Keeping watchdogs safe 2: An engaged public is the ultimate line of defense

El Caminito, the cocaine transit route used by the Texis cartel in El Salvador, begins in the poor village of San Fernando in the province of Chalatenango. (Photo by Frederick Meza, courtesy of El Faro)

We live in a new world of news, writes Frank Smyth, senior security adviser to the Committee to Protect Journalists. “News organizations that publish primarily or entirely online are now in the thick of front-line, in-depth journalism.”

“With the attention,” he continues in an introduction to CPJ’s extremely helpful  Journalist Security Guide, “has come risk.”

Around the world, a new breed of news online-only news organizations has emerged. They do some of the most exciting and innovative watchdogging work. They are small, feisty, independent. They don’t compete in the breaking news arena but focus on holding the powerful to account. The Internet has given them a platform for disseminating their work and engaging their audiences. It has amplified their voices and given them influence and clout. But they are also vulnerable. Without the resources of large news organizations, they are mostly left on their own to fend off legal and security threats. Read the rest of this entry »


Keeping watchdogs safe1: Good reporting is the first line of defense

The story was told in the signature literary style of  El Faro, an independent online-only news site published in El Salvador. It was on the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang,  which has left a trail of murder and mayhem in Central America, Mexico and the U.S.  It began like this:

El Muchacho received a call on his cell phone Friday morning. It came from the jail in Ciudad Barrios, to explain the new instructions from the Mara Salvatrucha: they would have to “calm down.” In the gang’s language, that amounted to saying that until further notice, there should be no killings and no new extortions.

We had arranged to meet El Muchacho at a shopping center. He’s in his 30s, and very slender. He’s the palabrero (leader) of a clica (cell) of the MS-13 gang. Orders received from the jail cannot be questioned, so he got his cell members together and gave them the message. “We’re on vacation,” he jokes, laughing as he says it.

The report went on to reveal a secret deal in which local gangs would pull back on killings in exchange for concessions from the government, including more lenient treatment for gang members currently in jail. The revelations shook El Salvador, a country reeling from gang violence as it emerged in the last few years as the new pathway for narcotics to enter the U.S.

 

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On the trail of Bo Xilai 2: Beyond China and Hong Kong

Page from a Hong Kong corporate filing shows that Hitoro Holdings, in which Gu Kailai’s sister is a director, is mostly owned by a British Virgin Islands company called Informatic Resources Limited.

Like many members of the Communist Party elite, recently purged Politburo member Bo Xilai and his family members did business in Hong Kong and the West, making it easier for journalists to find a document trail. Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, a high-powered lawyer, practiced in the U.S. and lived in the U.K. for some time. The couple also sent their son to a posh boarding school in England then on to Oxford and later Harvard, where he is currently in graduate school.

Last November, the son, Bo Guagua, provided Exhibit A for a Wall Street Journal essay on China’s princelings. The article opened with a bright red Ferrari the young Bo was supposedly driving around while in Beijing. As the piece said cheekily, he “was driving a car worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and as red as the Chinese flag, in a country where the average household income last year was about $3,300.”

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Follow the family: On the trail of Bo Xilai 1

Hong Kong-based Next magazine followed the trail of corruption left by the recently disgraced Chinese Communist party official Bo Xilai and his glamorous wife, who has been implicated in the alleged murder of the U.K. businessman Neil Heywood.

No recent political scandal has been more riveting than the one that has been swirling around Bo Xilai, the recently purged Chinese Communist Party official now in the international spotlight.

As most of the media focused on Bo’s precipitous fall from grace and its implications on the Party leadership, a feisty Hong Kong magazine began sniffing the corruption trail. In two weeks of intense reporting, the Hong Kong-based, Chinese-language Next Magazine uncovered previously unknown business dealings by Bo and his glamorous wife.

In subsequent weeks, reporters at the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Bloomberg, would be on that trail, too, trolling public records databases around the world to piece together information about the couple, information that in the pre-digital days would have been difficult to find.

This is the new era of investigative reporting. Governments and companies are publishing increasing amounts of information online – yes, even in China. And the ability to find and mine that information is now an essential part of any journalist’s toolkit. Read the rest of this entry »


Follow the houses 2: A DIY Guide

The rock star Sting is among those who bought an apartment on 15 Central Park West, where a Russian billionaire recently purchased an $88-million penthouse.

It’s hard to find assets squirreled away in Swiss banks or buried in an offshore company in the Bahamas. Houses, however, are difficult to hide. As anyone who owns a house knows, a real-estate purchase leaves a trail of public records. That’s why they provide relatively easy pickings for investigative journalists. Reporters may not be able to find evidence of bribery or of other corrupt acts, but with some real-estate sleuthing, it’s possible to trace where the proceeds of crime or corruption went.  Following the houses, therefore, can be as productive as (and sometimes easier than) following the money.

It helps that land records are publicly available in most places – if not online, in public registers accessible to citizens. The New York Times’ recent piece on Russian billionaires gobbling up  $1-billion worth of the fanciest real estate in Manhattan and elsewhere in the United States was made possible in part by the availability of real-estate records stored in online databases throughout the U.S.

In New York, it’s possible to search ACRIS, the city’s online property registry, by party (owner) name or address. Last year, my students were looking into investments made by a shadowy Chinese company in Guinea.

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Follow the money (and the houses)

Demonstrators outside Estrada's 'Boracay' mansion.

I didn’t know much about real estate until 2000 when my colleagues and I  at the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism were checking out rumors that then President Joseph Estrada —  a former movie actor famous for his boozing and womanizing — was building fabulous houses for a string of mistresses. It turned out that the houses were just the most visible manifestations of the deep-seated corruption that was taking place during Estrada’s reign.

Since then, I’ve become house-conscious and have kept an informal tally of officials around the world whose crimes and misdeameanors have come to light because of their mania for mansions (cars are a close second, especially Ferraris and Bentleys, followed by private jets and yachts). Whether in the United States or Nigeria, South Africa or Bosnia, public officials have a penchant for using the people’s money to acquire real property. It wasn’t just Imelda Marcos who suffered from a publicly-financed edifice complex. (See my photo collection, Mansion Mania, on Pinterest.)

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Will the nonprofit bubble burst?

The numbers are amazing and point to a clear trend.  While nonprofit news organizations have existed in the U.S. for decades, the last three to five years have seen a real explosion. Last fall, the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University published  a database of  75 news nonprofits in the United States. Their total funding, the survey found, was  $135 million; together, they had 1,300 full-time employees.

This nonprofit explosion provides a ray of hope to the somewhat parlous  projections about the viability of accountability journalism in the era of downsized newsrooms. The trend is global. News nonprofits are sprouting in  Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

But can it be sustained? Read the rest of this entry »