Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the Organized Crime And Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), and OCCRP member center Kloop have received the prestigious 2019 Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) for Plunder and Patronage in the Heart of Central Asia, a six-part report revealing the operations of a massive underground network that funneled more than $700 million from Kyrgyzstan.
The investigation amassed evidence of an illicit cargo empire run by a secretive Uyghur clan that over five years systematically moved undeclared and falsely labeled goods into Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and other Central Asian states, and then funneled hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars out of Kyrgyzstan into Turkey and beyond. It documented further evidence that the funds were laundered through bank accounts and real estate investments in the United Arab Emirates, Europe, and the United States, and exposed the alleged central role of former Customs Service Deputy Director Raimbek Matraimov and other Kyrgyz government officials in facilitating the operation.
“This was a tireless and unflinching effort that combined the local expertise of RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Radio Azattyk, with OCCRP’s experience in anti-corruption reporting to reveal how staggering amounts of money were stolen from the Kyrgyz people,” said RFE/RL President Jamie Fly. “It is an exceptional example of RFE/RL’s mission and our commitment to report about public accountability and the rule of law across our coverage area. Despite the threats and attacks on our journalists because of this reporting, they were undeterred.”
In November 2019, before the report’s publication, Aierken Saimaiti, a key source of information about the network, was shot and killed in an Istanbul café.
Ali Toktakunov, the Radio Azattyk reporter whose reporting drove the investigation, has received credible death threats in connection with the report and been named by Matraimov and his family as a defendant in a libel lawsuit. According to OCCRP, as many as 12 people who reported on or publicly criticized the Matraimov family over the last ten months have been harassed.
This was a tireless and unflinching effort that combined the local expertise of RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service with OCCRP’s experience in anti-corruption reporting to reveal how staggering amounts of money were stolen from the Kyrgyz people.-- RFE/RL President Jamie Fly
In a comment on the investigation, OCCRP co-founder and publisher Drew Sullivan said, “It's a dangerous and often thankless job to write on this topic, but the reporters for RFE/RL and Kloop persevered to tell the last words of a dying source.”
An IRE judge wrote that, “This, to me, is the reason that there is a Renner award -- these crime syndicates that operate in the shadows, particularly in places that the world pays very little attention to." He added that the report met "the true definition of revealing something that people do not want to be revealed, to the point of murder -- and certainly danger for these journalists."
Plunder And Patronage In The Heart Of Central Asia has been viewed more than 2.7 million times on social media platforms, and galvanized hundreds of demonstrators who gathered on the streets of the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, to protest corruption. A three-part treatment produced for TV has been shown on Kyrgyzstan’s public television channel, and several independent private TV channels have carried the program during prime time.
IRE is a nonprofit organization founded in 1975 to improve the quality of investigative reporting by helping journalists throughout the world share story ideas, newsgathering techniques, and news sources. A ceremony to present the award is planned for August 28 at the 2020 IRE Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.
RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Radio Azattyk, is a leading, multimedia source of independent news and information in Kyrgyzstan, reporting on topics that other media ignore, including minority rights, government corruption, and Islamic radicalism.
RFE/RL relies on its networks of local reporters to provide accurate news and information to more than 37 million people in 26 languages and 22 countries where media freedom is restricted, or where a professional press has not fully developed. Its videos were viewed over 3.6 billion times on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram/IGTV in FY2019. RFE/RL is an editorially independent media company funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress through the U.S. Agency for Global Media.