Paul Radu, who grew up in a closed-off communist country, has gone on to travel to more countries than he can count and become one of the most famous investigative journalists in his home country, Romania.
Radu runs the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an investigative platform that includes 24 non-profit investigative centers, as well as journalists and news outlets from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.
The 41-year-old has also helped develop projects that combine data journalism, digital tools, and traditional reporting, such as Investigative Dashboard, an international investigative data resource platform, and RISE Project, arguably the top platform used for investigative journalism in Romania.
During his career, Radu investigated the cocaine trade in Colombia, sexual slavery and human trafficking, and illegal adoptions in Eastern Europe. His coverage of a new DNA testing procedure for prisoners helped free innocent people. His contribution to the Panama Papers, as head of RISE, the Romanian partner in the international investigation project, uncovered the wrongdoings of several businessmen operating in the country. They include Benjamin Steinmetz, the richest man in Israel, who is now accused of contributing to corrupt deals involving property confiscated by the communist government and reallocated after the fall of communism.
Radu’s passion for tracking down the bad guys, engaging innovation, and connecting with journalists around the world to investigate organized crime got him several distinctions. Among them are a Knight International Journalism Award, an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, and a Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting.
Radu’s interest in journalism began with reading and traveling. When he was a child, he liked a Swedish book, “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils,”about a mean boy turned into a dwarf who traveled on a goose and discovered the world from a humble perspective. Later, in middle school, Radu would stop people in the street, pretend he was a TV reporter and conduct mock interviews.
His professional career in the media began in his first year of college in Timisoara, a city in West Romania, where he was studying both journalism and English and working for a local newspaper. “I wrote my first investigative story when I was 17,” Radu wrote in his application for an Alfred Friendly fellowship 15 years ago. “It was about drug addiction and the thing that in Romanian drug stores you can freely buy narcotics.”
Radu later moved on to national investigation teams and ran the investigation departments at two major Romanian newspapers, Evenimentul Zilei (Event of the Day) and Jurnalul National (The National Journal).
In 2001, when he was in Slovakia doing his masters in journalism, he applied for an Alfred Friendly Fellowship on a lark, because he wanted to see what it would be like to work in an American newsroom.
He had never been to the United States, and the fellowship program “looked interesting, as it was very practical,” he said recently. “No theory, just working with other journalists.”
He had his interview with then-Executive Director Susan Albrecht, who selected him and assigned him to work at the San Antonio Express News. After an initial training session, he was assigned to the newspaper’s investigative team.
“There were three people in the team,” Radu said. “I was the fourth. I started working on my investigations from day one. My first one was about illegal adoptions in Eastern Europe. There were foundations at the time that were adopting from various countries and had several issues. They were declaring donations that weren’t in place in countries such as Romania or Ukraine. They were separating twins. It was a lengthy investigation with many interviews. That’s also when I realized how easy it was to get access to all kinds of documents. Talking to people was also easy.”
The results of the investigation were published soon after the 9/11 attacks and didn’t draw much attention at the time, but the stories continued to be referenced years afterward. Eight years later, people involved in the illegal adoptions and corruption were arrested.
Radu moved on to several other investigations and delved deeper into computer assisted reporting. He used digital tools to enhance his knack for identifying money laundering and high-end criminals.
After over two decades in the media, he still considers the Alfred Friendly fellowship an important milestone in his career. The program made him look more into investigative tools that, at the time of his U.S. visit, were not known in his home country. He encourages all journalists to apply for such training programs because now, more than ever, journalists need to work together, no matter where they come from.
“Journalists need to better understand the global context if they want to engage in investigations that would make a difference,” he said. “Especially now, when everything happens across borders and countries. Think of the Panama Papers. Without understanding the regional and international context, you cannot investigate in a manner that sets the basis for something powerful and meaningful.”
Radu continues to travel around the world —he’s actually lost count of the countries he’s visited — to oversee projects that engage investigative journalists globally. He’s lived in many exotic countries, such as Colombia and Congo. He enjoys discovering new places just as much as experiencing the thrill of a conducting a new investigation, particularly when it involves potentially dangerous subjects.
What keeps him going? Pure passion, a love of people, and an eagerness to learn from every experience.
—By Sintia Radu
(Sintia is a Missouri School of Journalism graduate student who is from Romania, but not related to Paul)