By Andrzej Zwaniecki
In 2010, seven reporters based in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the United States set out to report on offshore tax havens. The investigative effort was put together by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a network of investigative journalists and media outlets in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Posing as businessmen looking to evade taxes, the journalists discovered an entire industry catering to criminals, corrupt businesspeople and politicians willing to use offshore havens as fronts for money laundering, tax evasion, and drug and weapons smuggling.
The seven reporters are among hundreds of journalists around the world who look into matters that others cannot or do not want to examine. Relying on undercover work and sources who prefer to remain anonymous, they expose political cover-ups, shady business practices and corruption of different sorts.
David Kaplan believes that investigative journalism works particularly well as a deterrent to bribery and misuse of public funds. Kaplan is an investigative reporter and editor-at-large for the OCCRP.
“So much corruption can be stopped just by knowing someone is looking over your shoulder,” Kaplan said at a presentation of a study on media coverage of corruption.
But in some countries, exposing corruption through the media can be dangerous. Anti-corruption reporters are often hunted, harassed, beaten, detained or killed. One-fifth of the 812 journalists murdered between 1992 and 2010 had been working on stories “strictly about corruption,” according to a study by Rosemary Armao, a former reporter and a professor of journalism at the State University of New York at Albany.
Yet, despite intimidation, investigative journalists are on the forefront of the fight against corruption. From 2007 to 2011, among eight winners of the Integrity Award bestowed by Transparency International on distinguished anti-corruption activists were three journalists.
Traditionally investigative reporters are “’lone wolf’ type of operators,” said Gerard Ryle, director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The fewer the number of people who know about the story a journalist is working on, the less chance that someone could reveal information prematurely — and more chance for the story to get published, he said. Many individual reporters have uncovered corruption and other criminal activities on their own, including Attotage Prema Jayantha in Sri Lanka and David Leigh in the United Kingdom.
Such journalists can find allies among governmental reformers, citizen activists, businessmen seeking fair competition and nongovernmental groups such as Transparency International or the Open Society Foundation. But scribes are most effective “when they work independently,” according to Armao.
“They need to be free to pursue investigations wherever they may lead without worrying about entanglements or alliances between their ‘partners’ and the targets of their work,” she said.
Partners can help journalists by supplying information, suggesting sources, supporting their work and, in many cases, defending their findings against government or business denials — if their offers come with no conditions or strings attached, Armao said.
ALL TOGETHER NOW?
Banding together, though, Ryle said, has advantages for investigative reporters. It “gives you a protection of a group and allows you to get advice from more experienced people,” he said. That is why his organization encourages collaboration among journalists from different countries.
“But you should look at it on a case-by-case basis,” Ryle said.
ICIJ teams of three to 20 reporters have exposed smuggling by multinational tobacco companies and investigated private military cartels, asbestos companies and climate-change lobbyists. For a project on tobacco smuggling, the consortium partnered with the OCCRP fresh from the success of its offshore crime story. Just weeks after its publication in 2011, a high-profile tax evasion consultant exposed in the report was arrested and charged, and his associate was forced to halt operations.
Andrzej Zwaniecki is a staff writer with the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs.