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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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 »


Ensuring a place for women

Last week’s post on the shortage of women in investigative reporting set off an animated online conversation, including a lively #sheparty Twitter chat organized a few days ago by the Women’s Media Center. On Twitter and blog posts, a number of women journalists pointed out the difficulties they face on the job, including the skepticism or protective instincts of editors who doubt their ability to tough it out. As Lyra Mckee recounted, a woman she was writing about, herself a feminist, wondered whether she had the what it took to go out drinking in bars to talk to sources. Others cited harassment or sexist remarks from male sources and male-dominated newsrooms where women find it difficult to speak out and be heard.

To be fair, while the world of investigative reporting is largely male, so are the media more broadly. The media also reflect the imbalance in the world outside the newsroom. Corporate boardrooms are even more skewed in favor of men – just 14% of executive positions in US companies are held by women. The academy is a bit better but it’s not a paradise of gender equality either. In 2005-06, women accounted for about 40% of fulll-time faculty in US universities, but only 25% of full professorships, according to a study by the National Educational Association.

Though more women than men now graduate from college, there are disproportionately fewer of them in the upper reaches of the professions, whether it’s law, medicine, engineering, business or government. What Esther Kaplan, editor of The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, wrote this week  –  “investigative reporting has somehow become a field like cooking, where many of the cooks are women, yet the top chefs are almost always men”  – is true of other endeavors as well.

There are historical, cultural and social structural reasons for such disparities. But the more interesting reasons have to do with the limits women have put on themselves and the self-perception that they are not as enterprising, as tough or as persistent as men. This is what Esther Kaplan said in her blog post: 

When I first joined The Investigative Fund more than five years ago, almost every single one of our unsolicited queries came from men. Even very young men, straight out of college, had the chutzpah to propose ambitious investigative projects — never mind that they sometimes didn’t have any idea how to develop an actual reporting plan. Women, it seemed, didn’t have the same faith that they might be trusted to take on expensive, time-consuming reporting. It’s still not unusual for me to hear, when I reach out to a talented woman reporter with a potential assignment, “But I’m not really an investigative reporter.”

And here’s what Lyra McKee, an investigative journalist in Northern Ireland, wrote:

We aren’t entirely blameless in this debate. We don’t have enough female reporters considering investigative journalism as a career option in the first place. The traits associated with being an investigative reporter – aggression, pushiness, persistence – are seen as “male”. Consequently, like the science and tech industries, investigative reporting is not on the radar of female journalism trainees.

Are women journalists jettisoning their own careers by opting out of more challenging reporting? And if so, what can be done to challenge their perceptions of themselves and their abilities? Read the rest of this entry »


Is investigative reporting dominated by men?

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.

Source: Women's Media Center, The Status of Women in U.S. Media in 2013

Source: Women’s Media Center, The Status of Women in U.S. Media in 2013

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 »