To us at Daraj, The Ericsson List investigation had a taste of its own. Similar to previous projects we collaborated on with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), this was initially based on leaked internal documents, showing how the Swedish telecom giant Ericsson depended on bribery, fraud and corruption in its pursuit of profit.
Such practices, criminalized by European law, are largely tolerated, as part of how business is done in our part of the world. This discrepancy between local and international practices lies at the heart of most ICIJ investigations. It is one of the reasons why cross-border collaborations are so important in uncovering how illicit fortunes are made on a global scale.
What made this project unique to us was its scope and timing. Some of the most striking information unveiled by the Ericsson investigation is related to Iraq and Lebanon, two countries we at Daraj cover extensively.
Both are currently living through a deep political and economic crisis, largely authored by the same political and business elites, multinationals like Ericsson, foreign governments and international organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have partnered with and empowered for decades.
In Lebanon, the documents offered an opportunity to re-open the file on the telecom sector, which is the state’s second largest income provider and an iconic example of bad governance and corruption.
Yet, as significant as the Lebanese part of the investigation was, it was the Iraq part that we found most staggering. Partly because it took us back to the period 2014 – 2017 when the whole world was supposedly united in fighting ISIS. Instead, it showed us once again the limitations, and hypocrisy, of the war on terror. More importantly, it gave us and our partners at ICIJ an opportunity to tell the world a rarely heard story about Iraq and its people.
It is the story of an Iraqi telecom engineer who, after years of hard work in the private sector, decided to quit his post and take a small job in the public sector instead. It is a story about sweat, greed and blood.
It is also a story about how corrupt politicians and hungry businessmen ruined present and future prospects for the Iraqi people. And how by shaking hands with all kinds of devils, multinationals, which claim to respect ethical behavior in doing business, became accomplices in major human rights violations.
Our team had traveled to Iraq to take a closer look at what the Ericsson documents had taught us. We were supposed to meet Omar a day earlier in Mosul, but the interviews we had set up in the historical city that was once the heart of Mesopotamia, and not so long ago ISIS’ capital, ran late and we had to drive back to our hotel in Erbil before nightfall.
When we told Omar we had to reschedule, he first insisted on hosting us at his home. When we declined the offer, he proposed to meet us at our hotel the next morning. We agreed.
The day we met Omar was sunny, although it was freezing outside. We were sitting around a table, sipping our coffee, and listening to his version of how telecom companies handled their business under ISIS rule.
When we asked him about Affan, a local team leader who had worked for subcontractor Orbitel and who, according to the documents we had seen, had been kidnapped by ISIS, Omar confirmed the story that Affan had been abandoned by his employers to his captors.
This was a few days before Amir Musawy, a colleague from the German TV channel NDR, which partnered with us in the ICIJ project, found Affan and spoke to him. Omar said he was not aware of any ransoms paid for employees.
“The companies paid bribes to protect their business, but they don’t care about the Iraqi technicians,” he said.
Like all technicians and engineers we met, Omar seemed amused over the “naivety” of our questions. He had no doubt whatsoever that the telecom companies paid ISIS to protect their towers.
“Do you think the towers were not destroyed by chance?” he asked. “Of course the companies paid. Everyone knows everyone paid. Mall owners paid. Even pharmacists and doctors paid. No one even argued. If you wanted to die, you would argue. If you wanted to live, work and be safe, you paid.”
What he was telling us we had been hearing for days from telecom experts, as well as local journalists, activists and politicians.
“If you’re a multinational like Ericsson, or any other company, you know all too well that an organization like ISIS cannot be there forever,” said an Iraqi journalist who covered the war on ISIS for numerous international media. “Then you do what you have to do to protect your investments. Those towers are worth millions of dollars. It would take a lot of time to rebuild them. You pay and you make sure there’s no trail, no transactions that can be followed. And for that there are local contractors.”
According to him and many others, paying bribes was nothing new. It also happened when other militant groups like Jaish Mohamad and Al-Qaeda were in control. Nor was it the only way of doing business with ISIS. Corruption in a sector like telecom is part of the business model.
“Everyone bribes and is bribed, from the concierge to the CEO,” said Omar.
To everyone we met it was crystal clear that business almost always overruled any other considerations. The argument that contributing to ISIS’ revenue streams was, at the very least, undermining the war on terror and causing further damage to those suffering most from it, had no place in most of our conversations.
While listening to Omar we had to keep reminding ourselves what hell living under ISIS must have been. The stories of terror we heard were not new to us as journalists. One reason I wanted to join the team on this trip was because I had been in Mosul in 2017 when only the northern part was liberated. I was eager to see how the city and its people had changed since.
