Can the worst of times for media and political freedoms in post-Soviet Russia also be the best of times for watchdog reporting?
Elizaveta Osetinskyaya, the editor of Forbes Russia, the most prominent business magazine in that country, seemed to think so. It’s a paradox, she said. The Russian media is confronting some of the most formidable political and financial challenges it has faced since the fall of communism. Yet she thinks investigative reporting has never been more vibrant nor its quality better. “Nowadays you can’t hide anything,” she said,” the declarations of officials, their assets overseas, you cannot even hide your offshore accounts.”
“Second,” she continued, “Western [media] brands came to Russia in the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s, bringing high standards and technologies for investigative journalism. I started as a journalist in 1995. A lot of investigative pieces at that time came from leaks from oligarchs. This is not the way I would prefer to find information myself. Nowadays that is more possible than before. Third, despite more restrictive laws, there are now more clear and transparent rules [for businesses and for officials], such as international standards of accounting. Now we have a lot of databases. We have information about tenders. You can find a lot of information about the schemes of private companies. Fourth, there are a lot of independent bloggers who help us do our jobs.”
Osetinskaya was speaking at Columbia’s Harriman Institute, which brought in brought in five of Russia’s leading muckrakers in a forum last week. Put five Russian investigative journalists together in a room and you’re bound to have fireworks. The consensus: Vladimir Putin is bad news for for the Russian press. Since his election to a third term last year, the State Duma has recriminalized defamation and passed new laws that would authorize state censorship of critical websites. There is now far less tolerance for critical reporting than there was during the previous president, Dmitry Medvedev. At the same time, violent assaults on journalists continue.
So it was no surprise that others didn’t quite share Osetinskaya’s optimism. Elena Milashina has been for 16 years an investigative journalist for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, where she continues the work of her slain colleague Anna Politkovsyaka, reporting on Chechnya and also investigating attacks on journalists. Last year, Milashina was attacked and beaten up by unknown men while on her way home. The beatings were so severe, she suffered a concussion, 14 blood clots and a broken tooth.
It’s possibly the biggest single leak of documents in the history of investigative reporting. This week, the Washington, DC-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released a series of stories based on 2.5 million documents that its director, Gerald Ryle, had obtained while he was still doing journalism in Australia.
In the last 15 months, 86 journalists in 46 countries have been poring over the document cache. ICIJ, housed in the Center for Public Integrity, coordinated the investigation from DC, using a secure messaging system to communicate with a worldwide team of journalists and free- text retrieval software and programmers in three continents to mine the information from the documents (for more, read this account of how this amazing project was put together).
In recent years, there’s been great work done on the offshore economy, including astounding estimates made by economists, advocacy groups, international financial institutions and academics of the trillions of dollars of global wealth that is stashed in offshore havens. What makes the ICIJ’s exposé such a blockbuster, however, is that it names names, in effect puncturing huge holes in the armor of secrecy that makes offshore havens so attractive.
The ICIJ reports this week expose an array of individuals, including politicians (everyone from a Kuwaiti sheikh to Imee Marcos in the Philippines to members of the Azerbaijani ruling family), businessmen, criminals, and even a songwriter and art collector who have stashed their assets overseas. Up till now, those assets – at least those in 120,000 offshore companies and trusts now on ICIJ’s database – were cloaked in secrecy, kept away from the prying eyes of journalists, government regulators and tax collectors. But no longer.
Offshore companies are not illegal. There are legitimate reasons for housing a company offshore. But because offshore havens guarantee their clients secrecy, they have become natural havens for corruption, organized crime and tax evasion.
In a tweet last night, ICIJ said it is contemplating making a public release of its data. If that happens, more secrets are likely to emerge as journalists and others who were not originally part of the collaboration dig into the data and find their own stories. This indeed could be bigger than Wikileaks’ “cablegate,” not just in terms of the size of the leaked documents (Wikileaks had about 250,000 US State Department cables) but also in terms of the international journalistic collaboration. (Disclosure: I am a member of ICIJ and my former organization, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, was part of the Offshore Project). Read the rest of this entry »
Last week, David Kaplan, the director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, argued that we can make a more effective case for investigative reporting if we explained more forcefully the good that it does. After all, investigative reporting is costly and risky, and as the resources for it dry up, we need to show it’s worth the investment of time and money. The evidence is there, he said in a recent post, citing a recent Transparency International survey of 3,000 businessmen in 30 countries, the majority of whom ranked investigative reporting as the most effective anti-corruption deterrent.
Businessmen are supposed to be realists. So it’s quite astonishing that, as the TI survey showed, they’re putting more faith in journalism’s power to counter corruption than in national anti-bribery laws and international conventions. Is there in fact empirical evidence for such faith? Or are the businessmen not so much impressed by the power of reporting as they are cynical about the effectiveness of anti-corruption laws?
