Investigative journalism: Sri Lanka’s option for a corruption-free society

Wednesday, 9 December 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  hGlobal Investigative Journalism Network

 

 

By M. A. M. Shihar (M.A. Journalism, B. Sc Agri Econ (Hons)

Politicians in power hate it. Opposition members love it when the news is about their opponents and not regarding them. But the general public like it so much, even ready to pay some money for this. Investigative journalism, though still in a budding stage, has exposed many scandals in Sri Lanka.

From exposing politicians’ corrupt deals to inflated infrastructure costs, brave Sri Lankan journalists have still done a yeoman service to the citizens of this country. They faced death threats, job loss, abductions, and legal actions by those in the power they exposed. But still they were determined despite some of their colleagues being killed while others had left the country. In the absence of freedom of expression and a Right to Information Act (RTI), Sri Lanka’s investigative journalists have suffered much more than in other similar countries where there had been similar restriction on the media.fgujg

There was a time no investigative journalism workshops could be held in Sri Lanka. Military and authorities under the previous regime stopped such workshops scheduled to train journalists from the former northern war zones. Inexplicable self-censorship in private media and fully controlled State-media hampered many investigative journalism stories reaching the public. 

We now see leaders and public officials of the last Government appear in BMICH almost on a daily basis. They face a presidential commission investigating into corruption allegations almost on a daily basis. Media freedom and space for investigative journalism could have somewhat helped to prevent at least the extent of such yet-to-be-proven corruption allegedly happened in the last Government.

With the dawn of a new Government early this year, there were high expectations for media freedom that will help investigative journalists to play their crucial role without any hindrance. But freedom of expression under the new Government does not necessarily mean that journalists can do stronger and in depth investigative journalism stories. 

The long-awaited RTI bill is still pending and many senior journalists still wary if the new legislation could help them to publish the secret information they get. However, still there is a grim hope that media could be able to investigate and report some big scandals related to those who are in the power when they are in the top office and not when they are out.

Sri Lanka is at crucial political transition in the eyes of the international community amid lingering post-war reconciliation and local probe on human rights violations during the final phase of a nearly three-decade war. The change people expected in the last two elections may not be as easy as the current ruling politicians said in the election platform and voters expected. 

The reality is that the change is much more complex and complicated. Without allowing investigative journalism to prosper, a corruption-free regime may only be a dream. In this current context, it is important to see how the budding investigative journalists could enhance their knowledge and education to prepare for a better Sri Lanka in the future. 

 



Investigative journalism 6

It is the in-depth systematic reporting on the issues hidden from public view. Its practice has spread worldwide, holding corrupt leaders and powerful institutions accountable, revealing human rights violations, and exposing abuses of power. But it is under attack and needs the support of the general public. It is one of the crucial tools in ensuring the democracy, transparency, social justice, and governance. 

Investigative journalists need patience, skills, time, money, access to information, and protection. It is so unfortunate that most newspapers in lower and middle income countries are not interested in investigative journalism because it may cost the advertisements. It is of course not a form of profitable journalism compared to celebrity journalism. It is uncertain and expensive as well as dangerous. The world is not the safest place for investigative journalists, but professionalism is the key to success. It has been an on the job process because situations change from one journalist to another. But the world needs investigative journalism at any cost 

This important pillar of journalism has helped to expose from Swiss bank accounts to how Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s relatives amassed wealth within a short period. Though risky, it still could uncover corruptions in repressive and media-controlled regimes by just carefully monitoring the publicly available numbers. 

Miranda Patrucic, a lead investigative reporter for the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, based in Sarajevo, Bosnia says: “Some countries pretend to be democracies, or pretend to be strong developing countries with something to offer to Europe. On the other hand, they have strong ties with organised crime. A government with close ties to organised crime does not work for the people. It works for its own interest.”

 



Global Investigative Journalism Conference 2015 

Patrucic won the Global Shining Light Award at the recently concluded 9th Global Investigative Journalism Conference in October this year in picturesque Lillehammer, Norway, for unveiling how the Montenegro Prime Minister and his family have enabled criminals to launder their money. 

Stephen Grey (UK) and Roman Anin (Russia), explained how they led a multinational team at Reuters to discover the money trail from the taxpayer to Putin’s friends. By combining multiple strategies of data journalism and field research, combing through customs records, corporate archives and the full data-set of two entire Moscow banks, they uncovered billions of dollars of suspicious money flows. 

Like them, more than 800 top journalists who either have excelled in investigative journalism or in their mid-career, participated in the conference, which simply proved that investigative journalism in Sri Lanka has a vast room to improve. It is unfair by those brave media personnel to say that the investigative journalism in Sri Lanka is at a primitive stage. But there are several crucial areas where budding investigative journalists can learn, improve, and help the public in deeper investigative reports. 