The story about how ISIS considered owning a telephone a crime punishable by death was not new to me, but witnessing firsthand how such rules still marked people even years after they were lifted was striking.
Omar was not the first person to tell us that, personally, he did not know anyone killed by ISIS due to using his phone, but he strongly believed it happened, and he acted upon it. That is how real the fear was. The few times in the ISIS era he was forced to connect with the outside world, he had to drive all the way to Dohuk, almost 55 miles away, to make a phone call.
But terror was not his only bad memory, and ISIS was not the only abuser. Being out of an income for months in his besieged city was far more horrific.Things could have been very different if he had been an “in house” employee for Ericsson. But very few Iraqis were.
“Iraqis are the ones who do the work, but they are all subcontractors, they have no rights.”
Having obtained a degree in Biomedical Engineering, Omar had worked for years for MIC, a local company, little known outside Mosul, which was at times a subcontractor for Zain and Korek, two of the three main operators partnering with Ericsson in Iraq.
In Iraq, three companies, Zain, Asiacell and Korek, have licenses as operators. All three have close ties to political powers, work with international vendors like Ericsson, and rely on a huge network of contractors and subcontractors to get things done. It is a strategy one businessman considered: “The best new mechanism to launder commissions or any wrongdoings in EPC contracts.”
Omar, and others, told us how subcontractors employed by hyperlocal companies suffered from salary cuts during the ISIS era. In his case, he continued to receive his full salary from June 2014 till mid 2015, but then started to be paid only half. Until early 2016. After that he was getting nothing at all.
This was one reason he eventually quit his relatively well paid job in the telecom sector for a government post earning him less than a quarter of his previous salary. For the father of two, who had just welcomed a baby girl to the world, income was no longer the top priority. Safety and stability came first.
More important than the $450 a month he was now making, were the end-of-service indemnity, medical insurance, and the fact that his salary would always be paid regardless of political developments.
To us as journalists, the most challenging part was to bridge the gap between two seemingly completely different stories: that of Ericsson and the legal problems it was facing, and that of the thousands of Iraqi employees who, though not employed by the company, were the ones executing its projects and increasing its profits.
We all felt bad for the young engineer, who had studied so hard and worked even harder to secure a better life for himself and his family, who was good enough to be the most senior executive in the field, yet not worthy of a decent package that conforms to Iraqi laws, let alone European ones.
One of the things we were investigating was how much money Ericsson was able to save thanks to the tax evasion schemes its Iraqi partners had developed. Some were related to custom duties and merely had an impact on the general economy, but others directly impacted workers’ lives.
Omar, for example, was paid $1700 a month for a 7-to-5 job on“cutover days,”when updates or swaps were implemented, which could mean staying on location for over 20 hours without being entitled to any bonus or overtime.
His employer furthermore saved substantial costs cutting on benefits including end-of-service indemnities and health insurance.
Another way to save money was to cheat with salaries. Amir, another telecom engineer we met, who works for a subcontractor working with Zain is paid $2000. On paper, however, his salary is only $400, which is the amount his employer pays taxes on.
So, what happens if someone gets injured? I asked Omar, after everything we heard, still not prepared for what was about to come.
“Nothing,” he said. “The subcontractors don’t get anything. They’re on their own. This happens all the time.”
Omar told us the story of two brothers, Hamza and Ali, both technicians, who a few months ago were exposed to a terrible work accident. Both were unlucky enough to survive. Both have since been subjected to a series of surgeries. Both are still in hospital. Their families need $8000 to cover for Ali’s medical procedure, which Omar and friends are helping to raise. The young technician will probably never walk again.
I was listening to Omar’s story, trying to imagine the scene of the two technicians falling off a telecom tower and wondering why Omar had still not left the country like countless other Iraqis have done. What prospects do young hardworking Iraqis have when even those working for multinationals lack basic rights?
Hours had passed and after listening to the story of Hamza and Ali none of us was able to ask another question.
Omar told us that the reason he had come to talk to us was because his colleague, Amir, the engineer we had met a day earlier, had told him that talking to us might be a good thing for those who still work in the Iraqi telecom sector.
Omar asked us if we thought he had been of any help. We told him that all we could do is tell the story and hope it leads to change. We proposed Omar to cover his expenses for the trip from Mosul. But he categorically refused.
Later that day, he sent us the photos of his friends Hamza and Ali helplessly lying in their hospital beds.