‘Spilling the beans’ on Russian intelligence: Heliograph Episode 2 out now!

In this month’s installation of Heliograph: The Investigative Journalism Playbook, we speak with Hannes Munzinger, the lead reporter on a Der Spiegel investigation on the leaked Vulkan files. Among the contents of the leak were emails and documents that spanned from 2016 to 2021, unveiling Vladimir Putin’s secret plans for cyber warfare. 

Listen now on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and wherever else you listen to your podcasts. 

The Tip 

Seven. Four. Four. Five. Five. 

These were the numbers that investigative journalist Hannes Munzinger saw on documents leaked by  an anonymous source about a Russian IT company called NTC Vulkan. The five-digit number identified the military unit Sandworm, one of the most notorious hacking groups in the world.  

“When I saw those numbers, I was immediately like, that could be something big,” says Munzinger. “The source said this [NTC Vulkan] is basically a front and the Russian intelligence services hide behind it.”

Paper Trail Media published a redacted version of the Sandworm document here: 

The Process 

The Vulkan Files refers to the series of leaked emails and other documents that reveal the involvement of NTC Vulkan, a Russian IT company, in activities such as cybercrime, meddling in foreign political affairs such as the 2016 United States presidential election, domestic social media censorship, and espionage. The international investigation was led by Der Spiegel and  Paper Trail Media

VULKAN FILES: https://www.papertrailmedia.de/investigations/vulkan-files/

Munzinger was part of a team of 22 journalists, experts, and researchers that analyzed more than 5,000 pages of leaked documents from NTC Vulkan. These included project plans, instructions and internal emails from Vulkan from the years 2016 to 2021. 

They were leaked by an anonymous source in a complex format that took more than a year to properly translate, examine, and verify, says Munzinger.    

Working with people who are reliable and trustworthy was key, he says. Having worked on a number of large collaborative projects like this one, Munzinger says a crucial element is maintaining communication.   

“Get people moving by sharing your own findings. That’s what has worked in the past a lot and creates this fever to find more.”

Challenges

The documents that the team had to analyze posed two major challenges: they came from an anonymous source, and they were all written in Russian. 

“That’s always difficult because you can’t say too much about the source,” says Munzinger. “And in the case of someone spilling the beans on Russian intelligence, that’s the most important part of the investigation.” 

When it came to translating, initially the team tried automated services. But reporters later enlisted the help of translators, Russian-speaking journalists, experts and researchers to help contextualize the information.

It was very important that we had colleagues who were able to read in Russian and even colleagues with a security background…who know how these intelligence services work,” says Munzinger.

Beyond the Story 

Munzinger’s advice for such complicated investigative work: surround yourself with a good team, and difficult tasks won’t feel as daunting.

“What stays with me is that it’s okay to be overwhelmed at times,” says Munzinger. “It’s key to collaborate with people that bring all these different powers with them – things you just can’t do alone.” 

Another lesson: cultivating sources, anonymous and otherwise, starts with being visible, even as a young journalist. 

“Just get your name out, focus on a specific topic, and then go talk to people. Talk to people wherever you can. Go to conferences and really get into the beat you work on, and then these people will start coming to you.”

Heliograph is a monthly podcast from the Investigative Journalism Bureau examining powerful investigative work by reporters from across the globe. 

Heliograph Chapter 7: Reporting on the sadistic world of monkey torture Heliograph: The Investigative Journalism Playbook

In the latest episode of Heliograph, BBC reporters Rebecca Henschke, Joel Gunter, and Astudestra Ajengrastri reveal the harrowing process behind their documentary, "Saving Mini: Inside the Global Network Torturing Baby Monkeys." They discuss handling dark subject matter, interviewing sources with twisted motivations, and the challenges of undercover reporting. Heliograph examines the brilliant, elusive and inspiring work of some of the world’s best investigative reporters to understand their methods, motivations and impact.Each installment of Heliograph focuses on reporting that creates meaningful change and reflects the IJB’s core values: collaborative and innovative storytelling in the public interest. The podcast also embodies the IJB’s educational mission to offer top-notch training in investigative research and reporting.Thanks for listening.The Investigative Journalism Bureau is an impact-driven, collaborative newsroom that brings together professional and student journalists, academics, graduate students and media organizations to tell deeply-reported stories in the public interest. Based at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, the IJB has national reporting honours since its inception in 2020.Contact: ijb.dlsph@utoronto.caFind the Investigative Journalism Bureau on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.Sign up for our mailing list to receive updates on the IJB’s latest news and investigations Hosted on Acast. See acast.com/privacy for more information.
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