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Guest Post: Investigating private entities with Open Data- Part Two

So, where do we as journalists and researchers begin?

The best place to start when investigating private entities is to turn to public records; that is, if a company hasn’t already put the information you’re looking for online. Usually, listed companies (such as those with the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission, the CIPC) will give the public access to information on their directors, shareholders, contact details, registration number and in some cases, company financials. All of this will usually be available in a company’s annual report. Today, it’s relatively easy to access these on a company’s website or by walking into their office and asking for a physical copy of it. Some of the main things to look out for in a company’s annual report include the business description, vision and mission statements, the director’s report, and corporate governance and compliance. These will give you insight into what a company values most and what it believes its failures and successes to be. You can use these to literally hold a company accountable according to its own standards, and you’ll be able to measure its progression over a few years.

Next, you should look to public records, such as court documents (not yet available online here in South Africa), judgments (SAFLII) and the Government Gazette. This last one is a treasure trove of information and when it comes to analysing corporate data, you should focus on tender bids and awards, company liquidation notices, liquor licence applications, and business and personal name changes. Often, you might not know exactly what you’re looking for in these public records, so before you start, you should compile a list of prominent names, ID numbers (which, contrary to popular belief, are not private because you can never change your ID number), stand-out numbers and amounts, addresses and contact details. This way, making those links at a later stage will be easier to do as you compile only the necessary bits of information. When it comes to public records, you also have the option to submit a PAIA (the Promotion of Access to Information Act) request, but when it comes to private entities, even this is a difficult, tedious and often unsuccessful route to take; don’t rule it out entirely, though. This is probably one of the few ways in which you can obtain complete financial records from a private company.

Next you can and absolutely should do some actual reporting, and speak to several sources. Whether or not you’re a journalist by trade or training, it’s important to remember that in-person interviews are always first prize, but phone calls, emails and Instant Messenger are always options. In some cases, your source may want to remain anonymous and while you need to respect that, you need to be careful not to jeopardise the credibility of your story by using too many anonymous sources. When it comes to investigating private entities, you may need to turn to sources within the actual company, so before you do, think carefully about what type of questions you would ask them and how you would include that information in your reporting or research.

Of course there are also subscription databases. Here in South Africa, we have a few major ones such as the CIPC, WinDeed, LexisNexis and CiproZA, and there are variations of these all over the world that offer information on private entities. These are often used by journalists, but it takes a lot of practice to know how to conduct a good, efficient search. Listed companies will more than likely subscribe to these by submitting information on themselves as well as using it to source information on their competitors. While these are not necessarily a last resort, this is often low down on the list of tools to investigate private entities. Only pay for information if you cannot find it anywhere else and you absolutely need it.

Finally, there are free searches, which are incredibly useful for finding basic information on private companies, especially if you’re investigating more than one. There’s nothing worse than having to look all over the place for the same type of information; it’s useful to have the same standard of data available for various companies in one place. Open Corporates, Investigative Dashboard and Who owns Whom are just a few very good examples.

So why corporate data and how does OpenUp tie into all of this?

Our Transparent Corporates project, or, “TRACE”, for short, makes corporate data freely and publicly available, with the intention of empowering the public to hold the right people in the private sector accountable when they do things that affect everyday life. This ties into our overall vision and mission, which is to empower citizens to improve their lives and the lives of their communities. The ongoings of the private sector are directly related to the public sector and to the average person’s everyday life. You could be a community member, wanting to know who owns the company that is developing a piece of land near your house. Or perhaps there’s a mine near your house and there seems to be some opacity around who its shareholders are.

The resource OpenUp offers pulls in information from various databases, and allows someone to search them all at the same time. Remember those links we spoke about earlier? Well, this is where TRACE comes in handy: it show you your search results on a single page, so you can easily and quickly make links between related people, numbers, addresses and businesses. We also conduct research based on requests. At the moment, we’re working with several journalists, researchers and public interest lawyers to investigate multiple private entities.

One of our main focuses is on illicit financial flow (especially when it’s related to beneficial ownership), a recent hot topic here in South Africa. The best thing to do is just ask, but in some, especially more high profile investigations, some entities won’t be so forthcoming with this type of information. You can scour through annual reports, government-related tenders, news articles, paid databases and of course speak to sources (although finding someone who can give you accurate and trustworthy information, and is willing to share that, is quite difficult to do).

Most of the time, OpenUp looks to the CIPC for financial information, but as has been previously mentioned, this will cost you. A private company whose assets exceed R5-million during the financial year, that compiles its financial statements internally, has a Public Interest Score (PIS) of 100 or more or does so independently (such as through an external accountant) and has a PIS of 350 or more is required to have their financial statements audited. This means accessing these records is made slightly easier, if you know your way around the system. A lot of this type of investigation is more effective when accompanied by visualisations, even if they’re only for you and not for publication.

When investigating suspected illicit financial flow, you’ll need to do things like link ID numbers that keep cropping up to related businesses, find out who the directors are of companies that you suspect are involved, look at shared addresses, track down whatever financial statements you can (through the various ways that have been mentioned previously), see if these companies have won government tenders and how much those cost, find out who donates to and partners with these companies, and link the people involved to one another where links are evident. By visualising and mapping out these relationships, you’ll be able to track your research and finding the flow of monies will be made easier.

Using these tools and resources, intertwined with the long and experiential process mentioned above, we hope to contribute to investigations around private entities, starting here in South Africa. As we’ve already said, this type of information can be incredibly difficult to get your hands on, but there are ways around this, they just take time and a lot of practice.

This is a continuation of a blogpost by Roxanne Joseph, Corporate Data Researcher at Open Up. See Part One here.

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About TJNA

The Tax Justice Network-Africa (TJN-A) is a Pan-African initiative and a member of the Global Alliance for Tax Justice. Launched in January 2007 during the World Social Forum (WSF) held in Nairobi, TJN-A promotes socially- just, accountable and progressive taxation systems in Africa. It advocates for tax policies with pro-poor outcomes and tax systems that curb public resource leakages and enhance domestic resource mobilisation.

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