Please tell us about yourself
ICIJ has hundreds of members across the world. Typically, these journalists are the best in the country and often have won many national and global awards. To highlight the work of these tireless journalists, we’re reinvigorating our old Secrets of the Masters with Meet the Investigators. This will be a monthly Q&A with one of our many members. First up, we have one of India’s finest journalists, Ritu Sarin, who is the investigations editor at The Indian Expressin New Delhi.
Ritu Sarin is the investigations editor of the Indian Express group, and is the winner of several awards including the Ramnath Goenka Award and the Prem Bhatia award for excellence in journalism. ICIJ recently spoke to her about some of her most prominent investigations and her career as an investigative editor.
What year did you join the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)?
1999. That makes me among the earliest members. [Editor’s note: ICIJ was founded in 1997.]
What made you decide to become a journalist?
Sarin’s team sat for a solid eight months working on data and documents. Candidly, she revealed mathematics wasn’t her favourite subject.
I don’t have a financial background. I have done my Masters in English. So, it is difficult when these offshore projects [financial documents from overseas] come. Of course now, you have to go through balance sheets, you have to go through SEBI records, you have to go through ROC documents. But you pick a team which is very good at business. That’s the whole idea.
The choice of careers was between architecture and journalism. I got a good first break in a magazine post-graduation and am happy for it. There is no profession which gives you as wide an exposure to situations and subjects as journalism.
What does a regular day look like for you?
There is no typical day. Mornings are chaotic, also for reading a big bundle of newspapers and fixing appointments. Then usually I go to the office ‘till late evening, interspersed with office meetings, catching up with sources and other appointments. Last thing at night: playing a few games of scrabble on the ipad.
Some of your interesting projects?
Looking back with nostalgia at her first job as a reporter for the Delhi Recorder, she recalled one of her biggest scoops for the publication.
Back in Delhi Recorder, those were happy days. I remember a story I did on godman Dhirendra Brahmachari having an airstrip in his farmhouse in a place called Sirlokhda, which is off Gurgaon. Very interesting story. He had an airstrip in the middle of private buildings – unauthorised, of course. I know that small story was raised in Parliament and probably that gave me a good break, and I was hired in the Sunday Magazine, where I was for quite a few years.
After working at the Sunday Magazine, she was offered a job at The Indian Express by Shekhar Gupta. The rest, as they say, is history.
What ICIJ projects have you worked for?
All the four offshore projects – Offshore Leaks, Swiss Leaks, Panama Papers and Paradise Papers.
Do you have a favorite? Why?
Certainly the Panama Papers. It was the first project where ICIJ provided multiple sharing platforms for media partners, and that was a huge learning experience. What was exciting were the details and depth in the Mossack Fonseca data … like a veritable treasure hunt for the who’s who across the world, and that is why the story impacted the way it did.
The global investigation redefined the parameters of collaborative journalism, and the search engine yielded great stories for individual journalists.
What’s the most valuable lesson or skill you’ve learned while working on an ICIJ project?
The challenge of working in a global newsroom and planning a package for days 1-2-3 knowing full well an identical dataset is available to scores of other journalists.
You recently worked with ICIJ on the Offshore Leaks investigation. What did you uncover about offshore secrecy in India, and what results did you see from your reporting?
It was an amazing assignment and since it required months of work, I later realized it could only be done with my newspaper joining in as a media partner. All I had to begin with was a list of names, each of which had to be researched. In many individual cases of BVI investors, sheafs of documents had to be analyzed.
There were two things that surprised me. One was that even in the Indian Central Bank and the Reserve Bank of India there was no clarity on individual ownership of companies registered in tax havens. The second was how in just one company – Portcullis Trustnet – in one tax haven, as many as 600 Indians had invested and routed funds. As it transpired, many of them turned out to be tycoons, prominent businessmen and two of them, members of Parliament.
One of your best-known investigations was known as the “Tata Tapes,” and revealed secret conversations between the directors of a leading tea company and politicians. Tell us a bit about what you found and how you reported the story?
It was one of the first major stories in India gleaned from telephone interception so it created a lot of excitement, both in the office and post-publication. I recall telling my editors that we should not edit any conversations or else people would attribute motives for doing so.
The story was about a banned terror outfit in Assam in northeast India, allegedly being paid off by prominent business houses, including the Tatas. The Tatas had repeatedly been told by the terror group that they would not be allowed to operate in Assam if they did not pay for their peace.
Once the story appeared, the Government denied any role in the wiretaps and said the Intelligence Bureau was also not involved. A formal inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was ordered and I as well as my editors were called for “questioning” in Mumbai. There were many sessions held with company lawyers and I obviously gave nothing away on how or from whom I procured the tapes. A few months later, the CBI was forced to close the case “for want of evidence.”
Working in a “global newsroom” presents its own challenge. How did you cope with it and can you share your secret for success?
While I had worked on two ICIJ offshore projects earlier, it was inclusion of all reporters in the ‘I-Hub’ [ICIJ’s communications platform] set up first for Panama Papers (a sort of democracy wall where leads and links for individual projects are shared) that actually gave the experience of working in a global online newsroom.
