The world needs investigative journalism

The risks reporters take are great, but the rewards for the public are worth it

October 13, 2015 2:00AM ET

The three investigative reporters sitting in comfortable chairs in a large darkened meeting last week in Lillehammer, Norway, all seemed more than a bit on edge. But then they risk imprisonment, beatings and even murder for the crime of reporting facts that some governments and powerful corporations don't want anyone to know.

A proxy sat in for a fourth journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, who is serving seven and a half years in prison for exposing the ruling family of Azerbaijan as kleptocrats who plunder the public treasury. Ismayilova had a chance to flee, but instead chose neither to back down nor run away.

Many of the 900 investigative reporters from 121 countries who met Oct. 7-11 at the ninth Global Journalism Investigative Conference are also at risk of being punished for telling inconvenient truths, a danger not just to them but to every one of us who values liberty.

Around the world repressive regimes and powerful corporations who rent and buy politicians are harassing, threatening, jailing and at times murdering serious journalists. In Mexico alone 20 have been killed since 2010.

One of the panelists, Clare Rewcastle Brown, writes from her flat in London about the devastation to the Sarawak area of Malaysia where she lived as a child. Hers is a labor of duty, bringing in no revenue. For exposing such things as environmental abuses and how a fortune of public funds was funneled into the personal bank accounts of Prime Minister Najib Raza, the Kuala Lumpur government wants Interpol to arrest Brown in London and extradite her. Interpol rejected the government’s initial request, but a new one is pending, she told me.

Brown tried to maintain a stiff upper lip, but when I interviewed her she fidgeted and the pitch of her voice rose when she spoke of the fate of one of her Sarawakian sources: He was sealed in an oil drum of cement, a common organized crime murder technique. Clearly she worries that the 6,500 miles between her and Kuala Lumpur may not be enough to keep her alive.

For three decades, David E. Kaplan was one of America’s best investigative reporters. Now as executive director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, he says his job now is to “create the infrastructure” for investigative journalism to blossom. 

“Despite all the obstacles and threats our field is growing,” he told me. “We’re linking reporters around the world, especially those who do computer-assisted reporting. We’re spreading a virus, a good virus, that is bringing together investigative journalists from Asia, Latin America, Africa and the wealthy countries of the Northern Hemisphere.”

On a budget of less than $500,000 per year, GIJN has helped journalists develop the skills that expose massive kleptocracies and the hand-in-glove arrangements between global companies and deadly policies. 

Kaplan is especially proud of the Ukrainian journalists trained at the organization’s 2013 conference in Brazil. When they heard that documents showing the fortune stolen by ousted premier Viktor Yanukovych had been tossed into a lake at his gaudy mansion, they immediately put out a call for scuba divers. The result was the YanukovychLeaks National Project, an online database of the 200 folders of documents recovered, along with news reports and analyses.

The freedom of the press we take for granted in the United States, Canada, Western Europe and some other countries is but a dream for journalists in much of the world

GIJN is one of many journalistic organizations with roots in Investigative Reporters and Editors, or IRE, at which I was privileged to serve as board president in 2012-14. IRE held its first conference in 1976, five days after one of its scheduled speakers, Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles, was murdered by organized crime figures he was investigating.

The global network began when Brant Houston, a former IRE executive director, and Danish journalist Nils Mulvad decided to invite investigative reporters from around the world to see how many would come. About 300, most of whom specialize in computer-assisted reporting, made their way to Copenhagen in 2001.

For many of us, investigative reporting is a calling — like nursing, teaching and the priesthood. But like all important work, it takes money. Many of the independent investigative journalists around the world created their own publications and found ways to fund them, from applying for grants to selling subscriptions and advertising to keep the doors open.

But a little money wisely spent can produce huge results in terms of public benefit, as the 12 finalists for the Global Shining Light Award demonstrate. The two winners were the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project “Unholy Alliances,” for exposing Montenegro as a Mafia state and Gazeta do Povo of Brazil for “Empire of Ashes,” for exposing tobacco smuggling and organized crime in South America.

One of those on the dais, Angolan journalist Rafael deMorais, has been exposing systematic corruption, including the interplay among an oil company, government officials and a cement factory. For this he is a convicted felon, guilty of “malicious denunciation” — or what others call reporting facts.

Many journalists at the conference expressed their concern that they not be, or be seen as, activists. But deMorais appeared to bristle when I raised the question about whether there is a bright line, perhaps with fuzzy edges, between investigative reporting and activism.

“Laws to protect the press are irrelevant at this point because the government does as it chooses” in Angola, he said, echoing a complaint of journalists and many other countries. “Essentially we let criminals easily take over power in Africa because people are always shy about doing what is right. In a place with no freedom, if you publish becomes an act of activism.”

He is quite right. By ginning up imaginary crimes, Egypt put three Al Jazeera journalists behind bars for 400 days until they were released last month. Pardons were given to Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed; Peter Grest has yet to be pardoned.

The freedom of the press we take for granted in the United States, Canada, Western Europe and some other countries is but a dream for journalists in much of the world — and a nightmare for the regimes which imprison, steal and suppress facts with as much ruthlessness as they find convenient. They know that their power depends on controlling the truth. If we want to make a better world, we need to protect robust, aggressive and serious journalism.

David Cay Johnston, an investigative reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize while at The New York Times, teaches business, tax and property law of the ancient world at the Syracuse University College of Law. He is the best-selling author of “Perfectly Legal,” “Free Lunch” and “The Fine Print” and the editor of the new anthology “Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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