The conference, organised by Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) in partnership with Norwegian Foundation for Investigative Journalism, saw investigative journalists from 121 countries. It was all about networking with the world’s top investigative journalists and learning of new strategies in the industry. More than 160 sessions in just three days only about investigative journalism is a rare opportunity for any media personnel in his life. The first impression from the conference was Sri Lankan journalists have just underutilised most of the existing tools and applications available online. 

The conference discussed topics with many journalists shared their experience under broader topics like safety and security, cross border investigations, data presentation and visualisation, funding for quality investigative journalism projects, corruption and organised crime, and environment among many others.

Surprisingly most of the journalists had worked for years on data collection and visualisation for just one story. The way each journalist used to verify data has been unique, but the end products have been award-winning journalistic piece.

 



Enhancing professionalism

Education is the key to change the mindset of Sri Lankan journalists and improve their investigative journalism techniques. Though we cannot expect any changes over night, there could be a better outcome if the volunteers and voluntary organisations working towards enhancing the professionalism work together with a common objective. And being connected globally is important for the safety of investigative journalists, says Marcela Turati, Mexican journalist, and editor of Periodistas de a Pie. 

“Be well trained, have education, network, and learn how to protect yourself,” says Turati. 

Similar to Sri Lanka, dozens of journalists have been killed, or disappeared in her country Mexico since 2000. “I’d like to create a really strong global network. We need to put pressure on the governments and keep investigating.”

Most of the media personnel in Sri Lanka have reached their peak through on-the-job training with some special and unique talents. Journalism along with politics in Sri Lanka, unfortunately still a possible career for those who do not even get through their G.C.E Ordinary Level examinations. There is no minimum educational qualification for journalistic career because many believe it still does not fetch a good earning. However, the emerging of a number of print and electronic media in the last Government has helped to raise the salary level on par with other professions, though business viability of these media outlets is still questionable. 

Since early 2000, there have been many mid-career journalism courses being conducted with some external funding, mainly by Scandinavian nations. However, the funding has been stopped now. But the need for heavy investment to improve the professionalism of investigative journalists is a high priority now given the current Government wants to eliminate corruption. Though the return on investment may not be in short term, the country will be a beneficiary in the long term. Along with this, there is a need to improve the academic qualification of journalists in Sri Lanka. That could help the people to get professional journalistic stories instead of sensational journalism covered extensively in media these days. 

 



Safety and security  

This is an important aspect in the Sri Lankan context. Many Sri Lankan journalists are still recovering from their fears of murder and abduction threats in the past. Despite the end of the 26-year war in May 2009, privately-owned media practiced self-censorship while State-controlled media was not at all independent until the change in the Government in January. Though fears have now eased, the safety and security of journalists are yet to be fully assured. 

The plenary session of the Global Investigative Journalism Conference focused on how journalists are fighting back against the extraordinary level of attacks against them worldwide. After hearing case studies about their journalist colleagues in Angola, Azerbaijan, Malaysia, and Mexico, journalists from 121 countries approved the declaration on the safety.

The conference demanded governments, multilateral agencies, and authorities worldwide to prioritise the protection of journalists and an end to impunity for those who attack journalists, given the extraordinary levels of harassment, persecution, imprisonment, and violence directed against investigative journalists and their colleagues worldwide. 

Safety and security should start from all the initial stage. Countries where investigative journalism has thrived do usually use several communication measures to safeguard their news sources. They even have developed their own smart phone apps to protect their sources. Secured emails are crucial element of data safety for journalists. The conference thoroughly discussed encryption methods with a hands-on training with Mailvelope and other email clients. 

In the last decade more than 600 journalists, media workers and social media producers have been killed. A new app, “Reporta” has been launched a few weeks ago as an attempt to empower journalists working in potentially dangerous conditions. Reporta has a Check-in system, where a journalist can let people know where he is and if he is safe. The app reminds to hit the check-in button, which is a part of the security control. However, the app has received criticism for not being safe enough.

 



Fund raising for investigative journalism 

Many media outlets in Sri Lanka are still hesitant to go for investigation stories, because they do not have the funds and resources. Investigative journalism needs a lot of time and money for a single in depth and informative story. But the local media outlets still have the opportunity to overcome the funding issue because globally funds are available for investigative stories, if applied in an appropriate manner.

Bridget Gallagher, a leading media fundraiser who has raised millions of dollars from private donors, says fundraising is a process that “evokes fear and frustration”, offering to journalists and investigative nonprofit organisations trying to raise money for reporting.

Gallagher, whose clients include Global Investigative Journalism Network, Internews, and PBS, advises reporters to not be scared of seeking donations.

“Think about donors as people first and foremost. They are your friends,” she says. To develop relationships with donors, she recommends to articulate the journalists on who they are and what they do that is better than anyone else while putting their work on multiple platforms. Journalists may get the funds soon depending on the measure of the impact of their work. The trick is to know the size of the audience, analyse web traffic, unique visits, and social media following. Conducting surveys and getting feedback from listeners and readers would be very helpful in ensuring funding. 

“Donors are looking for sustainability,” says Algirdas Lipstas of the Open Society Foundation. When applying for a grant, Lipstas suggests that journalists should include a plan to survive after grant money runs out including spreading the bets without assuming one donor will support you year after year. Fundraise should be a continuous process. It is not an emergency exercise journalists do once a year. 

Finding money is a science, says Leon Williams of the Global Forum for Media Development. If you are an investigative reporter seeking money for an individual project, he recommends journalists to avoid “donor science.” It takes an enormous amount of time.

Donors are interested in results, not the journalists or the righteousness of the subject. So journalists and media outlets need to find out what the donor wants to achieve and adjust the proposal to meet those priorities, without losing sight of the project.

While the media is oversaturated with ephemeral stories, in-depth reporting is not only needed but has proven to improve readership and audiences. Finding money necessary to keep an investigative unit afloat is a challenge and the landscape competitive. But raising funds is not impossible.

Indeed, at first glance, long, in-depth investigative works are economically unsustainable. But journalists and experts at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference point to successful models among newsrooms that dig into public interest stories often hidden from the public.

“Strategy is identity, brand is identity that you present at the outside world,” explained Leila Bicakcic, director of the Center for Investigative Reporting in Bosniaand Herzegovina, about her nonprofit group’s successful fundraising strategy.  “Fundraising is putting these two things together.”

Historically, investigative reporting has always faced economic challenges, even during the so-called “old good days.”

“It’s always being a struggle,” said David Kaplan, director of the Global Investigative Journalist Network, or GIJN. “But in the days when advertisements flowed to the mainstream media, it was easy for publishers to subsidise an investigative team. Now we have to think creatively of how to make money.”

A new report, Financing Quality Journalism, lists 52 ways that enable quality media organisations to make money, Kaplan noted. He stressed that making money and fundraising were not bad things, and that journalists need to learn business skills to survive.

In the last five years, Kaplan said, the number of nonprofit investigative groups worldwide has doubled. But, he said, “You have to have a sustainable strategy.”

The GIJN also has been helping in facilitating some fellowships for journalists who are interested in investigative journalism. If interested please visit: http://gijn.org/resources/grants-and-fellowships/.

 



Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) concept 

This is a conceptual independent, non-profit media agency that has been suggested by many senior journalists in the past to improve investigative journalism in Sri Lanka. Many countries have established similar organisation to promote and specialise in investigative journalism. The role of a CIJ needs to be looked into going beyond day-to-day reporting for in depth investigative stories either funded outside or through crowd or other means of funding. 

A Sri Lanka CIJ should work with all local media outlets, scrutinising and strengthening democratic institutions, defending and asserting press freedom, freedom of information, and freedom of expression. The media could and should be a catalyst for social debate and consensus that would redound to the promotion of public welfare. To do so, the media must provide citizens with the bases for arriving at informed opinions and decisions. A Sri Lanka CIJ could help facilitate these process for the media. 

The body can pool the excellent investigative journalistic skills from the local industry and help the media personnel to fund their stories until the organisation itself has a dedicated staff. It is not to replace the work of individual newspapers or radio and television stations, but to merely seek to encourage the development of investigative journalism and to create a culture for it within the Sri Lankan media.

A Sri Lanka CIJ should raise funds either within the country or outside with some institutions are ready to fund these kinds of innovative projects. However, there should be an exit strategy from external funding main and switch to self-sustainable financing. The reason for the failure of some of the main journalism projects has been lack of proper exit strategy from the external financing. 

The CIJ also can be used to publish books on current issues, produce video documentaries, and conduct seminar-workshops on journalism and public policy issues. The idea is to contribute a deeper understanding of raging issues, from politics to the environment, from health and business to women and the military with well-researched and well-documented reports. 

Though this is not a new concept, starting the CIJ and implementing the objectives in the near future will be the main challenges. It needs more dedication and commitment from the people who want a better Sri Lanka and media environment. The same concept has been implemented in Philippines, India, and Nepal. 

(The writer is a former President of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Sri Lanka and one of the five Sri Lankan journalists who participated in the 9th Global Investigative Journalism Conference, held in Lillehammer in Norway from 8-11 October. The writer can be reached at mamshihar1977@gmail.com.)

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