Research into property records has played a major role in uncovering corruption.
The following sampling shows the variety and importance of investigative reporting in this area.
The shores of the Nile River make up some of the most expensive and prime land outside various African capitals, with most of it secured for tourism-related activity. However, until recently, little was known about who owns that land. That’s until InfoNile, a Uganda-based geo-journalism nonprofit focusing on issues in the Nile Basin, embarked on an extensive collaboration. Read Sucked Dry. The investigation spanned the 11 countries which straddle the Nile Basin, bringing together a group of journalists, researchers, and media-support organizations to bolster its reporting effort. Among the groups in support: a journalist network created and maintained by Water Journalists Africa; the independent land monitoring initiative Land Matrix, which generated data; and the Pulitzer Center and Code for Africa. The story — which found that two-thirds of the acquired land in the country was allocated to international investors — included text, interactive data-driven maps, drone and satellite imagery, and video documentaries. In September 2020, it won best data visualization at the 2020 African Digital Media Awards.
Tracking Official Corruption
“Millionaires Among the Nominees” is a story by the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo (CIN) based on investigating the property holdings of 121 Bosnian politicians, highlighting the assets of the 10 richest ones. CIN reporters compiled information about the candidates’ property from land records and from asset declarations, combining them into a CIN database of “politicians’ assets.”
Sometimes it’s about tracking down expensive homes owned by public officials and corporate executives, as was done on several occasions by journalists in Armenia.
“Skirting Disclosure Laws: Armenian Officials and Their Assets in the Czech Republic” describes a probe conducted by Hetq Online, published by the Association of Investigative Journalists, which also wrote: “Undue Influence? Former Armenian Police Chief Snatches $3 Million Yerevan House for a Mere $200K.”
In Brazil, The Intercept reported on a $5.8 million mansion owned by federal judges Marcelo and Simone Bretas. Piauí magazine’s reporters used public registry records to identify the extensive assets belonging to Brazil’s then president Michel Temer.
The Wall Street Journal cast a spotlight on a portfolio of luxury homes owned by executives of Chinese conglomerate HNA Group Co.
The Herald in Nigeria used photos from real estate sites and Google to illustrate a story about properties owned abroad by Nigerian politicians.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bodyguards were found to own land worth many millions of dollars in Russia’s most expensive region. See the story by Novaya Gazeta.
Russia’s former minister of industry acquired stakes in golf courses worth many millions of dollars, according to a report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP): “The properties were once owned by people associated with a major pipe manufacturer that would have fallen under his purview as minister.”
In Peru, officials were arrested for falsifying documents, reported Mongabay.
The stories at the top of this section all relied on public records, but other reporting has been based on leaks.
In July, former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $10.6 million on corruption charges linked to 2016 Panama Papers revelations about his family’s properties overseas, as described in an article by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
The US group C4ADS wrote Sandcastles, a lengthy investigation “to illustrate the manipulation of Dubai’s property market for the possible laundering and offshoring of illicit assets.” C4ADS based part of its work on United Arab Emirates data compiled by real estate and property professionals.
The UK-based group Finance Uncovered used leaked documents to write “Dubai Leaks: Confidential Property Records Suggest Emirate is World’s ‘Costa del Crime,” which revealed the owners of hundreds of luxury properties in Dubai. The research relied on records assembled by the OCCRP to dig into the data first obtained by C4ADS.
One of the most famous property ownership investigations appeared in 2015 in The New York Times and revealed the extent to which international shell companies own some of New York City’s most expensive real estate. In this article, the reporters described their two-year investigation during which they analyzed large data sets to see where high-end buyers were clustering. Their work also involved tracking down shell companies.
Land Data Exposes Larger Issues
Land data also can be used to do stories on social problems and policies.
To Nowhere (in Russian) describes Rublevka, the most expensive place to live in the Russia. After examining databases on the ownership of Rublevka real estate, the journalists for Proekt conclude that the country’s richest landowners are people who are somehow connected with the state, working for it, receiving contracts from it, or having friendship ties with officials. The project includes the map and search engine with the names of inhabitants of Rublevka and their connections.
Crime Moldova used property records to document a story on construction in an area at risk of a landslide, “The ‘Sliding’ Business of the Stati Family.”
The fight by an Ethiopian coffee farmer for the return of the land he inherited from his father was the focus for a Place article that highlighted problems created by the lack of formal title deeds. Place is a produced by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and “explores the complex social, economic and political effects of inadequate land rights — from environmental sustainability and food insecurity to the potential for conflict and war.” Another Place story was: “Can Land Rights for Farmers Save Ghana’s Cocoa Sector?”
The Network of Iraqi Reporters for Investigative Journalism in 2017 wrote “ISIS’s Real Estate Empire: Security, Financial Investment and Recurring Manipulation of Properties,” telling a long story of how ISIS manipulated real estate records as it appropriated people’s houses.
In South Africa, Oxpeckers probed efforts to create buffer zones along the border of Kruger National Park to prevent wildlife poaching, explaining that “displaced communities say it’s a land grab by rich foreigners aided by corrupt politicians.” Here’s an article on the techniques and tools used.
Graphic Display Invited
Where data exists, it’s natural material for visual display.
The Kiev Post graphically displayed hundreds of illegal construction sites such as gas stations, redevelopments and cafes.
The Real Deal, a New York City real estate publication, created “an epic, first-ever ranking” headlined “Who Owns All of New York?”
The wealth of official data on New York City has generated many uses, indicative of the value for not only land ownership data but also related material. For example, the city government posts a map of ongoing construction projects. The local real estate news outlet Curbed regularly displays what can be seen with land use data.
A two-person British website, Who Owns England, regularly writes fascinating stories based on British land records. Their detailed guide on how to use UK land records and create maps is particularly instructive. A January 2019 article by Anna Powell-Smith documents that 5.2 million acres of England and Wales do not have a registered owner.
Hint to our readers: They don’t have a copyright on the “who owns” franchise.
This guide was put together by Toby McIntosh, director of GIJN’s resource center. He was a Washington-based reporter and editor with Bloomberg BNA for 39 years and the editor of FreedomInfo.org, a nonprofit website. He also runs a blog, eyeonglobaltransparency.net.