, The Guardian, Dossier Center, The Shift News, Times of Malta, The Malta Independent, Malta Today, Lovin Malta

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 21/4/2021

Credit: The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation (Passport Papers core team): Matthew Caruana Galizia, Tina Urso, Corinne Vella, Tina Mifsud, Azzurra Moores, Sabriyah Saeed, Dalia Nasreddin, Vjosa Isai;

Investigation partners:

Caroline Muscat, editor, The Shift News
Jacob Borg, reporter, Times of Malta
Nicole Meilak, reporter, Malta Today
Neil Camilleri, editor, The Malta Independent
Tim Diacono, news strategist, Lovin Malta
Paul Lewis, head of investigations, The Guardian
Dossier Centre

Biography: The Malta Investigative Journalism Centre (MIJC) is an initiative launched by The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation to facilitate and host collaboration among independent media. The ongoing Passport Papers investigation is MIJC’s first project. The Foundation is inspired by Daphne’s journalism and unwavering commitment to the public interest. It works to ensure justice for her assassination and to continue her fight for press freedom and liberal democracy, and against populism, corruption and impunity.

Project description:

The investigation into the sale of passports as a legalised transaction exposes what happens when applicants attempt to purchase their way into EU citizenship through Malta’s passport sales scheme:
• the ‘genuine links’ requirement (a physical residency workaround) is a box-ticking exercise;
• the residency loophole enables buyers to obtain citizenship without spending any significant time in the country;
• applicants are typically from particular jurisdictions and categories and include an MP,
oligarchs, royalty, and fugitives;
• select applicants received special treatment, including privileged access to former PM Joseph Muscat;
• Henley & Partners had written agreements with Cambridge Analytica and its CEO, Alexander Nix.

Impact reached:

The Passport Papers showed that the sale of citizenship has a real and direct impact on
European states and their citizens. The story was picked up by mainstream news media and specialist media across the US, Europe, and Asia. It prompted a reaction by an EC spokesperson (“EU values are not for sale…granting EU citizenship without a genuine link violates EU law”), and fed into the EP plenary debate on the rule of law in Malta (“Parliament is deeply concerned about the harmful impact of citizenship and residence schemes on the integrity of EU citizenship, and reiterates its call on the Maltese government to assure transparency and terminate its schemes”), leading to EP resolution 2021/2611(RSP) calling “on the Maltese authorities to assure transparency and terminate its investor citizenship and residence schemes rather than modify them.”

In Malta, the Passport Papers provoked a defensive reaction from the government and public outrage on social media. Aditus, an NGO that assists undocumented migrants and asylum seekers, said the “The exposé on the “genuine link” requirement and how this is established, flies in the face of the difficulties faced by non-Maltese who apply for citizenship by naturalization.” Repubblika, a rule of law NGO, issued a 43- page position paper calling for the passport sales scheme to be scrapped, and for wide-ranging reforms in the administration of citizenship.

Henley&Partners responded with legal letters accusing the Foundation of retaining “stolen data” in a “criminal database” and – unsuccessfully – demanding its deletion.

The Passport Papers investigation is ongoing.

Techniques/technologies used:

The large amount of core data needed collaborative investigation. To make it available to all partners, we used Aleph, an application created by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). We run Aleph on Kubernetes, a Google technology that allows us to scale according to demand. We invested in new hardware as Aleph needs more power than an average desktop computer can provide. This helps avoid the high cost of cloud hosting, allowing us to spend more on actual journalism.

Using Python, we developed improvements to Aleph and submitted them to the Aleph project (they were accepted). We scraped the Malta company registry using a program we built with Node.js. We added the scraped data (stored in JSON format) and the company documents in PDF to our core data in Aleph. To exchange tabular data, we used CSV.

The Foundation team analysed how the passport application process worked chronologically, from when applicants began their relationship with Henley & Partners to submission of their citizenship applications to Identity Malta. We started the investigation from scratch, reviewing every application, letting the data drive potential leads and used Google Sheets to log and analyse key data items on a collaborative spreadsheet: nationality, residency agreements, proof of a criminal record check and any police reports, residency data, properties applicants rented or purchased in Malta, how much they had paid and any interest (or lack thereof) they showed in visiting their property. Our main research question was what “genuine links” applicants had to Malta.

Our team then extracted the data on significant applicants and any notable trends to share with our investigative partners in our collaborative forum. The forum quickly filled with documents, links to data, email chains, business registries, and investigative leads, as journalists pieced together the stories that became the Passport Papers.

What was the hardest part of this project?

The challenges the Foundation faced were immense. The whistleblower who provided the core data we investigated first came to Daphne Caruana Galizia years ago, when she was the only journalist in Malta whom people like Sonja – the pseudonym we gave the whistleblower – felt they could trust.

Tracking Sonja down again in the months after Daphne’s assassination was difficult. Daphne’s family knew of Sonja’s existence, but had no name and no contact details. When they finally resurfaced, they were willing to share evidence that, according to them, Malta’s passports-for-cash scheme, created and managed by Henley & Partners in partnership with former prime minister Joseph Muscat, is replete with problems.

The investigation into the data and documents provided by the whistleblower was delayed first by the pressures of Daphne’s murder investigation, which is still ongoing, then by the cost of what the Foundation knew would be months of research into the scheme.

In 2020 the Foundation received a round of funding from Digital Defenders, a TK-based organisation. That went into the IT infrastructure that the Foundation needed to process the data provided by the whistleblower. The funders knew little about the material to which the Foundation had access: only that the Foundation was committed to setting up the Malta Investigative Journalism Centre to drive collaborative investigations involving all independent media organisations in Malta. A second round of funding, from IJ4EU, enabled the Foundation’s core team to spend four months focussed on investigating the data.

What can others learn from this project?

Tech tools and automation facilitate data processing but the human element remains essential. Manually sifting through the data was crucial to understanding the passport application process and to identifying significant details that would have been missed by automated processing.

Small, dedicated teams with limited resources can produce high quality investigative journalism with significant impact.

Collaboration among competition is possible. The Passport Papers was the first time Malta’s independent newsrooms collaborated on an investigative journalism project.

Tech expertise is an essential component of a project core team. Having a project leader trained in journalism and technology smoothed the Passport Papers work flow in the build-up to the publication launch, and proved critical in the final hours.

A data journalism project isn’t finite. The Passport Papers publications in April 2021 were just the initial tranche of stories in an ongoing investigation.

Project links: