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.

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