Since the 1990s, academics as well as organizations like the World Bank Institute and the UNDP have run regression analyses using TI’s Corruption Perception Index and Freedom House’s freedom of the press ratings. The data have consistently shown that for the most part, countries with a freer press have less corrupt governments or, to be more precise, governments perceived to be less corrupt. Thus, Daniel Kaufman, the World Bank Institute’s
director former director for governance, stresses the importance of a free press and of investigative reporting in particular:
Basically, the capacity of some countries of engaging in a freer way in full disclosure through the media, coupled with the capacity of undertaking investigative journalism, can make a huge difference. That raises enormously the reputational risk and, therefore, the reputational cost for the corporate sector of engaging in these practices. Similarly, it raises the costs for the public sector and the politicians.
The Institute’s conclusions, however. are based mainly on survey data; that is, on the perception of, rather than actual, corruption, which is difficult to measure. Moreover, it’s hard to isolate the impact of a free press or watchdog reporting from other factors that may be linked to the control of corruption, such as independent judiciaries, respect for civil liberties, and the strength of civil societies and political parties. Academic studies have found that countries with independent courts and responsive bureaucracies also tend to be less corrupt.
This is hardly a surprising insight. We know that watchdog reporting can be most effective in countries where there are independent courts, responsive governments and empowered citizens. Without them, the work that journalists do is unlikely to lead to reforms. Russian journalists, for example, can publicize corruption at the highest levels, and they have, but that has not improved governance under Vladimir Putin. The same can be said of countries like Azerbaijan, or perhaps even Malaysia or Thailand. Individual stories may cause a policy reversal or drive a corrupt official out of office, but it’s generally hard to hold political or bureaucratic elites accountable if they enjoy impunity. How many times have I heard journalists complain that their exposés founder on the shoals of public and state indifference? That the politicians whom they’ve proven guilty of malfeasance are elected to office again and again?
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The question was posed to me earlier this week by Philip Chamberlain, a journalism lecturer in the UK. His students, he said, seem to have this perception. His own informal survey showed that only about a third of the staff members of investigative outfits in his country are female. And yet, in his classroom, as in classrooms of journalism schools elsewhere in the world, including my own, women outnumber men (in the Columbia Journalism School, the student body is two-thirds women).
For sure, journalism has come a long way since 1970, when the women on the Newsweek staff sued the magazine for discrimination. Newsweek at that time employed women as fact-checkers and researchers but not as writers or reporters, which were positions reserved for men. That’s thankfully no longer the case and women have since taken on high-profile media jobs. Still, in 2012, women made up just 37 percent of the staff of newspapers and account for only about a third of supervisory jobs, the Women’s Media Center reported last month. While a woman is now chief editor of The New York Times, the ratio of women in leadership positions in U.S. newsrooms has remained unchanged at about 30 percent since 1999.
So where have all the women journalism students gone? In recent years, more of them got jobs than men, said the Women’s Media Center report, which cited figures from the Cox Center at the University of Georgia. But women are more likely to end up in public relations and online news sites. Male graduates are more likely to pursue jobs at weekly and daily newspapers, wire services, television, radio and cable.
Are the numbers rosier in investigative reporting? Alas no. What data is available indicates that the composition of investigative staffs reflects the overall media picture. For sure, we’ve seen the proliferation of independent, nonprofit watchdogs, some of them founded by women. But even there, men – especially white men – dominate. The world of watchdogs is hardly reflective of the diversity of the real world.
The Women’s Media Center monitored the bylines in six online news sites in the second half of 2012. It found that women’s bylines outnumbered men’s in California Watch and Pro Publica. But in four of the others, as you’ll see in the graph, the ratio is reversed. The top executives of all four of the investigative nonprofits included in the study are male.
The same is true of the vast majority of members of the Investigative News Network, which is composed of nonprofit news organizations focused on accountability and public-interest reporting. For sure, INN’s membership is diverse as it counts both big and small newsrooms in the U.S. and Canada doing local, state, national and even international reporting. But only 25, about a third, of the 73 member organizations listed on the INN website have founders, executive directors or chief editors who are women. These nonprofits have been the sites of innovation and entrepreneurship. But they are far from being poster children for diversity.
[CORRECTION: A recount of members listed on INN's website shows 28 out of 73 INN-affiliated organizations led by women; that is, their names are at the top of the masthead. I missed three. Kevin Davis, CEO of INN, says that as of March 12, INN will have 78 members, of which 33 or 42% are, by my definition, led by women. Kevin, however, says a more accurate count should include groups where women are managing directors or in other very senior positions. In this case, the number would be 37 of 78, about 47%.] Read the rest of this entry »
Two weeks ago, Jon Stewart at The Daily Show “investigated” investigative reporting and discovered it no longer existed, having been “disappeared” by cost-conscious media executives. The Daily Show correspondent John Oliver found that if some shadow of investigative journalism still walked the earth, it was only in the fictional newsroom of HBO’s “The Newsroom.”
The episode was achingly funny because it rang so true. But is it really so? It’s true that in the last five years, we’ve seen a drastic decline in the investigative capacity of American newsrooms. Hit by the twin blows of economic crisis and collapsing business models, newspapers and TV stations eliminated or downsized their investigative units. Yet at the same time, the muckraking spirit remains alive. In the past few months, for example, The New York Times, Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal have published groundbreaking investigations on the wealth of China’s Communist Party leaders. For sure, these are the guys in the big league, but amazing digging is also being done by smaller news organizations, including the new investigative reporting nonprofits, some of which are collaborating with public broadcasters.
We expect nonprofits and public broadcasters to do watchdog work. What’s surprising is that in the last couple of weeks, the Gawker affiliate Deadspin stunned the sports world with its revelatory report on Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o's fictional girlfriend. The report, as its authors explained in a Pro Publica podcast, was the product of good-old-fashioned digging in the new digital realms of Twitter and Facebook.
I know that a few swallows do not a summer make and that outstanding work notwithstanding, the anxiety even in the big newsrooms is palpable. The question in both for-profit and nonprofit investigative units is: How long can this be sustained?
It’s a question that’s not possible to answer. We are in the midst of a media revolution. Clarity is rare in revolutionary times. Outcomes are not certain, and predictions are cheap precisely because of the uncertainty.
I’ve lived through a revolution – sort of one, when Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in a popular uprising in the Philippines in 1986. In hindsight, it’s easy to say that we knew or should have known that the democratic transition was going to be tumultuous and difficult. The truth is we didn’t and couldn’t have known. And the choices that our leaders and our people made in the early years of the the transition laid the ground for where the country is in now. Read the rest of this entry »
Five years ago, there were 39 nonprofit investigative reporting organizations in the world. Today there are 106 of them in 47 countries. According to David Kaplan, director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network and author of anew study that maps this space, this number includes reporting centers, training institutes, professional associations, grant-making groups and online networks dedicated to investigative journalism.
These nonprofit groups range from lean, one-person operations to multimillion-dollar newsrooms like the Center for Public Integrity in Washington DC, the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco and Pro Publica in downtown New York. They are everywhere – from Bosnia to Brazil, and from Iowa to Iraq. The newest centers – in Italy and Pakistan – have been formed only in the past month. But most most of these, says Kaplan, have budgets of less than $50,000 and five or fewer people on staff. Yet, many of them wield clout that is disproportionate to their size, producing or enabling high-quality, high-impact journalism that holds wrongdoers to account.
Most of these organizations have been formed only in the last decade. In the U.S., the growth has been spurred in part by the demise of newspapers and the downsizing of investigative staffs in traditional newsrooms. Elsewhere, the formation of investigative reporting groups has less to do with collapsing business models than with the emergence of new democracies and the dysfunctional meda systems that have taken root during the democratic transition. Kaplan attributes the phenomenal expansion of the nonprofit model in part to donor support. He calculates that annually, some $12.5 million in donor funds go to investigative reporting organizations outside the U.S. That’s just two percent of the nearly $500 million that donors spend every year on media assistance.
I ran a nonprofit investigative reporting center in the Philippines for 17 years, and so have intimate knowledge of the challenges faced by these investigative reporting organizations. For sure, physical threats and legal harassment are difficult to deal with, but more routine problems – like training and keeping talented staff, managing partnerships with mainstream news organizations, and perhaps most formidable of all, ensuring a stable revenue stream – can be even more challenging. I’ll wager that for the most part, directors of investigative nonprofits stay awake at night thinking about next year’s payroll rather than contemplating jail time because of a controversial story. Read the rest of this entry »
When journalist Umar Cheema launched the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan (CIRP) last week, he did so with a bang: A blockbuster story that hit the headlines around the world. Two-thirds of Pakistani MPs, his report said, do not pay their taxes. Neither did President Asif Ali Zardari – famous for his spending sprees, polo games and luxurious country estates – and more than half the Cabinet.
One would think that given his history, Cheema would be more cautious about exposing wrongdoing. Two years ago, while driving home from a dinner, he was seized from his car by men in black commando garb. He was brought to a house where he was stripped naked, beaten and sexually assaulted. Unlike victims of similar abductions, Cheema spoke out and said Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency was responsible for the attack.
When I called him in Islamabad over the weekend, Cheema was still dealing with the furor raised by his tax story. He expected this. After all, he named names. In a 70-page booklet called, Representation without Taxation, which was released online and in a press conference last week, he listed all the members of Parliament who who didn’t pay any tax at all. He also published the names of those who had paid taxes in 2011 and the amounts they remitted to the government.
MPs roundly denied the charges and accused Cheema of being on the payroll of their rivals and of timing the report for the elections, which will likely be held in the spring. “The opposition and the administration have joined hands to wage attacks on me and malign me,” he said. But he could document each and every charge, including the last rupee of tax paid. It took six months, he said, to gather the information, verify and then verify again. He knew that he would pay dearly for any mistake. “We were doing naming and shaming,” he said, “and we had to be extra careful.”
As investigative reporter for The News, Cheema had taken on the military and the intelligence services and exposed Zardari’s corruption. Now he is on his biggest story yet.
Last week, on a visit to the modest Jakarta office of the feisty Indonesian newsmagazine Tempo, I was told about one of the magazine’s proudest moments.
Now Tempo has a lot of proud moments. Founded in 1971 in the glory days of the Suharto dictatorship, it has always been an independent and credible voice. In 1994, in what would be later remembered as marking the beginning of the end of the Suharto era, the Indonesian information ministry shut down Tempo and two other publications for reporting on a government purchase of overpriced warships. Banned Tempo journalists helped set up underground newspapers, an independent journalist’s association to counter the government-sponsored one, and because the regime hadn’t yet figured out the internet, a site called Tempo Online.
Reopened in 1999, shortly after Suharto’s fall, Tempo remains the most influential and respected newsmagazine in Indonesia. But the country has changed. Indonesia is now a democracy with competitive elections and a rambunctious and free-wheeling press. It’s also in the midst of a digital revolution. The country is one of the fastest-growing mobile and tablet markets in Asia. Mobile-phone subscriptions are cheap here, with basic monthly data plans starting at $5, giving rise to what Tempo executive Bambang Harymurti calls “Facebook phones” – inexpensive handsets used mainly for getting access to the social networking site. It’s estimated that Indonesia will have 150 million people online by 2014, making it the 11th largest internet user in the world. Most of them will likely be accessing the internet through mobile devices. Read the rest of this entry »
I work in a journalism school, where exposure to the sound and fury of debates on the future of journalism is an occupational hazard. There can be lots of noxious fumes in some of those discussions, and so the essentials are often lost in the smoke. This was why going through the Columbia Tow Center’s Post-Industrial Journalism – a newly released and eminently readable manifesto on the future of the profession – was like breathing fresh air. To begin with, it restates what’s often taken for granted when these exchanges heat up: Why, in the first place, does journalism matter?
C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky make clear from the start: Journalists are not mere purveyors of facts. They are truth-tellers, sense-makers, explainers. The journalism that really matters is the reporting that can change society and hold the powerful to account. “Now and for the foreseeable future,” they say, “we need a cadre of full-time workers who report the things someone somewhere doesn’t want reported.”
There will, however. be fundamental changes in how this cadre will work and where, how their journalism is going to be distributed and how it will be funded. The report maps those changes, and its 126 pages are well worth a read. Suffice it to say that the authors envision a preeminent place for watchdog reporting and the institutions that do it.
That place, however, is not guaranteed. It requires not just reporters who can produce high-quality accountability journalism but also institutions that can sustain them. For sure, the newsrooms of the future will be smaller, with far leaner budgets than they do now. They will therefore have to do more with less. The report makes clear that the ones that will flourish in the changed media landscape will be those that harness the power of the crowd, of computers and of collaboration.
There’s much pessimism these days about the state of the Balkan media. In a recent panel held at the BIRN Summer School in Mavrovo, Macedonia, Balkan editors said the noose was tightening around the region’s press, citing as examples rising financial pressures on media owners and threats of layoffs of independent journalists. Yet at the same time, some outstanding investigative reporting is being done in the Balkans, thanks not only to a growing and increasingly savvy community of watchdog journalists but also to the robust freedom-of-information laws that many countries in the region have adopted in the last decade.
A global rating of right-to-information laws ranked Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Kosovo among the countries with the best FOI laws in the world, and many journalists are taking advantage of the openness to do groundbreaking reporting. It helps that in some countries – Serbia and Slovenia were cited as particularly good examples – reform-minded information commissioners have interpreted the laws liberally, releasing documents that would not have come to light in previous regimes.
In Slovenia, for example, the blockbuster “In the Name of the State” trilogy exposed the illegal arms trade involving Slovenia and neighboring countries during the Yugoslav wars. Journalists Matej Šurc and Blaž Zgaga spent three years researching the project, which benefitted from the release of 6,000 pages of documents obtained through the Slovene Freedom of Information Act. They exposed how weapons from the former Yugoslav People’s Army warehouses were seized and sold and also how Croatia and Bosnia and Herzogovina obtained arms and munitions from overseas despite a UN embargo. Read the rest of this entry »