Speaking truth to power is an Asian value

(Adapted from keynote address at Uncovering Asia: The First Asian Investigative Journalism Conference, November 24, 2014, Manila)

Liang Qichao founded the newspaper Shibao in Shanghai in 1904

Liang Qichao founded the newspaper Shibao in Shanghai in 1904

Twenty-five years ago, the term “investigative reporting” was little known in Asia. The media landscape was dominated by pliant newspapers, insipid TV news programs and journalists who saw themselves as mouthpieces of government.

Today journalists throughout Asia are using freedom-of-information laws, data analysis, social media, collaborative tools and the latest in digital technology. They are writing about corruption, human slavery, dirty money and environmental problems.

We’ve come a long way. In 1989, when my colleagues and I formed the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) in a borrowed office with second-hand furniture, we didn’t even have a telephone. It’s hard to imagine this now when mobile phones are so ubiquitous in Asia, but at that time, there was only one telecoms company and it was so inept, it couldn’t provide us with a phone. All we had were second-hand electric typewriters, one DOS-based computer and a few boxes of floppy disks.

Since the 1980s and ‘90s, new freedoms, new technologies, new markets and new laws have empowered journalists like never before. Twenty-five years ago, Asia had one investigative reporting center. Today there are centers in Nepal, Korea Pakistan, India and two in Thailand, TCIJ and Thai Publica. Investigative units in newspapers and broadcast networks are no longer a novelty. There are investigative magazines – notably Tempo in Indonesia and Caixin in China. In many countries, even in China, there are TV news programs that label themselves investigative.

Throughout this time, we’ve been told that Asians value consensus over exposure. They’re wrong: Speaking truth to power is an Asian value.

Presidential Palace, Manila, on the day Marcos fell, 1986.

In many of our countries, journalists have played an important role in bringing about the democratic transition – there was the “mosquito press” in the Philippines, which reported on the excesses of Ferdinand & Imelda Marcos; underground newspapers in Suharto-era Indonesia; exile media in the bad old days of the badly named SLORC, the acronym of the Burma’s military junta.

In Southeast Asia, Taiwan and Korea, the fall of dictatorships was followed by the promulgation of new constitutions that guaranteed a wide range of freedoms. The controls on the media were loosened, information ministries abolished, and the public demand for real news created a media boom. This was the era in which the PCIJ was born. The fall of Asian strongmen was followed by the explosion of new news organizations that queried officials, investigated malfeasance and reported events with unprecedented vigor to a public thirsty for news and information.

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Is it really investigative reporting’s golden age?

Child workers at glass factory in Indiana, 1908. American muckrakers in early 20th Century helped bring about labor reforms. (Photo by Louis HInes/Library of Congress)

Child workers at glass factory in Indiana, 1908. American muckrakers in early 20th Century helped bring about labor reforms. (Photo by Louis Hines/Library of Congress)

There’s been much talk lately about the possibilities offered by new technologies in opening up restrictive regimes and democratizing the production of journalism. So last week, at a conference marking the launch of Anya Schiffrin’s anthology Global Muckraking, I posed this question to a panel of journalists from South Africa, Latin America and China.

Are we living in a Golden Age of Global Muckraking?

The answer I got was not a resounding yes. It was more like, it depends. Investigative journalism certainly survives, and even thrives, sometimes in the most difficult of conditions. But technology, often cited as a superweapon in the arsenal of modern muckrakers, is perhaps less a factor than something much more old-fashioned: tradition. In some countries, a proud history of watchdog journalism matters more in terms of sustaining such reporting, as do political junctures and ­– choose your metaphor – an infrastructure or ecosystem that supports accountability reporting.

In South Africa, said Anton Harber, investigative reporting is robust, with full-fledged investigative teams based in dailies and weeklies and staffed by reporters aiming their sights at both high-level political corruption and the dismal state of public services. Even during the earlier decades of the apartheid era, the smaller, feistier South African newspapers provided space for exposure journalism, and through they years, they have invested in getting the big stories and building their brands.

Now a journalism professor, Harber was editor of the muckraking Mail and Guardian in the late 1980s, at the height of the struggle against the apartheid regime. He was prosecuted numerous times and the paper itself was banned for a month by the government. The current crop of South African investigative journalists builds on this tradition, and newspapers like the Mail and Guardian have created a following because of their ability to deliver high-impact, high-profile exposés.

