Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Global Investigative Journalism Conference Draws Record Numbers

Journalists from nearly 90 countries traded stories and techniques at this year’s Global Investigative Journalism Conference, discussing everything from corruption scandals in Ukraine to an undercover expose of child murders in Ghana.

More than 1,300 journalists travelled to Rio de Janeiro for the conference, which combined the annual gatherings of Brazilian and Latin American reporters with the Global Investigative Journalism Network’s biennial event. The result was one of the biggest events of its kind in history, and a fascinating look at how investigative reporting has spread throughout the world.

There was no hand-wringing about the decline of journalism or the lack of investigative work. In fact, the recently-retired investigations editor of the Guardian newspaper, David Leigh, told the conference that this was a golden age for muckraking.

Leigh said a new era had opened up for journalism in the last three years, characterized by mass digital leaking of information and a corresponding mass international co-operation among journalists. He pointed to Wikileaks, the offshore tax haven stories co-ordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and the Edward Snowden leaks as examples of the trend.

While the phenomenon has opened up new vistas, Leigh said it was important for journalists to enhance their technological sophistication and step up their international efforts at collaboration.
The conference provided ample evidence that investigative work is alive and thriving in many parts of the world.

Dmytro Gnap described how he and his colleagues at an investigative website in Ukraine uncovered corrupt practices involving a $200 million plan to enhance insulation in the country’s schools and orphanages. Piercing the veil of shell companies, they traced the ownership of firms that benefitted from the government funds to friends of the president. They also showed that very little retrofitting work ever got done.

Eduardo Faustino, meanwhile, showed some remarkable hidden camera footage from an investigation conducted by Brazil’s Fantastico television program. With the help of a local hospital, journalists set up a sting in which suppliers were caught offering bribes and kickbacks to hospital officials in the hope of winning contracts. 

Canada’s Frederic Zalac also showed how the CBC and Radio-Canada followed the trail of lawyer Tony Merchant’s secret offshore holdings. It was one of dozens of reports around the world that followed the revelation of offshore tax havens by the ICIJ.

In addition to describing and sharing their stories, journalists also spoke about investigative techniques and the increasing trend to collaborate across borders in their inquiries.

Miranda Patrucic of Sarajevo demonstrated the revamped capabilities of the Investigative Dashboard website, developed by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. By collecting public records and scraping registries and official gazettes in various countries, researchers have assembled a searchable database of companies and directors that is an invaluable resource for investigative journalists.

Patrucic said the site has already been helpful in uncovering numerous paper trails of hidden assets and corrupt practices. Searches are now possible for business records in Panama, Luxemburg, Switzerland, Cyprus and the British Virgin Islands. More corporate registries will be added to the site in the future, she said.

The undisputed highlight of the conference was a speech by Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who continues to break stories based on Edward Snowden’s trove of U.S. intelligence files. Greenwald, who lives in a Rio neighbourhood not far from where the conference was being held, had a controversial message for the gathering.

Journalism as a profession had become extremely corrupted, he said. He rejected conventional wisdom that journalists should never express opinions about the stories they work on, or get close to the sources they quote.

“I’m not going to pretend I’m a robot,” he said, adding that he admires and supports Snowden’s courage and actions. Journalists owe an obligation to their sources to help and protect them.

Greenwald said no one should lament the decline of many large, conventional mainstream outlets, since it is a sign that newer forms of media are being invented. He spoke about a democratization of the media that the Internet and mass dissemination of data had afforded.

Greenwald was accorded rock star status at the conference, with journalists mobbing him before and after his speech. Everyone wanted to get close to him, to snap a picture or exchange a few words. In a way, he embodied the new era that Leigh had described at the beginning of the conference.

While some journalists and news organizations have been critical of Greenwald for being an activist and too strident in his commentary, there was no hint of that attitude in Rio. Listening to his well-reasoned and passionate articulation of his work, the journalists in attendance seemed to realize its historical significance, and the importance of supporting and defending the work of whistleblowers and journalists who persist in holding powerful interests to account.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Whistleblowers, Journalists and the Public's Right to Know

Blowing the whistle on illegal or immoral behaviour has never been an easy task.
It usually results in loss of income, possible prosecution, and in extreme cases, it can be deadly. It's safe to say that a whistleblower's life is never quite the same after that fateful decision to speak out publicly.

