Investigative journalists must show citizens the way: We can clean up government without resorting to rancour or nationalism

In a reflection on the role of journalists worldwide, and in the Balkans in particular, Aida Cerkez and Rosemary Armao vent their frustration about one of the biggest challenges of investigative reporting: how to make people care.

Do citizens really want to know? Do exposes bring about reform? What’s the good of revealing corruption?

Any investigative journalist working the Balkans wonders about these questions eventually, usually after that laboriously reported story, which you spent months working on including by putting yourself in harm’s way, passes mostly unremarked upon. You want to believe the theory behind investigative reporting – that telling citizens the truth will turn them into agents for change – but does it?

Citizens are not idealists. They know that life is bad if you look it full in the face. So they don’t. They skip over or avoid altogether stories about nepotism, bribery, conflict of interest, theft and money laundering. What good is there in learning all the details of the dirty business they already know is just politics and big business as usual. Always was, always will be.

We journalists are the idealists, confident that shining a light on unfair and bad governance will result in fixes, sure that citizens will welcome and applaud our articles. Instead, they are more likely to hate the intrusion on their already stressed out daily lives.

Or worse, in some cases where reporting about corruption actually does fire up people – the result is uncontrolled anger that only leads to rising authoritarianism. For proof of this look no further than the protests that have filled the streets of Romania, Hungary and Brazil in recent years.

Citizens disgusted with greedy leaders have become increasingly willing to vote for extremists who promise to turn things around.

Around the world, presidents are now installed who sanction torture (Brazil, US), extra-judicial death to criminals (Philippines) and open discrimination against minorities and immigrants, all in the name of stopping crime and corruption.

Suspect regimes from China and Russia to Egypt have learned to use our tools – potent accusations of corruption – for a wholly different goal, to silence and jail their opposition.

The task for investigative reporters is to engage and arouse citizens – and to show the way to clean up government without resorting to rancour or nationalism.

In the Balkans, this means working on changing a culture.

People here enter a vortex of corruption at birth when, overwhelmed with joy and pride, our fathers press money into the hands of nurses as they hand us over to our parents for the first time. A precious moment looks like a sale.

From then on, it’s an envelope here, candies or flowers there, little gifts to doctors, kindergarten or school teachers, bureaucrats at various government counters and offices, nurses at old people’s homes – until our tearful children drop a few banknotes to our gravediggers. Nobody even perceives these as bribes, just courtesies.

Motorists stopped for speeding offer payments to police officers before they are even pressed for a bribe. Or they’ll mention a close relative working for a high official or international agency, expecting clemency.

Later, the same citizens complain about widespread corruption and how “without paying, nothing gets done.”

We even accept that a price must be paid to get a job: the better the job, the bigger the payment. According to rumours, one has to pay nearly US$3,000 to get a position in some local government offices in Sarajevo and ten times as much to work in desirable public companies.

These prices were revealed during the trial of a high-ranking party official from Sarajevo, Amir Zukić, who allegedly used his position in the ruling Party for Democratic Action to provide jobs for those who paid him.

A nurse from the local hospital testified how Zukić’s co-defendants told her that a job at one of Sarajevo’s hospitals cost her the equivalent of $8,500 and that when she paid, one of them also demanded an expensive perfume.

Journalists must show their readers and viewers that they are contributing to the problem by playing the game, offering bribes without being asked to pay and not reporting them afterwards. They have to show that ordinary people are not helpless in the face of endemic corruption.

Journalists in the Balkans fight a different battle than those in Italy or other countries with a strong organized crime problem. In the Balkans, organized crime and government often work hand in hand.. This is a place where the state often participated in the making of an organized crime group and has cooperated with it all along.

Under these circumstances, the government can hardly be expected to introduce legislation that would harm one of their own.

And the big players too often get away scot-free. They are less likely to be prosecuted if their crime is sweeping, less likely to be convicted if they are prosecuted, and less likely to spend any time in jail if convicted. They can buy their way out of cell time – all stories we have worked on.

Take the case of Zlatibor Lončar in Serbia. In September 2002, this young doctor allegedly injected a crime boss with fatal poison and finished him off after a rival gang failed to kill him in an assassination attempt, according to the investigative journalism outlet, KRIK.

Some ten days later, the doctor was awarded by the rival gang leader with an apartment in Belgrade. From then on, the doctor’s career only flourished, despite photos published of him in company with the leaders of Serbia’s notorious Zemun clan and evidence that medical documentation that allowed a convicted criminal to evade jail was signed by Dr. Lončar.

All this is known to the public but nevertheless, today, Dr. Lončar is Serbia’s Health Minister.

Do people not care? Do they feel helpless? Are our stories boring?  Or are they so disturbing that it is just easier to shut down and switch to reality shows and worry about the next handbag some Instagram star will display, or enjoy the next cute cat video?

Editors at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) have worked for years now with varying success to turn articles about arcane, complex corruption schemes into “stories”. Not dull, dry reports that feel like homework to plough through.

Readers want a tale.  They want to see up close the people who have been treated badly. Who are the bad guys and what are their excuses? Tell me how things got so bad and how to move forward. Above all, tell me why I should care.

This is the fourth blog in a series hosted in the run-up to the event New Actors and Strategies for Fighting and Investigating Corruption in the Western Balkans at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University (7-8 November 2019).

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