Journalism and Society

Interview – investigative journalist Sinan Can

Picture: BuzzE/Nu.nl

If want to reach a bunch of people; the best way would definitely be the bloody Internet.’

INTERVIEW: INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST SINAN CAN


By: Sam van Royen

No one can deny that journalism has changed ever so greatly in the past two decades, particularly in terms of digitalisation. Sinan Can is a Dutch investigative journalist who has methodically planned his way to doing what he truly wants: making documentaries. During his career, he experienced this abrupt digital change.

Biography – 

Place of birth: Nijmegen
Age: 40
Work: Zembla, Premtime, Infocus, Weggestopt in Irak (Hidden in Iraq)

Sam: Let’s wind the clock back to 1999, Fontys university. How helpful was your study in terms of the upcoming digitalisation?

Sinan: If I’m being honest – the course wasn’t up-to-date at all. It seemed to me that they didn’t take the Internet very seriously. They were underestimating it. So much focus on television, radio, the old media instead. I mean, look at everything now. Follow The Money, De Correspondent, Vice, The Post Online, GeenStijl. Massive media-outlets.
If you want to reach a bunch of people, the best way would definitely be the bloody Internet.

Did you see it coming?

Definitely more than the people who designed the course. However, the change came quicker than expected. Suddenly the internet was this huge medium. I had to adapt, but it wasn’t hard.

You worked on the infamous Ayaan Hirsi Ali episode for Zembla, an incredible scoop that eventually led to the end of the second Balkenende cabinet.
First of all, I have reasons to believe that you ‘found’ the scoop. Am I correct?

(grins) Yes. We were talking about potentially making an episode about Ayaan and her roots. Then I went back, studied all the tapes, read all the interviews, and came to the conclusion she had lied.


‘DE HEILIGE AYAAN’ / ‘THE HOLY AYAAN’

In this shattering television documentary, Zembla exposed the countless lies of member of parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali regarding her roots as a refugee, thus granting her illegal entry to The Netherlands.
After months of controversy, all members of one party (D66) in the coalition resigned, and the cabinet fell.

 

Could you elaborate on your work process?

It was an incredible amount of work.

It ranged from studying old VCR-tapes to standing outside her aunt’s door on a rainy Sunday to convince her she was doing the right thing. We got our hands on old pictures of her wearing a headscarf, the most incredible findings. It did become so intense and hectic that there were points that we considered stopping. I remember working in my study, going through all the cut-out headlines, taping them on the wall… I felt like a detective.
I did keep everything as memorabilia though! For the nostalgia. It reminds me of the ‘romance’ of journalism.

 How different would it be conducting those types of investigations today?

First of all, I wouldn’t want to re-do that entire process, haha. Working on a case like that today would be a lot more efficient.

The internet has such a wide range of data available. It’s the best intelligence service. I wouldn’t have had to call the ‘Kamer van Koophandel’ (Dutch commerce association), I would’ve been able to contact sources faster, I would’ve found footage earlier.

 On the other hand, I can imagine it’s harder to get a scoop like that nowadays with all this available data and online journalism…

Oh sure, a scoop at this scale is incredibly hard to find nowadays. You need to rely on whistle-blowers.
To illustrate – in the Ayaan-case I found very rare footage, deeply embedded in the archives, of her first period as a refugee in Lunteren. I can’t imagine I’d be the only one to be able to find that today.

This is a very broad question – but how do you assess the foreseeable future of journalism?

We, television, need to get our act together. Netflix documentaries have higher budgets, Vice documentaries work more efficiently, and they both reach higher audiences online. However, I can see us lasting longer than newspapers. They’ve already lost the ‘battle’. Look at De Volkskrant for example, now they’ve started to make online videos, but it’s simply too late.

Are you the type that tells your bosses ‘listen, this internet thing is beating us’?

Yes, when necessary. I remember ‘warning’ people about Vice a few years back – they were everywhere, they made good content, they had set up a network… Then they made an incredible documentary literally inside the Caliphate. Unthinkable for the current affairs shows we have now.

 

Sinan is nearly finished with the production of ‘In het spoor van IS’, a two part-documentary series which chronicles conquests and falls of ISIS in the Middle-East. It will air on Dutch television in December.

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