Apartheid-era sign, South Africa. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Apartheid-era sign, South Africa. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Other countries don’t have that tradition. Harber cited the example of Rwanda: Despite the recent opening up of the country, journalists there are still wary about exposing wrongdoing. The legitimacy of watchdog journalism is not backed by history or practice and there are few examples of success to draw on. Unlike South Africa where exposés are taken up by civil society and opposition parties, a watchdog culture does not yet exist.

Tradition was very much a topic at last Friday’s conference. Global Muckraking, the book around which the conference was built, looks back at a hundred years of investigative reporting around the world and explores questions like how and what kind of journalism brings about social change.

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Investigating with drones, stone tablets and the web (yes, LinkedIn, too)

This video was taken by a drone and then posted on a popular web portal in China. It provides an aerial view of the luxurious home of the son of Zhou Yongkang, the country’s security chief. There’s not much commentary here, just tracking shots of a white, two-story mansion built in the traditional style.

But the real evidence showing corruption in the Zhou family wasn’t dug up by drones.

Instead, it was names etched on tombstones in a village in China’s Jiangsu Province that allowed reporters to find the corruption trail. In China, names of family members, living and dead, are recorded on stone tablets in family burial plots. As Michael Forsythe and his team of New York Times reporters recounted recently, that’s how they found the names of Zhou’s first and second wives, his two sons, his brothers and in-laws.

Despite all the wonders of the digital era, a lot of information that journalists need is (still) not online, but in reams of paper gathering dust in government offices – or even in stone tablets in forgotten burial plots. Some of it is not even recorded at all, but resides in people’s heads.

The eureka moment often comes when information from humans or from paper (or stone, as the case may be) is matched with what’s available in digital format. In the case of Zhou, what the Times found was a trail of illicit wealth, none of it in the official’s name. That discovery was made by matching the names on the stone tablets with those on corporate records found on the website of the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, the government agency that keeps track of companies. They got paper records from the agency as well.

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Are wealth disclosures dangerous?

On April 15, French ministers posted their asset disclosures online for the first time ever. A week later, Obama reversed a 2012 law that required Congress and other officials to post their disclosures online.

On April 15, French ministers posted their asset disclosures online for the first time ever. On the same day, Obama reversed a 2012 law that required officials to post their disclosures online.

About a third of all countries in the world now require officials to publicly disclose their assets. Institutions like the World Bank and the OECD see this as a good thing. Asset declarations, they say, are crucial tools for fighting corruption and holding officials accountable. As an investigative journalist in the Philippines, I found asset statements vital to digging into conflicts of interest and the illegal accumulation of wealth by those in public office. Asset statements are mother lodes of information – and journalists in Russia, South Africa, Bosnia and Thailand, to name only a few, have found them crucial to their investigations of official wrongdoing.

There is as yet no global consensus on the merits of asset transparency. Last week, Chinese authorities detained six anticorruption activists who had been demanding that senior Communist Party officials declare their wealth. The demands come in the wake of exposés in the U.S. press, including a report that recently won the Pulitzer Prize, on the billions – yes, billions – illegally amassed by the so-called Red Nobility.

But the pushback on official disclosures comes from an unlikely quarter as well. Last Monday On April 15, President Obama signed a law that reversed a provision in The STOCK Act of 2012, which required members of Congress, legislative staff and senior officials of the executive branch to post their financial disclosures online. As my former student Sasha Chavkin pointed out in an informative piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, the 2012 law also came on the heels of scandal – a 60 Minutes exposé on insider trading by congressmen.

For some time now, critics of asset transparency have been saying that wealth disclosures are unnecessary violations of privacy. Rather than disincentivizing corruption, they say, disclosures only provide fodder for “asset porn.” More importantly, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) in Washington, DC said in a recent study that these disclosures, if posted in online databases, pose dangers to law enforcement and national security. NAPA also asserted that asset disclosures have “limited value” in terms of detecting conflicts of interest or insider trading.

On April 15, for the first time ever, French government ministers were required to publicly declare what they own, in what has been called a historic Great Revelation or Le Grand Déballage. Like elsewhere, the demand for wealth disclosure was stoked by scandal.

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Muckraking in Putin’s Russia

Putin aims a tranquilizer gun at a tiger at a nature reserve. Photo from  premiere.gov.ru.

Putin aims a tranquilizer gun at a tiger at a nature reserve. Photo from premiere.gov.ru. (Creative Commons license)

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.

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The offshore exposé: bigger than Wikileaks’ ‘cablegate’

offshoreIt’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 »


Does investigative reporting deter corruption?

Detail from the 1896 mural, Corrupt Legislation, by Elihu Vedder at the Library of Congress. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Detail from the 1896 mural, Corrupt Legislation, by Elihu Vedder at the Library of Congress. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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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