Muckraking in digital – and democratic – Indonesia

Tempo Magazine is Indonesia's muckraker par excellence.

Tempo Magazine is Indonesia’s muckraker par excellence.

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 »


Leaner, meaner watchdogs

ICIJ’s global, multiyear investigation is an example of the collaborations that will help watchdog reporting survive current challenges.

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.

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 »


Planespotting and investigative reporting

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Planespotters photographing a 747 at Zagreb airport. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I became interested in planespotting some years ago, after viewing the clever video posted by the Tunisian blogger Astrubal, who put together planespotters’ photographs of the Tunisian presidential plane’s comings and goings.

Planespotters are hobbyists who have a passion for planes: they track, photograph and record aircraft takeoffs and landings, taking note of registration numbers and other markings. Some follow just particular types of aircraft, others just an airline or a national insignia. A lot of them take photographs of their sightings, and like other hobbyists, they post the photos online. The Open Directory Project lists nearly 60 websites that  collect planespotting pictures. Many of these sites have searchable databases, where one can search planes by make, airport sighted and, more importantly, by tail number. Read the rest of this entry »


8 Ways to Commit Grand Corruption (Part 2)

Large bribes paid to public officials are difficult to track. Hardly ever are the bribes delivered in suitcases of cash  – although that has been known to happen. More often than not, bribes are paid through bank transfers made to “corporate vehicles” – companies, foundations and trusts – that have been set up to conceal illegally acquired wealth. As The Puppet Masters, a recent study by the World Bank, says, there’s a whole industry of  “service providers” – law firms, notaries and secretarial companies – that exists mainly to help clients hide  illegally acquired assets by setting up companies and other structures that obscure their real ownership. Read the rest of this entry »


8 Ways to Commit Grand Corruption (Part 1)

Frederick Chiluba, who was Zambia’s president for most of the 1990s. was convicted of corruption. Investigators seized his wardrobe, which included 100 pairs of handmade shoes. (Photo from Ghanian Chronicle)

Having grown up during the Marcos era, I have a morbid fascination with corruption that takes place on a grand scale. By the time their 20-year reign ended in 1986, Ferdinand Marcos and his glittering wife Imelda had amassed a fortune estimated at $10-$20 billion dollars and stashed in Swiss banks, artwork and real estate, including buildings in Manhattan.

The looting continues. Only now, for example, are we beginning to get an idea of the assets amassed by more recently fallen dictators. Muammar Gaddafi  is said to have $200 billion in bank accounts, real estate and corporate investments worldwide. Hosni Mubarak’s fortune is estimated at $70 billion, including investments in companies and real estate in London, Manhattan and Beverly Hills. Read the rest of this entry »


How to track looted wealth

I am off to the annual conference of the Investigative Reporters and Editors, which will be held in Boston this year. I will be on a panel on international corruption together with Claudia Mendez Arriaza of the Guatemalan newspaper El Periodico and  the New York Times’ David Barstow, who shook Walmart with his blockbuster story on payments totaling $24 million that the company made to Mexican officials.

I will be talking about tracking looted wealth. Here’s a preview of my presentation,  published in The Global Muckraker, a blog put out by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists:

It’s estimated that every year, over a trillion dollars flow illicitly out of the world’s economies. These are the proceeds of corruption, crime and tax evasion. A lot of that money ends up in bank accounts, companies and various assets overseas. The Global Financial Integrity Task Force says that a good portion of  it – about $2 trillion of the $10 trillion in deposits held by non-residents in offshore centers – has found its way to the United States.

It’s hard to document these illicit financial flows: banking secrecy and the opacity of corporate information in offshore jurisdictions, including the U.S., cover up the money trail. But it’s not impossible. Read the rest of this entry »


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 »