Journalism organisations financed by donations are playing an increasingly important role in investigative research projects. A non-profit organization for investigative journalism was also significantly involved in the publication of the Panama Papers.
Investigative research needs time and capable minds, that’s what all journalists agree on. And that is synonymous with money. Money that fewer and fewer editorial offices both in Germany and worldwide can or want to spend on protracted research. With declining advertising and subscriber revenues and the free culture on the Internet, it is becoming increasingly difficult for quality media to refinance complex journalistic content. Even large media houses such as Süddeutsche (SZ), Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) and Norddeutsche Rundfunk (NDR) entered into research cooperation one and a half years ago. The critical function of the media is essential for democracy, both in established democracies and in countries moving towards democracy. The media can only fulfil this critical function if they also examine complex structures. This requires money, time, competence, independence and courage.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to combine all these qualities in one hand. Be it because of the difficult financial situation of the press in countries such as Germany or the USA, or because of the lack of independence of the organisation, as in some former Eastern Bloc states, or because of the increasingly complex circumstances that need to be examined. Nonprofit organizations that have focused on investigative research are therefore playing an increasingly important role, which can vary depending on the national context:
In 2013, the cooperation between NDR and SZ with offshore leaks revealed secret offshore accounts of the Chinese elite and the former playboy Gunther Sachs. But neither the idea nor the data material came from the two media houses. They came from the non-profit journalism organisation “International Consortium for Investigative Journalism (ICIJ)” of the “Center for Public Integrity”. This NPJ organization has made it its mission to serve democracy by uncovering and denouncing abuse of power, corruption and public trust by powerful public and private institutions through investigative journalism. The revelations of the offshore leaks were the beginning of the successful international cooperation of investigative journalists under the coordination of the ICIJ: This was followed by Swiss-Leaks, Luxembourg-Leaks and, most recently, the Panama Papers, the data of which were leaked to the Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with colleagues from the ICIJ. In the end, over 400 reporters from more than 100 media are working on the processing of the 2.6 terrabytes – 11.5 million data that no media company alone could have processed.
Detection of corruption and abuse of power
According to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), investigative journalists in countries still in the process of developing towards democracy often struggle with a lack of freedom of the press, lack of media independence, poor administration, lack of anti-corruption laws and poor enforcement of rights and justice.
In many countries where BIRN works, there is no suitable media market to sell or pass on its research to, so the staff of this project have to do much more for their own publicity than, for example, the ICIJ, which has strong media partners. They publish and disseminate their own stories because in many cases nobody else would do it. An example of this is the 2006 Power Brookers article series: Three of BIRN’s Investigative Reporting Centers had joined forces after a price explosion and many power outages to research the energy contracts of their countries. The result of the research was the uncovering of corruption and abuse of power and was rewarded with the Global Shining a Light Award. In addition, BIRN’s research in recent years has led to the transfer or resignation of civil servants, prompted government action on corruption, public accountability and environmental protection and, according to a study by Spiller and Degen, was indirectly responsible for the resignation of Bosnian Prime Minister Nedzad Brankovic.
In many Balkan countries, however, the ownership structure is already part of the problem and a reason for BIRN’s efforts. In Romania, according to investigative research by the Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism, more than half of the media owners themselves are suspected of money laundering and organised crime. The Bosnian Center for Investigative Reporting has also documented similar findings. And owners with such a background are unlikely to ensure that their journalists are trained to analyse crimes and corruption cases more precisely and systematically and then publish the results on a large scale. This is why in all BIRN projects, the training and further education of journalists plays a central role alongside the uncovering of grievances.
Investigative Journalism in the Philippines
Even outside the Western world, for example in Asia, courageous journalists have been trained as investigative reporters for years. The Philippine Center for Investigative Reporting plays a special role in this context. It is now famous throughout Asia for its education and is regarded in many Asian countries as a role model on how to conduct investigative research. In his study “Global Investigative Journalism: Strategies for Support”, David E. Kaplan even goes so far as to claim that the trainers of the PCIJ had almost single-handedly trained a complete generation of investigative journalists in the Philippines, who in turn spread this knowledge throughout Asia in senior positions.
One indication of the success of the PCIJ model, apart from the numerous prizes won, is certainly the impact the stories have had: Her well over 1000 articles in Philippine newspapers and her documentaries have, among other things, put pressure on the government to put reforms in the areas of environmental protection, public accountability and corruption on the agenda. They have also been responsible for the resignation or transfer of civil servants and have gathered evidence of the impeachment of Philippine President Joseph Estrada in 2000. For eight months, journalists gathered evidence of Estrada’s secret luxury homes, the assets he spent on his secret lover, and his stakes in over a dozen companies.
According to PJIC’s co-founder and long-time director Sheila Coronel, this success was possible for three reasons: The long tradition of a lively and competitive press in the hands of many different owners had given the PCIJ the opportunity to sell its own stories. In the Philippines there is also a lot of public support. “The people were incredibly attentive. There was enough support, so that our investigative stories could either initiate a reform or at least some actions,” Coronel recalls. In addition to these external factors, there is another internal one. “When you do something like this, you need a pretty high standard, because you can’t afford any mistakes. We have set ourselves high standards for what we publish: Our stories have to go through the editing several times and are checked. We’ve been waiting months to hear the other side of the story, including Estradas,” Coronel explains. You have to be absolutely sure about this height of fall, otherwise you lose your credibility.