Just ask Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker who is currently scrambling to find a country willing to protect him from prosecution in the U.S. Snowden, like Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Jeffrey Wigand, Daniel Ellsberg and dozens of others like them, is finding out the hard way that shining a light in dark places is not always to everyone's liking.

Journalists have a particular interest in whistleblowers, because they are often instrumental in uncovering stories of great public interest. The CBC and most other media outlets have relied repeatedly on whistleblowers to gain insight into how government, industry and other powerful interests conduct business. Sometimes those whistleblowers wish to remain anonymous, and the media does its best to protect their identities.

At other times, the identities are public from the outset, and that gives rise to another common phenomenon. Not only do the whistleblowers come under attack by the people whose secrets are being revealed, but so do the journalists who report the stories.

Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who broke the Snowden stories, has been accused in some quarters of "aiding and abetting" the former intelligence employee. Some U.S. politicians have suggested he should be prosecuted alongside Snowden. Other commentators have questioned whether Greenwald is really a reporter, suggesting he is an activist or at best a "blogger." A concerted campaign seems to be underway to spread innuendo about aspects of Greenwald's past, with the suggestion that such revelations should somehow call his journalism into question.

"When I made the choice to report aggressively on top-secret NSA programs, I knew that I would inevitably be the target of all sorts of personal attacks and smears," Greenwald wrote in the Guardian. "You don't challenge the most powerful state on earth and expect to do so without being attacked."

It is not the first time this has happened. There are many Canadian examples of reporters facing accusations of bias, lawsuits and court orders to disclose confidential source information, all because they reported on what a whistleblower had to say.

But one of the most instructive examples is that of Daniel Ellsberg, a former Pentagon and state department employee who leaked an internal government analysis of the Vietnam War called the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Ellsberg was subjected to the familiar litany of threats and smears, and U.S. intelligence officers even staged an illegal break-in at his psychiatrist's office to find material to discredit him. He was accused of theft, espionage, and endangering U.S. security interests. Sound familiar?

Ellsberg gave the papers to the New York Times, and lawyers for the Times advised against publication. But the newspaper published the story amid risks of injunctions, lawsuits and dire threats. The newspaper's right to proceed was eventually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Here is what Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black said:

"Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people, and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. ... The government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people."

Ellsberg, by the way, eventually had all charges against him dismissed. And it's difficult to find anyone today who thinks the disclosure of the Pentagon Papers was a bad idea.

Anyone who has seen the movie The Insider also knows about the case of Jeffrey Wigand, who blew the whistle on big tobacco's practice of increasing nicotine content in cigarettes. In reporting the story, CBS was also accused of aiding and abetting Wigand's purportedly illegal breach of contract, and faced the prospect of a crippling lawsuit if it proceeded.

What should Canadian journalists learn from the cases of Snowden, Ellsberg, Wigand and the journalists who covered their stories? It would be unfortunate if they concluded such coverage was somehow improper or too dangerous to risk. That attitude would not serve the cause of journalism, or the public's right to know, terribly well.

Whistleblowers who speak out must carefully assess the risks. They should know the consequences of their actions might bring job dismissal, or government persecution, or jail. Often, as Ellsberg did, they hope that public opinion will judge their act of defiance so important as to trump any contractual or legal bounds they might have overstepped.

As for the journalists who deal with these whistleblowers, they need to consider that their primary obligation is to their audiences, who are interested in the inner-workings of powerful institutions that hold sway over their lives. Even if a whistleblower is breaking a contract, or breaking a law, it need not disqualify the importance of reporting the information.

In a 2010 ruling, Supreme Court of Canada Justice Louis LeBel commented directly on this type of issue.

LeBel noted that "in order to bring to light stories of broader public importance, sources willing to act as whistleblowers and bring these stories forward may often be required to breach legal obligations in the process. History is riddled with examples. In my view, it would also be a dramatic interference with the work and operations of the news media to require a journalist, at the risk of having a publication ban imposed, to ensure that the source is not providing the information in breach of any legal obligations. A journalist is under no obligation to act as legal adviser to his or her sources of information."

