The Tactics Behind a New Investigation by Ian Urbina & The Outlaw Ocean Project

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David Hucks
David Hucks
David Hucks is a 12th generation descendant of the area we now call Myrtle Beach, S.C. David attended Coastal Carolina University and like most of his family, has never left the area. David is the lead journalist at

The Tactics Behind a New Investigation by Ian Urbina & The Outlaw Ocean Project

In November, The Outlaw Ocean Project, a journalism non-profit based in DC, published an investigation into the European Union’s support for the brutal capture and detention of migrants in Libya. The investigation details the enormous human toll of Europe’s decision to finance a far-reaching crackdown on migrants conducted by the authorities in Libya, one of the most popular transit countries for people heading to Europe.

Led by journalist Ian Urbina, a team of four reporters went to Tripoli, Libya, to investigate the role of the E.U. and Italy in funding Libya’s corrupt and brutal Coast Guard to catch migrants before they reach Europe, while effectively turning a blind eye to the ghastly conditions inside Libyan detention centers. 

Behind the Scenes: Satellite Images, Drone Footage, and Open-Source Reporting

The journalistic tactics used to conduct the investigation were varied and innovative. The Outlaw Ocean Project team used time-lapse satellite images to show how a secret cemetery for migrants in Tripoli has grown to include over 10,000 new graves in recent years. Proving the E.U. aerial role in migrant captures, they used air-traffic radio transmissions to pinpoint the location of Frontex planes circling migrant rafts shortly before the Libyan Coast Guard arrested them even though they were in international waters. To show the direct communication between E.U. officials, Frontex and Libyan authorities, Ian Urbina submitted open records requests to Frontex for email and WhatApp correspondence.

The team also sought to reveal the problems with the E.U. ‘s claims that it had no role in abuses and detention of migrants in Libya. To accomplish this goal, they used a database of E.U. contracts and other sources to reveal millions of dollars worth of purchases – ranging from the buses used to transport captured migrants from port to prisons, to the SUVs deployed to hunt refugees in the deserts, to the body bags used to bury the fallen. To show how these purchases were put to use by militias and the Libyan government, the team scoured footage and still images on social media.The reporting aimed to provide detail and clarity to a place that had long been invisible even to average Libyans. To get the fullest view of the migrant jail, inside and out, they sent a drone overhead while in Tripoli and collected cellphone footage from migrant escapees Ian Urbina

interviewed who had filmed conditions during their detention. To measure the dimensions of every door, wall, window, and courtyard, The Outlaw Ocean Project used digital mapping tools. They used time-lapse satellite technology and digital spatial measurement software to discern when the walls were raised and new prison cells were added to Al Mabani.

While reporting on the story, Ian Urbina and his team were violently taken captive and  disappeared into a secret prison by the Libyan Intelligence Service, long affiliated with one of Libya’s powerful militias, the Al Nawasi Brigade. Shortly after the publication of the investigation, the Libyan Intelligence Service handed over to the U.S. State Department the $30,000 worth of equipment and personal belongings they had seized from the reporters before releasing them after six days in captivity.

To locate the secret prison where they were taken captive, Ian Urbina and his colleagues reviewed hundreds of hours of open-source social media footage on Youtube and Facebook and cross referenced it with buildings operated by the Al Nawasi militia.  

Legislators and Human Rights Advocates Cite the Investigation in Calls to Change Policy

In the weeks since the publication by The Outlaw Ocean Project of this investigation, the already heated debate about migration to Europe from Africa and the Middle East broke out anew among politicians, religious leaders, human rights advocates, and legislators.

A variety of those public figures cited the damning findings of the investigation to make the point that wealthier countries such as the member states of the E.U. have to find a better plan for dealing with the numbers of people across the globe forced to flee their homelands because of poverty, violence and the impacts of an overheating planet. Merely outsourcing immigration enforcement to troubled states like Libya is hardly a humane or effective answer.

But despite calls for reform, Libya seems to have taken a step backwards. The Libyan government has named a militia commander  as the new director of immigration enforcement who previously ran another of the country’s most infamous migrant prisons, where rape, beatings and extortion were commonplace.

Mohamed al-Khoja was confirmed on December 23 as the next head of the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM), where he will be responsible for overseeing Libya’s roughly 15 migrant detention centers. For years, al-Khoja ran the Tariq al-Sikka prison in Tripoli, a place where one report after another has documented a ghastly array of crimes against thousands of migrants held there.

“His appointment exemplifies the pattern of impunity in Libya which sees individuals reasonably suspected of involvement in crimes under international law be appointed to positions of power where they can repeat violations, rather than face investigations,” said Hussein Baoumi a researcher with Amnesty International whose organization repeatedly documented human rights violations in Tarik al-Sikka including arbitrary detention, torture and forced labor during al-Khoja’s leadership.

Tineke Strik, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said she intended to hold a hearing before the parliamentary subcommittee on Human Rights in January so that the reporters behind the investigation could give public testimony concerning the E.U.’s involvement with Libya. 

Other government officials from Dublin to Istanbul issued public calls for rethinking Europe’s approach to managing the migrant crisis.

About The Outlaw Ocean Project and Ian Urbina

The Outlaw Ocean Project is a non-profit journalism organization that produces investigative stories, from journalists such as Ian Urbina, about human rights and environmental concerns on the two thirds of the planet covered by water. 

One of the limitations of the traditional model used especially by legacy news outlets, is that worthy investigative stories are typically seen by only a small fraction of the public because these stories get published in just one outlet and typically in just one language. Part of what The Outlaw Ocean Project seeks to do is not just produce polished narrative investigative journalism but also amplify that journalism by converting it into other other mediums to reach new audiences.

The investigation into the secretive prisons that keep migrants out of Europe has been published in 61 news outlets across 30 countries and translated into 13 different languages. This was a huge accomplishment that speaks to the new model of journalism that The Outlaw Ocean Project is trying to leverage.

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