Leak investigations and the right to report

silencedLast night, I moderated a discussion that followed the screening of Silenced, a new documentary that tells the stories of three whistleblowers who exposed torture, mass surveillance and government waste. Directed by Jamies Spione, funded partly by a $40,000-Kickstarter fundraising campaign, and executive-produced by Susan Sarandon, it’s a powerful film that shows how these insiders in the national-security establishment were intimidated and penalized for exposing the abuse of government power.

Their stories are not new. What Spione brought to the screen was the humanity of the whistleblowers and the patriotic idealism that compelled them to work in government agencies like the NSA and the CIA and then to speak out against the excesses they saw there. If anything, Silenced dramatizes how the landscape of government secrecy has changed dramatically since 9/11 and the war on terror. It makes the argument that whistleblowers play an essential role: Leaks are a necessary prophylactic, especially when they reveal the abuse of public authority and the harm done to the rights of citizens.

Investigative journalism is all about uncovering secrets, but no journalist will dispute that governments have the right to keep things under wraps. Secrecy, however, is also prone to abuse. Not all secrecy is justified, and it can be argued that whistleblowers and leakers deserve protection if they disclose important, if secret, information that is in the public interest.

These questions have come to the fore as technology has made leaking easier — the estimated 1.7 million documents that NSA contractor Edward Snowden supposedly has in some hard drives is a good example. At the same time, more advanced tools of email and phone surveillance have enhanced the ability of governments to track the sources of leaks.

Until this month, I thought that the U.S. government’s aggressive pursuit of media leaks was confined to state secrets and national security. But as it turns out, it’s not just the CIA, the National Security Agency or the Justice Department that has gone after unauthorized information disclosures.

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What kind of reporting makes an impact? Some answers from Pakistan

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The website of the Federal Bureau of Revenue in Pakistan released on Saturday the tax payments made by Members of Parliament.

On February 15, Pakistan became one of only four countries in the world that make tax records public. The other three are Norway, Finland and Sweden. A year ago, no one would have thought this was possible. Pakistan, after all, is a cesspool of corruption and a paragon of opacity. But check the website of the Federal Bureau of Revenue and you’ll find prominently displayed there a link to the Parliamentarians’ Tax Directory.  Click on the link and you’ll get a PDF that lists how much income tax each and every member of Parliament paid in 2013. On March 31, a similar listing will be made publicly available for the tax payments of all citizens.

How in the world could this happen in Pakistan?

A large part of the credit should go to the intrepid Umar Cheema, founder of the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan (CIRP), which in the past year published two well-documented reports that showed tax evasion on an epic scale. The success of this project inspired me to take up this blog again after several months of inactivity. It’s not always that investigative reporting makes such clear and dramatic impact. So it’s a good time to revisit a question that’s often asked: What  kind of reporting makes an impact? What stars must align for reforms to follow in the wake of an exposé?

In the past two weeks, I have been lecturing my students about the importance of crafting the investigative narrative and engaging readers. Good narratives make impact, I said. Yet the two reports that the CIRP has published are densely written, numbers-packed pamphlets, each about 70 pages long. There are no sexy graphics, no stunning multimedia, no gripping and polished stories. The prose is dry – they could well have been written by the World Bank. Moreover, the reports confirmed what people in many developing countries already know: The rich don’t pay taxes. And yet they captured the popular imagination and forced the government to do the unthinkable. Why?

Pakistan is a basket case in terms of tax collection. It has one of the worst tax-to-GDP ratios in the world – just nine percent, worse even than Afghanistan’s 11 percent. Three years ago, the finance minister told parliament that Pakistan’s ratio was second to the bottom among 154 countries. Yet nothing was done.

In December 2012, the newly formed CIRP released its first report, which showed that two-thirds of Pakistani MPs  did not pay taxes. Neither, it said, did the high-living, polo-playing, playboy President Asif Ali Zardari and more than half his Cabinet. The findings got wide play in Pakistan’s free-wheeling press. Perhaps it was the specificity of the details, the fact that it named and shamed and put precise numbers that showed the extent of the tax evasion – the report caught fire and stoked the public anger. (I wrote how that project was researched in an earlier post.)

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Changing paradigms: FOIA or leaks?

Indian journalist Shylamlal Yadav filed 59 FOI requests to report this story on excessive foreign travel by Indian ministers.

Indian journalist Shylamlal Yadav filed 59 FOI requests to report this story on excessive foreign travel by Indian ministers.

I was in Rio de Janeiro earlier this week to take part in a discussion on freedom of information hosted by the Columbia Journalism School. During the meeting, which was part of the launch of the Columbia Global Center in Rio, journalists, activists and academics debated Brazil’s freshly minted Access to Information Law. Signed by President Dilma Rousseff in 2011, it’s a pretty robust law. “Brazil is a patrimonial society where giving out information is not part of the exercise of power,” said Paulo Sotero, a former journalist who is now director of the Brazil Institute in Washington, DC. “The law changes this paradigm.”

Brazil was the 89th country in the world to have FOI legislation. These laws have been hailed as potentially revolutionary: When officials no longer have monopoly over government information, transparency can tilt the balance of power in favor of citizens. But can they change journalistic practice as well?

In Brazil, as in other places where the rule of law is weak and politics is factionalized, there is an entrenched culture of journalistic leaks. Competing political factions routinely use the press to launch damaging exposés on the corruption or other wrongdoing of their rivals. The publication of well-timed leaks from politicians are a long-established political ritual and part of the arsenal of politics. As conduits for leaks, journalists benefit from a culture of selective secrecy. Unsurprisingly, except for the likes of Abraji, the investigative reporting association, and a couple of leading Sao Paolo papers, Brazilian journalists were not the prime campaigners for an FOI law.

Brazil is not unique. Journalists are not always torchbearers for freedom of information laws. Accustomed to having privileged access to information because of their press passes, they are not always enthusiastic supporters of laws that would democratize access.

But, said said Fernando Rodrigues, a leading investigative journalist and former Abraji head, that culture may be changing. The new law, he said, has already powered a number of journalistic exposés. “Tons of documents” have been released because of FOI requests from news organizations, he added, and many publications have made those documents available on their websites. Many of those stories, featured on the website of the Forum for the Right of Access to Public Information, have to do with public spending, including reports on the outsize salaries of civil servants and police and military attachés. Read the rest of this entry »


Balkan FOI laws empower watchdogs

Liberal information regimes have made possible journalistic exposés such as this story published in Kosovo.

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 »


Unlocking Swiss secrets

Secrecy is deeply embedded in Swiss political, bureaucratic and business culture. It’s of course not surprising that the world’s banking capital puts a premium on discretion and confidentiality. Switzerland is still a preferred location for companies and rich individuals around the world because it offers tax and other advantages, including political stability and a low level of transparency. Many journalists probing business, corruption, and even organized crime are bound to encounter either a Swiss bank account or a Swiss company in the course of their reporting. And getting information on them is not going to be easy.

But even in Switzerland, the walls of secrecy are slowly being breached. Banking secrecy there is no longer as ironclad as it used to be, after the U.S. began aggressively forcing Swiss banks to open their records as part of an effort to collect taxes from American citizens stashing their wealth overseas. Read the rest of this entry »