Drowning in lies

Stephen Davis says lessons about fake news and conspiracy theories need to be learned from one of Europe's worst peace-time maritime disasters, which occurred 25 years ago today. Bruce Munro talks to the Dunedin investigative journalist who is a consultant for a major international documentary series about the likely-Russian sinking of the passenger ferry Estonia and its cover-up with collusion from Western nations including the United Kingdom.

It was at a secret location in Europe - he won't say where - that Stephen Davis was told the sinking of Estonia, with the loss of 852 lives, was no accident.

In the early-2000s, Davis, a New Zealand investigative reporter, television producer and former editor of The New Zealand Herald, was living and working in London.

He had cultivated a contact in the United Kingdom (UK) Special Air Services, the elite British Army unit famous for covert reconnaissance, direct action, counter-terrorism and hostage rescue. That contact regularly worked with the UK's spy agencies and put Davis in touch with a retired officer of the foreign intelligence service, MI6.

Davis and the MI6 officer began communicating, most often through an encrypted email programme the agent had sent Davis.

In time, Davis came to trust the agent who he says "had worked on the Russia desk".

"His information has proved 100% reliable over the years," Davis says.

Eventually, the journalist and the MI6 spy met face-to-face at that secret spot somewhere on the Continent.

Dunedin journalist Stephen Davis is continuing his investigation of the sinking of the ferry...
Dunedin journalist Stephen Davis is continuing his investigation of the sinking of the ferry Estonia, 25 years ago today, for a big-budget international, documentary series being filmed in Northern Europe. Photo: Gregor Richardson
The reason for the clandestine meeting was not Estonia. At the time, the catastrophic sinking of the passenger ferry in the Baltic Sea, early on September 28, 1994, was something Davis was "only vaguely aware of".

He says they were talking about an entirely unrelated subject, international smuggling, when the agent "turned around and told me ... that I should look at the sinking, and I should look at Britain's involvement, and I should look at the Russians' involvement".

"He suggested that the sinking of the Estonia was not an accident and that Britain, Sweden and the Baltic nations had good reason to want the truth to stay buried."

This week, Scandinavian production company Monster Entertainment has announced a six-part documentary series that will re-investigate the sinking and its many unanswered questions. Davis, on the basis of his investigative work that began with the agent's tip-off, has been hired by Monster as a consultant and will also appear in the big-budget documentary due to go to air internationally in the first quarter of next year.

The sinking of Estonia, 25 years ago today, was Europe's worst peace-time, maritime disaster after the Titanic. The luxury ferry set sail at 7pm, on September 27, from Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, bound for Stockholm, the Swedish capital. Making the 17-hour crossing of the Baltic Sea aboard Estonia were 803 passengers and 186 crew. More than 500 of the passengers were Swedish. Among them, wrote Davis, in Truthteller, published this year, were 60 police officers from the Stockholm police department returning from a conference, a group of judges, members of a senior citizens club who had paid $US120 each for a three-day shopping and sightseeing trip to Tallinn and 21 evangelists from a pentecostal church.

About midnight, a crew member doing a routine inspection tour of the ferry's car deck heard a loud bang. It seemed to come from underneath the bow door that allowed vehicles on and off the vessel. He radioed the bridge, looked for damage but could see none and continued on his way.

After 1am, in heavy seas, water began pouring into the car deck.

Pumps were switched on. An emergency crew alert was sounded.

Estonia was listing to starboard. Water was filling cabins on the first deck.

The captain ordered a mayday message to be broadcast.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
As the ferry tipped over and quickly began to sink, most passengers were trapped in their cabins. Others tried to get into lifeboats. Many jumped into the icy waters.

Of the 989 people aboard, 138 were rescued, but one later died in hospital. There were 94 bodies recovered. About 650 people were still inside the ferry when it sank. In total, about 750 of the dead have never been recovered.

Only the sinking of Titanic, with the loss of 1500 lives, overshadows Estonia for European peacetime marine tragedies. Yet, the former happened more than a century ago and is still a household name, while Estonia was only a quarter of a century ago and is virtually unknown in most countries.

Davis was unaware a documentary series about the case was being filmed until, early this year, an email arrived "out of the blue".

He did not get excited because he gets a couple of emails a year flying kites on media projects about topics he has investigated - and most of them do not go anywhere.

But the people at Monster Entertainment made good on their promise of flying to meet him when he was in London, in May. It soon became obvious they had the resources and expertise to make it happen and the right approach to do it properly, Davis says.