Even though many levels of government around the world have enacted whistleblower protection legislation, the climate for people who are considering blowing the whistle is decidedly chilly these days. Journalists might also be thinking twice about what they can safely report.

The criminalization of whistleblowing is unlikely to result in a more open and transparent society. In the end, it's the public that is usually in the best position to judge whether we should punish or reward the people who are stepping forward to shine the light. And the only way the public can make that judgment is by being armed with all the available facts.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Half a Century of Investigative Journalism at the CBC

The CBC has created some of the most important and memorable examples of Canadian investigative journalism over the last half century, often leading to sweeping policy and legislative changes.

Modern investigative journalism began to expand in the 1950s, and the CBC was in the forefront of creating new techniques and ways of working. Journalists like Douglas Leiterman, Ross McLean and Patrick Watson made a significant contribution to investigative techniques in those early years, laying the foundation for further advances in the decades that followed.

read full article

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Historic Day for Investigative Journalism with Release of Offshore Tax Haven Story

This was an historic day for investigative journalism.

In a simultaneous display of journalistic prowess, dozens of media organizations around the world released stories about how the rich and powerful hide their assets in offshore tax havens. The stories have already triggered major repercussions and imminent resignations, and they have opened a window into how tycoons and the ultra-wealthy dodge their national tax authorities.

The stories stem from a massive leak of financial documents that contain names and details of more than 122,000 offshore companies or trusts, and about 13,000 agents.

The documents were on a computer hard drive that arrived by mail to Gerard Ryle, director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. It contained more than 260 gigabytes, and special software was used to try to sort and make sense of the data. Then, media organizations around the world were contacted to partner with the ICIJ in analyzing the data and teasing out stories of interest in their respective countries.

The ICIJ has conducted multinational investigations in the past, but this is the first time it has co-ordinated a project on such a massive scale. Partners included the BBC, the Guardian, Le Monde, The Washington Post and Asahi Shimbun. It worked with 86 investigative journalists from 46 countries.

Here is what the ICIJ says on its website:

"The files identify the individuals behind the covert companies and private trusts based in the British Virgin Islands, the Cook Islands, Singapore and other offshore havens. They include American doctors and dentists and middle-class Greek villagers as well as Russia corporate executives, Eastern European and Indonesian billionaires, Wall Street fraudsters, international arms dealers and families and associates of long-time dictators.

Among the key findings:
  • Government officials and their families and associates in Azerbaijan, Russia, Canada, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, Mongolia and other countries have embraced the use of covert companies and bank accounts.
  • The mega-rich use complex offshore structures to own mansions, yachts, art masterpieces and other assets, gaining tax advantages and anonymity not available to average people.
  • Many of the world’s top’s banks – including UBS, Clariden and Deutsche Bank – have aggressively worked to provide their customers with secrecy-cloaked companies in the British Virgin Islands and other offshore hideaways.
  • A well-paid industry of accountants, middlemen and other operatives has helped offshore patrons shroud their identities and business interests, providing shelter in many cases to money laundering or other misconduct.
  • Ponzi schemers and other large-scale fraudsters routinely use offshore havens to pull off their shell games and move their ill-gotten gains."
The CBC was the ICIJ's Canadian partner, and stories began rolling out today with questions about Saskatchewan lawyer Tony Merchant and his wife, Liberal Senator Pana Merchant. The CBC reported that the prominent class action lawyer "moved nearly $2 million to secretive financial havens while he was locked in battle with the Canada Revenue Agency over his taxes." CBC's coverage includes a number of interactive web features and maps that demonstrate the extent of the practice in Canada.

Comparisons will inevitably be drawn to Wikileaks, but the ICIJ rollout so far appears to have gone smoothly and with great impact. It is certain to encourage other leakers and whistleblowers to share information in the future.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Last Post Files: Fighting subversion or protecting the government from embarrassment?

The Last Post was an alternative magazine started in 1969 by a group of journalists who created some innovative pieces of investigative journalism.

Now, in newly-released documents, it has been confirmed that the magazine was under scrutiny by the RCMP's Security Service.

Toronto writer Paul Weinberg looks into the story at J-Source.

The Last Post Files: Fighting subversion or protecting the government from embarrassment?