‘Muckrakers’ united

Print edition : November 11, 2016

A panel discussion on investigating financial crimes in progress at the GIJN's Asia conference. Photo: Aseem Banstola/GIJN

The journalist Kunda Dixit addressing the gathering via video. He had fled Nepal following political persecution. Photo: Raffy Tima/GIJN

The GIJN’s Asia conference was a telling reminder of the need for investigative and data-driven journalism to strengthen democracy in the current global climate.

WHEN Kunda Dixit, the Chief Editor of Nepali Times, addressed hundreds of journalists not in person but through video at a conference he had helped organise, it was a telling reminder of the perils and pressures that journalists are increasingly subjected to and how imperative it is to ensure that their voices are not muffled. Dixit had been hounded out of Nepal as part of a political witch-hunt, which forced him to appear in a video from an undisclosed location.

Dixit’s words underscored the changed circumstances under which journalists are forced to operate even in vibrant democracies, where vested interests succeed in establishing censorship through “behind-the-scenes threats which can be even more insidious and sinister”. Nepal, which has been witness to tumultuous changes in its political structure in recent years, has been increasingly intolerant of dissent and criticism, and journalism has been under attack. The story is similar across Asia, which is home to more than half of the 20 deadliest countries for journalists since 1992.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a non-profit organisation tracking press freedom worldwide, more than 1,200 journalists have been killed in the past 25 years; 47 per cent of the victims were covering politics while 20 per cent were tracking corruption. Imprisonment is another tool of oppression that governments routinely use to muzzle mediapersons. In the past five years, there has been a steady rise in the number of journalists thrown into prison compared with the previous 10 years; it hit a peak of 232 in 2012 (“Press under attack”, Frontline, September 30, 2016).

“Investigative journalism is not a luxury we cannot afford but a necessity we can't do without,” said the veteran journalist Walter Robinson, who led the Boston Globe Spotlight team’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, in his address at Uncovering Asia, the initiative organised by the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), the Centre for Investigative Journalism, Nepal, and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a German political foundation working to strengthen democracy. The GIJN is a network of 138 member organisations in 62 countries. The conference, which brought together more than 350 journalists from 50 countries, was an event where Asian journalists could arm themselves with the latest tools and techniques and form collaborations with their colleagues worldwide, according to David E. Kaplan, Executive Director of GIJN.

The three-day conference featured a vast range of sessions that discussed, among others, methods and tools for data journalism, finding resources for stories, fighting legal attacks, disaster reporting, covering conflict and digging out information online.

Investigative journalism often goes beyond borders and involves muckraking in multiple countries, as clearly seen in the recent Panama Papers data leak, and the conference highlighted the need for journalists worldwide to join hands in their fight against corruption. The leak revealed that a worldwide network of banks and lawyers were selling financial secrecy to thousands of politicians, celebrities and corporate executives.

According to Mar Cabra of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), “massive electronic leaks are the new normal”. A panel discussion on how more than 370 journalists from 76 countries came together to create a global expose unparalleled in journalism history showed that collaboration is also the new normal and that journalism beyond borders is the wave of the future. “The work we are trying to do is increasingly ambitious” and the only way to guarantee success in doing such “impactful journalism is by working together”, said Irene Liu, a Hong Kong-based data journalist.

Sharing his optimism for a bright future for investigative journalism, David Kaplan said: “Despite all the forces working against us, we are still winning.”

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