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What do drones used by Russia in Ukraine have in common with a massive Russian gas project in the Arctic and Moscow’s war machine in the separatist Transnistria region in Moldova?

All three have benefited from parts, technology or fuel provided by companies in the European Union — despite sanctions imposed after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Those are the revelations of just three investigations supported by the latest round of the IJ4EU programme, which provides grants and other assistance to teams of journalists collaborating across borders.

As the 2022/23 edition of IJ4EU winds down next month, many teams are still putting the finishing touches on ambitious stories in the public interest. But plenty have already published their work, making headlines across Europe and beyond. 

Below are 12 of the latest investigations to hit newsstands and stir debate. They follow hard on the heels of 10 cross-border stories that set tongues wagging earlier in the year. Watch this space for more to come.

Drones, shells and sanctions

The Russia-Ukraine war has, not surprisingly, featured heavily in this year’s IJ4EU projects. Four investigations stand out for impact and ingenuity.

Russia’s War, Europe’s Burden

Despite sanctions, hundreds of European components have found their way into drones used by Russia in its war against Ukraine. So finds this joint investigation by Danish freelance journalist Nikolaj Houmann, the German magazine Der Spiegel and Airwars, a British-based transparency watchdog that monitors how conflict affects civilian communities.

The reporting led to the sanctioning of three export companies featured in the investigation and the arrest of the director of a German components manufacturer for involvement in supplying parts to the Russian military industry.

At War Without Ammo

As ammunition shortages plague Ukraine’s ability to push back Russian forces, this investigation scrutinises the reasons for Europe’s struggle to ramp up arms production, with reporting by The Kiev Independent, The Investigative Desk, Lighthouse Reports, Eesti Ekspress and El Diario.

This team takes us behind the scenes to reveal why political decision-making takes so long and expose the weak spots of European defence: national interests, fragmented standards and a “wait-and-see” attitude in the arms industry.

Russian Escape

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, authorities in Europe have frozen tens of billions of euros of Russian assets, targeting the wealth of oligarchs, politicians, military officers and influencers with close ties to the Kremlin. 

But how effectively are those sanctions being enforced?  This investigation, led by the Civil Forum for Asset Recovery in partnership with Mediapart, infoLibre, The Times and Domani, seeks to answer that question.

It reveals that some European countries have undermined the effectiveness of their own sanction regimes, while a lack of transparency on frozen assets further hurts efforts to punish Russian oligarchs and warmongers.

Dangerous Diesel

Companies based in Romania, Bulgaria and other EU countries are defying sanctions to provide fuel to Moldova’s pro-Russian separatist region, Transnistria, posing a potential threat to neighbouring Ukraine, a group of freelancers reveals.

Stretching along Moldova’s eastern border with Ukraine, Transnistria has been under the de facto control of Moscow loyalists since 1992. It is home to Russian troops of the 14th Army and huge stockpiles of arms and ammunition.

Without fuel, the Russian war machine here would be scrap metal. But a sophisticated fuel supply chain keeps diesel flowing to the breakaway region, reports the team comprising Cătălin Prisacariu (Romania), Sorin Ozon (Romania), Vitalie Călugăreanu (Moldova) and Oleg Oganov (Ukraine).

Eyes on the environment

Many IJ4EU teams have tackled climate and environmental issues over the years, and the latest cohort of grantees is no exception. Recent investigations connect the dots between European interests and what’s happening on the ground in places as far-flung as northern Russia, Myanmar and Brazil.

Defusing a Russian Carbon Bomb

Arctic LNG 2 is the name of a massive Russian gas extraction and liquefaction project in the far north of Siberia. Critics say it will produce more than a billion tonnes of carbon emissions in its lifetime, making it one of hundreds of “carbon bombs” worldwide that are incompatible with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

This investigation reveals that European companies have provided high-tech equipment and engineering services to Arctic LNG 2, despite its potential impact on the environment and in the face of sanctions imposed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The findings ramp up pressure on the EU to target strategic energy projects in future rounds of sanctions against Russia. The project was a collaboration between Paper Trail Media, the Anti-Corruption Data Collective, Der Spiegel, ZDF, Der Standard and Le Monde.

The Gold Chain

Illegal gold mining in the Brazilian Amazon destroys swathes of rainforest and puts indigenous communities at risk of violence and rights abuses. Europe, despite being thousands of kilometres away, is a big part of the problem.

This investigation led by freelancers delves into how actors in Europe’s gold industry are building a complex “gold chain”, using Dubai as a hub for gold laundering, to allow refineries in Switzerland, Belgium and Italy to import gold illegally mined in the Amazon without being linked to rainforest destruction.

Meanwhile, European regulations aimed at stemming the flow of so-called conflict minerals are failing to prevent gold imports from high-risk areas, while gold certification schemes are riddled with conflicts of interest.

The investigation was carried out by Ludovica Jona (Italy), Quentin Noirfalisse (Belgium), Hyury Potter (Brazil) and Olivier Christe (Switzerland). Watch out for a documentary by the team, coming soon.

Drone image by Fernanda Ligabue

The West’s Next Plastics Dump

European and North American plastic waste is being dumped in low-income communities in Myanmar, one of the world’s most repressive states, contributing to the poisoning of the environment and endangering lives and livelihoods.

This cross-border collaboration between Lighthouse Reports and six newsrooms shows how an opaque global supply chain and haphazard regulatory system is easy to game by companies wanting to get rid of plastic that cannot be recycled, and offload it on countries thousands of miles away.

Meanwhile, two investigations take us to Southern Europe, revealing an alarming correlation between climate change and labour exploitation and human rights abuses. 

La Raya: Frontier of Exploitation

Belonging to Spain and Portugal, “La Raya” is the longest shared border within the European Union. Drought on the Spanish side has forced many agro companies to look westwards to the Beja region of southern Portugal, one of Europe’s most important water reserves.

As this investigation reveals, some of the companies are linked to trafficking networks and severe labour abuses among farm workers.

Video by Cristina Cartelle, Andrei Stefan Balog, Lucía Muñoz Lucena and Sergio Rodrigo

Dry to the Bone

This freelancer-led investigation explores how a deadly mix of heatwaves and inhumane working conditions is harming the health of agricultural migrant workers, with a particular focus on the regions of Puglia in Italy and Almería in Spain.

Precarious health conditions are especially dangerous for those who live in one of the many informal settlements scattered across Italy and Spain, with little to no access to medical care and essential services such as drinking water, electricity and toilets.

The project was carried out by Sofia Alvarez Jurado, Claudia Colliva and Giada Santana.

Surveillance, cybercrime and war in Sudan 

Tales from the Crypto

This investigation reveals how Estonia and Lithuania became global hubs for cryptocurrency companies – creating the perfect cover for fraudsters, cheats, sanctions evaders and organised criminals from around the world to get up to no good.

The journalists showed that certain crypto firms registered in Estonia are alone linked with more than a billion euros worth of scams, money laundering and other financial crimes — all thanks to lax regulations.

The investigation was a collaboration between Delfi Estonia, Siena in Lithuania, Frontstory and Vsquare in Poland, Paper Trail Media in Germany and The Kyiv Independent in Ukraine.

The Data Trap

This project by a cross-border team of freelancers unveils the interests behind EU aspirations to scan everyone’s private messages sent through social media apps, gaming sites and direct messaging platforms.

Proposed legislation aimed at clamping down on child sexual abuse material would allow for mandatory “client-side scanning” to monitor messages. Yet beyond this, there’s a push for surveillance by powerful law enforcement agencies and entrepreneurs-turned-philanthropists who have high stakes in the growing market for artificial intelligence technologies.

The investigation shows that the European Commission proposal risks severely undermining end-to-end encrypted messaging, which is considered the most effective way to secure communications, including for journalists and activists at risk of being monitored by both governmental and private entities.

Illicit Coalitions

Macedonian-made Predator spyware, which turns a person’s mobile phone into a “perfect spy”, has been deployed in Greece against journalists, former ministers, opposition politicians and businessmen. 

This joint investigation by Inside Story in Greece and the Investigative Reporting Lab in North Macedonia exposes the involvement of state intelligence services in illicit surveillance of their own citizens for nefarious purposes.

The reporting triggered statements from opposition parties in Greece and debate in parliament in North Macedonia. It prompted the U.S. government to add the main companies of the Macedonian group that developed the software to its economic trade blacklist as part of the Biden administration’s efforts to counter the misuse of commercial spyware.

The EU’s ‘Pact with the Devil’

In Sudan, fighting between the Sudanese army and the paramilitaries of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has devastated the capital, Khartoum, and sparked ethnically driven attacks in Darfur, threatening to plunge Sudan into a civil war and destabilise the region. 

It all started with a power struggle between the commander of the national army and the leader of the RSF, known as Hemedti, a warlord in search of a presidential seat.

Travelling to Sudan several times before the war and trawling through documents and social media, a cross-border team of journalists and researchers looked into the link between the EU, Hemedti and former dictator Omar al-Bashir.

It reveals that EU ardour to halt migration meant entrusting Sudan almost 10 years ago with responsibility for preventing migrants from reaching Libya, and therefore heading onto Europe, resulting in a “pact with the devil” that critics say legitimised Sudan’s “militia state”. The consequences of that “pact” still reverberate today.

The team comprised Gwenaëlle Lenoir, Patricia Huon, Youri van der Weide and a Sudanese researcher who prefers to stay anonymous.

Building a Hungarian Political Elite

Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC) is a Budapest-based educational institution founded in 1996. From the beginning, the organisation has been closely linked with rightwing politics and Hungary’s populist ruling party, Fidesz.

This joint investigation by Hungarian news portal Telex and its sister outlet in Romania, Transtelex, reveals how education provided by the state-funded MCC contributes to training the next generation of loyalists to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Image by Telex

See also: Ten investigations that made headlines across Europe