The I-Hub has interesting inbuilt features, for example you can track who is online at any point and start a realtime chat with fellow collaborators. There are also discussions on the minutiae of the project — its name, final launch date, the eventual story lists, and so on. Various story specific or country specific groups are set up and yes, several important leads came my way thanks to the “India Group”. For instance, during Panama Papers we got a great lead for a story on commissions being paid for a defence contract from Ireland.
During Paradise Papers, the lead for a story on a medical scam came from a colleague in Japan. Also, instructions have to be reiterated to members of the team that all important leads have to be shared on the I-Hub. This is a huge shift for investigative reporters who are trained to keep secrets even from their families. Sharing is the key to all collaborations and kudos to the ICIJ staff as well for this. Not only were they available round-the-clock for clarifications, they flooded the I-Hub with data and information to be used by all.
What’s the most under-reported topic in your country or region that you think deserves more attention and scrutiny by the media?
Probably mental health. India is facing a mental illness epidemic, and there is an acute shortage of mental health professionals. But, socially, there is still a stigma attached to mental illness and thus, along with underreporting by the media, there is negligible reporting of mental illnesses by families themselves.
Since you started your career how has the media environment changed in your country?
It has metamorphosed. The shifts in technology and social media have changed the media landscape. In India, there has been an unprecedented explosion of investments in visual and online media, thus restricting the print into a smaller media space. I began journalism in the times of faxes and typewriters. Now, journalists are social media junkies; there is less and less of field reporting, and governments and the powers-that-be use this to their advantage to the hilt. Their aim is to keep the media, along with the people, polarized and divided.
What do you think journalism’s role in society should be? Is the media currently filling that role?
Besides the watchdog role, the media has a societal role of chronicling the changes, of recording apparent dangers. And in its rush for chasing breaking news and identifying fake news, unfortunately, this role is diminishing. The electronic media in India is more to blame for this, with the print media only fulfilling the role in parts.
You’ve recently won a prestigious award. What was it for and how did you feel when you first heard that you’ve been selected?
The International Press Institute India award is certainly a prestigious award, and the citation stated it was for a career in investigative journalism and for leading The Indian Express team that worked on the Panama Papers. In fact, I was in Mumbai with a large group of colleagues when I heard about it, and we cheered together.
Overall, what awards have you won as a journalist and what were they for?
I’ve previously won the coveted Ramnath Goenka and the Prem Bhatia awards for Excellence in Journalism. My team and I also were awarded the investigative prize for Panama Papers at the Ramnath Goenka awards for 2017. Since the story has brought individual recognition to journalists in several countries, I am delighted it has now been picked by award juries in India too.
How do you spend your free time, outside work?
With my many groups of friends, only few of whom are journalists. I have a passion for the wild, so most [out of town] trips are to wildlife sanctuaries with the family.
Best piece of advice you have ever been given?
[In tough times], if it helps, throw yourself at your work. If it doesn’t, it’s OK to do nothing.
What inspires you?
I do feel happy that a story like the Panama papers has been recognised. It’s gotten awards all over the world, dozens and dozens of them, including the Pulitzer. I am very happy that the story has been recognised in India also, as my colleagues all over the world won their individual awards.
Talk about your approach to stories. Is there anything unusual about the way you conduct your research or choose your themes?
What I enjoy the most is picking up a thread, a wisp of information and stitching it together into a major story. Often, the confirmation on a lead may come after meeting a dozen sources, many of them in the top echelons of government. So it can be time-consuming and sometimes, frustrating.
I am concerned, for instance, at the abysmally poor levels of infiltration of Indian journalists into intelligence agencies and that’s an area I want to concentrate upon. One of my recent stories was on activities of an illegal intelligence cell set up by a former Army Chief, General V K Singh, called the Technical Support Division (TSD). The story was confirmed by the Ministry of Defense but some critics called revealing secrets such as misuse of Secret Service funds by the Army “anti-national.” This is a point of view I disagree with.
What are the key elements that make an investigative story truly “click”? What do they have to have and what should they not be missing?
These are the essential ingredients: through research; attribution and fact-checking to the last word; approaching the subjects, or targets, for their versions; and most importantly, an honest approach to the story with editors, subjects and readers alike. Since investigative reporters do not work on daily deadlines, there should be little scope for factual follow-ups to your story. Your story should encompass and weave in all possible facts and angles.
If you could give young, aspiring journalists one tip, what would it be?
Be honest with your story and fair to your sources. Be prepared for the long haul and for long-distance running. Like in this case, it is not easy to work on a single story for eight months and bouts of restlessness do take over. Also, leave nothing to chance even despite the fact that the data and documents are your exclusive domain. For offshore projects like this one, other financial data; balance sheets; SEBI reports etc have to be scanned and then comes the tedious task of seeking comments from scores of people. Reputations of persons and companies are involved and a single wrong fact can ruin a painstakingly investigated story.