The passenger ferry Estonia sank with the loss of 852 lives, but is barely known in English...
The passenger ferry Estonia sank with the loss of 852 lives, but is barely known in English-speaking countries despite being Europe's biggest peace-time maritime disaster after the sinking of the Titanic. Photo: Reuters
Monster is Norway's largest production company. It is owned by the much larger Nordic Entertainment Group, which has in its stable, among other things, television and radio stations, two online streaming services and 30 production companies.

"They're big. That's good because this kind of story needs a team working on it for a year, which is what is happening.

"If you want good journalism, it all takes time and has to be paid for.

"They're well resourced, highly ethical and good investigators."

Monster producer Frithjof Jacobsen says he is creating a six-part documentary that tells the story of Estonia "from the fatal night in 1994 up to our time".

"It will explore the various competing theories on how a quite new, German-built, passenger ferry can sink in just a little over 30 minutes, leaving a very slim chance of survival for all the people on board," Jacobsen says.

"Stephen Davis will be an important source ... as he has published very interesting facts about this operation both in news articles and in his latest book Truthteller. Davis is also hired as a consultant for the series, with a special focus on all the various conspiracy theories that surround the Estonia."

It was several years after Davis met the MI6 officer that he began his investigation.

"I usually have several investigations on the go and simply didn't have the time and resources to do it."

Survivors of the sinking.
Survivors of the sinking.
When he did begin digging, the going was not always easy. Davis, for example, had enlisted a couple of Russian friends, who were journalists, to help with the investigation.

"They were both threatened and warned off. I had to accept that. In Russia, of course, you can literally lose your life if you're investigating the wrong things."

What he discovered then, and consequently, was published in an article in the UK news magazine New Statesman, in 2005, and in Truthteller, this year.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, in 1991, a market in Soviet secrets and material blossomed.

"For Western intelligence agencies, in particular the CIA and MI6, it seemed like every day was Christmas and the presents kept arriving."

The Baltic nations were "like a sweet shop for spies - accessible, target-rich and friendly", Davis says, quoting fellow journalist and Russia expert Edward Lucas.

The British helped the newly-independent nation of Estonia set up its own spy agency. The two services worked together, often along with the Swedes.

Lennart Henriksson, a former head of customs in Stockholm said the ferry Estonia had been used to smuggle stolen Russian military equipment to the West. A Swedish court of appeal investigation of Henriksson's claims confirmed there had been shipments on September 14 and 20, 1994.

In the former Soviet Union a group of senior KGB officers, known as the Felix Group, reportedly formed to target those they blamed for the collapse of the USSR and to shut down the flow of secrets to the West.

According to Davis' sources, an early member of the Felix Group was the future Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Three years after the tragedy, an official inquiry concluded faulty locks on the bow door of Estonia, and delayed responses by ferry crew, had resulted in the 50-tonne door being ripped off in high seas allowing water to flood in, overturning and sinking the ferry.

Stephen Davis broke the story of probable British spy agency involvement in the Estonia ferry...
Stephen Davis broke the story of probable British spy agency involvement in the Estonia ferry tragedy in an article in the New Statesman, in 2005.
But it was clear to Davis, and others, that there were many curious and significant loose ends.

"If anything classically reeks of a cover-up, the Estonia sinking does.

"It sank in relatively shallow waters. It's a bit expensive but technically feasible to bring it to the surface. The Swedish Prime Minister promised the victims emphatically, on camera, `We will spare no expense to get to the bottom of this and to bring the ship up'.

"Instead, they have done the exact opposite. They have literally buried it in concrete, discouraged people from going to the wreck to investigate.

"That poses the question, what do they have to hide?"

Then, there is the Estonia Agreement. Signed the year after the sinking, two years before the official inquiry concluded, it is an international agreement prohibiting people from approaching the wreck. Signatories are Baltic nations, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Denmark and Russia, plus the UK.

Davis says the treaty is illegal because the wreck is in international waters.

He asked himself, and then the UK government, why a non-Baltic nation was a signatory.

"It is often the case when you are doing an investigation, that when information is apparently withheld for no good reason, it makes you more suspicious.

"When I attempted via the Freedom of Information Act to get details from the Foreign Office about why they had signed the treaty - It's not a Baltic nation. One Britain died aboard the ferry. There is no apparent reason for signing it - I got stonewalled, completely stonewalled."

How quickly the ferry sank is an enormous issue.

Estonia sank in 45 minutes. Ships of that kind that have taken on water have taken many hours, even days, to sink.

"The only examples of ships of that kind sinking that quickly were when they were torpedoed or mined."

In 2000, United States venture capitalist and diving enthusiast Gregg Bemis organised a series of exploratory dives at the Estonia site. Despite being harassed by the Swedish Navy (in international waters) the divers filmed the wreck, found a hole near the bow and brought up pieces of metal cut from near the bow door. Laboratory tests in the US and Germany showed signs of an explosion on the ferry's hull, Davis says.

