Sunday, November 21, 2010

Exposing International Tax Havens

The CBC and the Globe and Mail have been following the case of tax havens in Switzerland that have attracted Canadian investors. There is an interesting complementary investigation that looks at how some people use the desire of international investors to hide assets to their own advantage.

Reporters with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which covers the Balkans and Eastern Europe, looked at schemes that stretched from
Eastern Europe to New Zealand, Cyprus, Seychelles islands and to the US state of Delaware.

Part of the investigation used undercover work that eventually led to the arrest of a man alleged to be involved in a money-laundering scheme. The project exposed schemes that helped people hide company ownership, avoid taxes, and skirt monopoly laws.

The full series is on their website.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Exoneration 101

Investigative journalism, almost by definition, requires a significant commitment of time and resources – commodities that are in short supply at most news organizations.

That’s why it makes perfectly good sense to harness the talents of students to help with the research work that any good investigative project entails. Properly trained and mentored, a team of students can provide the research muscle for any ambitious project.

This lesson has been grasped well at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism, where a team of students and faculty won an Emmy award this year for a documentary about electronic waste. And a recent initiative by the school to partner with law students could play a significant role in uncovering new cases of wrongful convictions in Canada.

Earlier this month, the school announced a partnership with UBC’s law faculty to investigate miscarriages of justice in BC. Since 2007, the law faculty has run an Innocence Project that has been looking into more than 20 murder cases. The joint-venture is the first of its kind in Canada.

UBC’s Innocence Project is one of three across the country. The others are at Osgoode Hall and McGill, and all involve law faculties. Merging the talents of law and journalism students seems like a no-brainer, but no one has done it before in Canada. So it is encouraging to see such a partnership come to fruition.

Tamara Levy, a law professor and director of the UBC project, says on the university’s website that the journalism students “bring unique skills that will help us shed some light on our investigations and move them forward more quickly.” Mary Lynn Young, director of the journalism school, sees it as “a great opportunity for students to learn investigative journalism skills” in collaboration with the law faculty.

Students have played a pivotal role in overturning convictions in the U.S. for years. Most famously, the Medill journalism school in Chicago developed evidence that has freed 11 innocent men, five of them from death row, since 1996. Former Illinois governor George Ryan credited the school with helping provide the impetus for his moratorium on the death penalty in 2000.

One of the most memorable and gratifying projects in my own career involved an investigation into the wrongful conviction of David Milgaard. Through news stories, documentaries and eventually a book, we were able to document an extraordinary case of a man who spent 23 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Seeing how that work impacted both the justice system, and one man’s eventual freedom, was humbling.

What better training could there be for journalism students than to be involved in a similar pursuit? To get some idea of how life-changing those experiences can be, you just have to peruse the stories of Medill alumni and read their descriptions of watching an innocent man walk free – in part, because of their work.

There will be no shortage of cases in Canada to investigate. It’s estimated that as many as five per cent of convictions could be faulty. It is only the fortunate few who link up with a lawyer, family member or journalist who are persistent enough to spend the time and resources to investigate their case.

The UBC project says it hopes to put forward its first case for ministerial review by the end of the year. With the new potent partnership of law and journalism students, there is little doubt that we will soon be learning about new cases of wrongful convictions from British Columbia.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

WikiLeaks: Transparency or Treason?

Investigative journalists spend a lot of time thinking about whistleblowers.

They encourage them to come forward, persuade them to talk, promise them anonymity, and sometimes they even risk going to jail to prevent their identities from being known. Whistleblowers have been key to many important exposes over the years, and they are a crucial component to investigative journalism.

That’s why the current debate over WikiLeaks is both perplexing and troubling. The website, founded in 2006, is devoted to soliciting and publicizing important information from whistleblowers. So why are so many journalists, including some investigative reporters, raising questions about what WikiLeaks is doing?

