How we investigated the Passport Papers

21 April 2021

The challenges faced by the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation while working on the Passport Papers were immense. The whistleblower who provided most of the material we investigated first came to Daphne Caruana Galizia years ago, when she was the only journalist whom people like Sonja - the name we gave them - felt they could trust. After Daphne was assassinated, a consortium of journalists led by Forbidden Stories, called the Daphne Project, came together to continue her investigations.

Tracking Sonja down again in the months after the assassination was difficult. Daphne’s family knew of their 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 huge challenges of working on the murder investigation, which is still ongoing, then by the cost of what we knew would be months of research into the scheme.

In 2020 we were thrown a lifeline: our first round of funding from Digital Defenders, a TK-based organisation. That went into the IT infrastructure that we needed to process the documents provided by the whistleblower. The funders knew little about the material we had access to: only that the Foundation was committed to creating collaborative investigations that involve all independent media organisations in Malta.

A second round of funding, from IJ4EU, allowed us to spend four months focussed on the investigation. Here’s what we did during that time.

The nuts and bolts

We knew from the beginning that the investigation had to be collaborative. No single news organisation could process this amount of data and then follow all the leads that we later saw coming of it. To make our material available to everyone, we turned to Aleph, an application created by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). The problem, we knew, is that Aleph needs a lot of power, more than what your desktop computer can provide. Funding from Digital Defenders allowed us to get our hands on the hardware that we needed.

For the techies, we’re running Aleph on Kubernetes, a technology developed by Google that allows us to scale according to demand. By running these systems on our own hardware, we avoided the massive cost of cloud hosting, allowing us to spend more on actual journalism and less on bills from tax-evading companies.

Screen time

So much has been written about Henley & Partners and the sale of Maltese passports, reviewing it all would be a separate project. We knew that in order to give this investigation the attention it deserves we had to start from scratch, allowing the data to drive any potential leads. “Let the evidence lead you” - that’s what we told each other. With this in mind, a team of researchers at the Foundation began the process of exploring the data. We started by asking simple questions, how does the process of applying for citizenship work?

As a small team we knew we needed to work efficiently, dividing the work so that we could cover as much of the data as possible, especially with a looming April publication deadline set by our funders. We started by attempting to understand how the process worked chronologically, from the moment applicants began their relationship with Henley & Partners, to finally submitting their citizenship applications to Identity Malta.

Quickly after reviewing a selection of files we realised that we couldn’t simply log data on the application as a whole, but needed to review every applicant and dependant to understand whether they had adhered to the requirement set in place when applying for Maltese citizenship.

Once we had understood the process, we started recording key information on a collaborative spreadsheet. We still didn’t know exactly what we were looking for, but we wanted to record the key pieces of data. We logged key details such as nationality, residency agreements, proof of a criminal record check and any police reports. We took an interest in the residency data and ensured that we were keeping a record of the properties applicants rented or purchased in Malta, how much they had paid and recorded any interest, or lack of, shown by applicants in visiting their property.

As a team we quickly established a main guiding question for our research, what “genuine links” did these potential applicants really have to Malta?

Once we had reviewed every applicant within the data, and found a few more hidden away in another folder, we began extracting the interesting applicants and any notable trends to share with the journalists on our collaborative forum. This is where the real digging began.

Building a picture

The collaborative forum became the real heart of the investigation, while the Foundation was able to pass on links to data, the journalists quickly began to piece together a narrative and share further leads. The forum was filled with links to business registries, documents, email chains, all working together to piece together the stories that would eventually become the Passport Papers.

Since we could see that the residency requirement was becoming a major focus of our investigation, we brought on a photographer to visit these properties in Malta. Our photographer travelled across Malta examining the exteriors of the properties, checking mail boxes and questioning whether the applicants who claimed they were resident in said property appeared to be living there.

“In many streets I could tell which one the house was from a mile off. Always the tacky modern architecture” — photographer Joanna Demarco.

The search led us to Gozo, to a property development named Vista Point, a frequent spot for many of the applicants to rent. We later calculated that there were over thirty rental contracts with Vista Point within our data set. What our photographer found was a property not especially reflective of the wealth of the high-earning investors looking to become Maltese citizens. The information and the photos were passed on to the rest of the collaboration, with all the journalists agreeing that an investigation into the residency requirement would be a clear focus of many of their publications.

After many months of digging we began to prepare the Foundation’s website publication: a collection of profiles, statistics, and documents that we believed were essential for the public to know. We worked with regional specialists to determine these individuals' role in society, their business connections, discourse in public media and adverse information. Eventually, we decided on the profiles you can see on this site, all of whom had passed our public interest check.

We knew the risk Sonja had taken to pass on these details, so we were cautious to do them justice. After months of work, analysing thousands of files and coordinating with eight collaborative partners, we are proud to present the Passport Papers.