Investigating a tragedy at sea: Q&A with SIRAJ’s Eman El-Sherbiny & Mohammed Bassiki

On June 14th a ship carrying approximately 750 migrants sank near the Greek coast. Only 104 of them survived, even though the Greek Coast Guard was at the site before the accident. Survivors have leveled serious accusations at the Greeks: including causing the boat to capsize in an attempt to pull it into Italian waters, hesitating in their rescue attempts and not showing willingness to investigate the incident.

To establish the truth of this tragedy and the role of the Greek Coast Guard in it, our Report for the World host newsroom SIRAJ collaborated with Germany’s Der Spiegel, Spain’s El País and several other organizations to establish what happened that night. At the center of it was our corps member Eman El-Sherbiny, who as an open source investigator had the task of connecting the on the ground reports from her colleagues to what satellite images and other data sources said about the incident.

The work of El-Sherbiny and her colleagues have prompted the office of the European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly to open an investigation into the incident, focusing on the role of Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, and its responsibility for rescuing migrants at sea.

We spoke with El-Sherbiny to understand better her role in this story and how she conducts an investigation using only public records. We also spoke with her editor and founder of SIRAJ, Mohammed Bassiki, who spoke about how they put together the collaboration with other outlets and why it is important.

Their answers have been edited for style and length.

Eman El-Sherbiny

Report for the World: Your role is a bit different from the other corps members, for those that are not familiar with open source investigations, can you tell us what your job entails and what skills are needed for it?

Eman El-Sherbiny: Open source work usually relies on utilizing data that can be found in the public domain and that includes, footage, satellite imagery, financial statements, ship and flight tracking to name a few. Identifying the right and relevant kind of data is of the highest importance and is an integral part of an open source investigator’s job to weed out any disinformation or misinformation, especially in the age of generative AI. Additional work includes verification and geolocation efforts but also the rigorous analysis of said data in a manner that makes it more palpable for readers and fellow researchers.

RFW: What was your role in the development of the story of the tragedy of the refugee boat that sank off the Greek coast? How’s the process of coordination with editors and reporters to move the story forward?

El-Sherbiny: Examining the information ecosystem was essential to identifying witness testimonies at the Malakasa Camp, which I’ve managed to geolocate and then transcribe said testimonies. I’ve also helped reconstruct a partial timeline of the ships that were within a small distance from the boat in distress and identified three that had helped throughout the ordeal. This was largely conducted using ship tracking services, namely Marine Traffic.

RFW: What were some of the challenges that you encountered during your work in this story?

El-Sherbiny: While open source research is incredibly helpful in many aspects, sometimes necessary information cannot be easily obtained in the public domain such as court documents and in-person interviews, and that’s where my work kind of came to a halt.

RFW: What can journalists and editors do to help open source investigators do their job and contribute as much as possible to the development of stories?

El-Sherbiny: I believe the most important thing in my experience is scaling up that skill set. While most open source investigative journalists take it upon themselves to keep up with the new ways we get to pick apart online information, dedicated training efforts should also be in place. An overlooked skill can sometimes make or break an investigation.


Mohammed Bassiki

Report for the World: Could you walk us through the process where this type of cross-media and cross-country collaborative investigation is put together? In your opinion, how can these collaborations strengthen the reporting and create a more accountability driven investigation?

Mohammed Bassiki: Collaborative journalism in investigative stories and cross-border investigations is one of the most important methods of reporting and informing audiences about problems and violations in our world.

The importance of this kind of cooperation grows when we are talking about closed countries, ruled by dictatorial regimes that fight free journalism, such as Syria.

In SIRAJ, investigations are carried out by a team of journalists specialized in various fields, including documentation, running interviews,methods of verifying information (fact-checking).

When a team of journalists with different experiences and specialties completes an investigation, the collaboration results in a bigger impact than could have occurred otherwise, and the levels of reach for the audience and readers are much higher. 

After deciding to launch an investigation, we begin consolidating the idea and developing the investigation hypothesis to make sure that we have a story that deserves to be told. 

Then, we form a team, draw up a plan and embark on implementation paths.

The participation of journalists of different experiences,backgrounds and cultures reflects positively on the subject of investigation and the development of the story.

Each journalist will look at the story from the perspective of his or her experience and knowledge. In the end, the different ideas find a middle point in which they intersect, here we reach the culmination of achievement in understanding the facts and the hypothesis of the investigation. 

We believe that the diversity of ideas in collaborative journalism is rich and adds value. Many of my investigations with international partners have led to better accountability, often in the form of – in terms of imposing sanctions on individuals and companies and those most seriously involved in abuses.

RFW: You started your report from the point of view of one of the survivors, a Syrian refugee who was attempting to flee to Europe through Libya. Would you tell us more about this choice and the overall editorial vision behind this report?

Bassiki: The story generally revolves around a great human tragedy. You can imagine the horrors of fleeing violence and war in your own country. According to the testimonies of the survivors, they paid a lot and suffered greatly to reach the boat in hopes of crossing the sea to Europe–but, as we know, many never made it. The boat capsized and tragedy occurred.

The survivors were the weakest link in the story, in fact they needed someone to hear their voice after they reached land safely. It was important to know what happened to them, to draw a timeline for the trip, and to explain what happened with a high level of accuracy and focus, so that we could understand the circumstances of this tragedy that they went through.

Once we knew the tragedy that occurred, the team began working to uncover the circumstances of the story. You need to obtain as many accurate facts as possible to tell the world the true story. You will be faced with a large amount of information from various parties, and you need to verify it among the team.

All this is happening and you need to also reflect the extent of the suffering of the victims while narrating the events, which is what we call the humanization of the story.

During the periodic meetings of the team, we discussed all aspects of the story and honed in on a main focus in order to understand the merits of the story – how will we start the narration? And when do we finish? And how? What we mean here is processing.

It is a process in which you reflect on the amount of suffering and conflict between the characters of the story, reaching the climax in a journalistic plot. In the end, the reader or viewer will have a hearty meal of information, but not lose the humanity of the story.

Will he or she know why the tragedy occurred and how it began? And how did it end? In the end, they will understand and realize the consequences of such unfortunate events, which will help them make decisions going forward.