"The results show changes to the metal similar to those seen by high-detonation velocity," one report concluded.

Other anomalies include the disappearance of Avo Piht and NSA secrecy about the sinking.

Piht was an Estonian sea captain who was aboard Estonia as a passenger. He was originally listed as a survivor. To appear on the list, survivors had to give their full name, date of birth and nationality, Davis says. Piht was identified by a survivor as being aboard a particular life raft. Someone looking like Piht also appears in the background of photos of surviving passengers. But while the logbook of the helicopter that rescued people from that liferaft says there were 24 people, the later commission of inquiry says there were only 23 and Piht is recorded on the official list of those who died.

The US National Security Agency (NSA) has at least three files on Estonia sinking, Davis says.

But the agency's line on the files is "The documents are classified because their disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to the national security".

In November, Davis is travelling to Oslo, Norway, to film elements concerning his Estonia investigations.

The series is scheduled to air in Nordic countries in the northern hemisphere spring, on channels owned by the Discovery Channel. International distribution will be negotiated after that. Davis has also been hired as a consultant to help trace and explain the many conspiracy theories that have sprung up about Estonia.

There were claims the Russian-Estonian mafia had mined the ferry to warn the shipping company to pay protection money; claims the ferry sank when the bow door was opened in an attempt to get rid of illicit cargoes of heroin and cobalt before customs officers seized it. Some blamed Arab terrorists, others the Israelis. Another story said there were space laser systems on board.

Davis says there are important lessons that need to be learned today.

Fantastic and unlikely conspiracy theories are useful for governments trying to keep blunders or deliberate acts secret, he explains.

"How better to disguise an actual conspiracy than to surround it with invented conspiracies - and the more outlandish the better.

"Legitimate journalists asking questions can be lumped in with the lunatic fringe."

He says everyone has a vested interest in ensuring dis-information and mis-information does not win.

"It is dangerous to us all."

He also has a warning for journalists and the public against getting caught up in the endless, superficial pursuit of the new and the titillating.

"The appetite for long-form, complicated investigations has lessened.

"The news cycle used to be 24 hours. Now it's apparently five minutes.

"Why should we go back to this old story? Because if what happened is not known, it's not an old story."

Survivors of the disaster disembark from a Swedish military helicopter.
Survivors of the disaster disembark from a Swedish military helicopter.
Davis says his involvement in the documentary series is "extremely inconvenient". He is trying to finish his follow-up book to Truthteller and is preparing a University of Otago Summer School course, "Journalism Now: Seeking truth in a world of disinformation and fake news".

But he is pleased to be involved in the documentary because he believes it will break new ground in uncovering what happened to Estonia.

"It is really a quite serious investigation.

"They, along with me, are investigating some of the angles. I'm retracing the investigation I did in Truthteller and trying to develop extra sources.

"I have some extra details ... which will appear in the documentary."

Davis says intelligence sources have confirmed the Estonia was being used to smuggle vital information and components from the Soviet space and missile programmes.

Sources say the Russians learnt about the smuggling operation and tried to stop it.

Multiple sources say the ferry was sunk by a mine explosion.

"The most likely explanation is that a mine was placed by Russian operatives or people acting for the Russian government.

"The Russian mine was designed ... to damage it and force it back to port."

But Davis believes the operation went wrong, the mine caused more damage than intended, possibly because of faulty locks on the bow door. The vessel was swamped and sank, killing 852 people.

"There will of course never be any official confirmation of Russian responsibility ... Putin's Russia is not a place where transparency rules."

Davis makes the point that it appears the British and Swedish governments were secretly using public transport to smuggle stolen Russian military equipment - "in effect turning the passengers on the ferry into a form of human shield".

"Britain, Russia and Sweden, who are the major signatories to Estonia treaty, still want the truth about the disaster buried, like the ferry itself."



Accusing Israeli govt of something does not immediately mean you are an "antisemite" (which is an odd misnomer that has come to mean specifically anti-jewish prejudice akin to racism rather than anti or against all semitic languages such as arabic).
Regarding "Russia is not a place where transparency rules" and "In Russia, you can lose your life if you're investigating the wrong things"... [it sounds a bit russophobe or anti-cyrillic].
In USA, UK and many other countries you can be murdered or jailed for investigating the wrong things (eg Julian Assange) .
I dont suppose Discovery channel will be allowed to air info that is a "threat to National Security".
Only if they like the conclusions you find.
Interesting article! and upcoming doco.