WikiLeaks has broken many stories in its brief history, posting everything from secret detention documents at Guantanamo Bay to a video showing American Apache helicopters firing at civilians in Baghdad. The stories have not endeared the site to U.S. authorities.

But whistleblowers rarely lead a placid life after they make their information known, and media that transmit the information also often find themselves targeted for retribution. Just ask Daniel Ellsberg and the New York Times, both of whom faced threats, injunctions and prosecutions for their role in publishing the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers.

This year, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange raised the stakes by publishing more than 77,000 classified Pentagon documents on the war in Afghanistan. He followed that up recently with a further release of about 400,000 documents on the war in Iraq.

The Pentagon was predictably not happy. It said the Afghan documents endangered lives of people whose names had not been redacted, though no concrete evidence has yet surfaced of reprisals against anyone. Its reaction to the Iraq documents has been twofold: on the one hand, it says they reveal little new, while it also feels their release may be grounds to charge the people who leaked and publicized the documents with treason.

It is generally accepted that the release showed evidence of about 15,000 previously unreported and undocumented civilian deaths in Iraq, a remarkable fact given the difficulty of concealing such a large number of casualties in today’s plugged-in world. It also called into question previous U.S. and British claims that there were no official counts of casualties in Iraq. The documents instead showed meticulous records and an exact toll of 66,081 non-combatant deaths over a five-year period.

Assange also maintains the records show the U.S. failed to investigate hundreds of reports of rapes, assaults, and even murders by Iraqi police and armed soldiers over the years, a charge the Americans deny.

What has been the response of the journalism community to WikiLeaks? Surprisingly, there have been many reporters sniping from the sidelines. Reporters Without Borders criticized the site for publishing names of Afghans acting as informers for the U.S., while other journalists have supported the Pentagon’s analysis that the site is playing into the hands of terrorists.

Marc Thiessen, former White House staffer and a weekly columnist for the Washington Post, was blunt: “Let's be clear: WikiLeaks is not a news organization; it is a criminal enterprise. Its reason for existence is to obtain classified national security information and disseminate it as widely as possible -- including to the United States' enemies.”

Assange himself now finds himself living like a virtual fugitive. Originally from Australia, he is looking for a safe haven were he won’t be subject to a possible prosecution under the 1917 U.S. Espionage Act, the same legislation that was used to prosecute Ellsberg.

This seems odd, since a Pentagon spokesman has called the latest release “mundane”, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted that it contained nothing new. Some have argued that authorities simply want to ensure future leaks are plugged before they can cause any further embarrassment.

Nevertheless, the level of international intrigue surrounding Assange seems to grow daily. He applied for Swedish residency, but shortly afterwards was accused of molestation and rape by two women there. Assange maintains it was a set-up, but whatever the case, it torpedoed his attempt to settle there. He is now looking at Switzerland as a possible new home. A former professional hacker, he protects the security of the site by routing his servers through a maze of complex connections in safe locations.

In response to the backlash, especially from some sectors of the reporting community, a group of international investigative journalists is now coming to the defence of Assange and WikiLeaks. A statement of support, signed by members and associates of a global investigative journalism association, seeks to defend the principle and practice of the site.

“We believe that Mr Assange has made an outstanding contribution to transparency and accountability on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, subjects where transparency and accountability has been severely restricted by government secrecy and media control,” the statement says. “He is being attacked for releasing information that should never have been withheld from the public.”

The statement, which has already been signed by journalists from more than 40 countries, defends WikiLeaks’ right to post confidential military documents. “If it is espionage to publish documents provided by whistle blowers, then every journalist will eventually be guilty of that crime. Mr Assange deserves our support and encouragement in the face of the attacks.”

Investigative journalism seeks to hold powerful people and interests to account, and that inevitably means challenging the status quo. The history of such reporting shows that those same powerful interests often strike back, launching counter-offensives. How this current battle will end is unknown, but it is fascinating to see how members of the journalism community are aligning themselves in the process.

The full statement in support of WikiLeaks is available at the Global Investigative Journalism Network website.