The Keys to the Success of Transnational Investigative Journalism

Professor Liz Dávid-Barrett, the Director of the Centre for the Study of Corruption at the University of Sussex, and Slobodan Tomić, Lecturer in Public Management at the University of York examine how and why transnational investigative journalism has become an important tool in combatting grand corruption.

This blog post was originally published by the Global Anticorruption Blog.

Over the last decade, investigative journalists have broken a series of blockbuster stories on financial secrecy and illicit financial flows. These clusters of stories have typically been based on, and named after, leaked documents and data from law firms, financial institutions, or government agencies: LuxLeaks (2014), SwissLeaks (2015), the Panama Papers (2016), the Paradise Papers (2017), the FinCEN Files (2020), the Pandora Papers (2021), and, most recently, Suisse Secrets (2022). One of the remarkable things about each of these cases is that they involved not a single story or series of stories by a single media outlet in a single country, but rather were the product of a transnational collaboration of a network of investigative journalists. It has always been the case that investigative journalism has been a vital tool for exposing and deterring corruption. But what we seem to be seeing now is the emergence of a transnational coalition of journalists that is sufficiently agile, dynamic, and capable of working across borders to be a match for the perpetrators of grand corruption, money laundering, and other forms of organized crime.

Indeed, these transnational networks of investigative journalists can be seen as a new institution of global governance. Yet their emergence presents a series of puzzles. How have they overcome the difficulties that plague law enforcement when they try to act transnationally? How have journalists learned to trust one another in handling sensitive data, and to have faith that their colleagues will hold off on publishing until the agreed date? In addition to questions like these, the emergence of transnational networks of investigative journalists raises a broader question: What does this new form of global governance add to our collective efforts to tackle grand corruption?

With support from the UK government’s Serious Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Evidence (SOC ACE) programme, we have been investigating these questions, principally through interviews with investigative journalists in Latin America and the Balkans who have participated in these networks. Our research has highlighted three important features of these transnational journalistic networks.

  • First, transnational networks of investigative journalism have benefited from a transformed funding model. Indeed, this new form of journalistic cooperation is in some ways a response to the crisis that regular journalism has faced in recent years. A decade ago, investigative journalism—which is resource-intensive and slow work—looked set to die out as the newspaper business crumpled under the strains of free online content. In many countries, local journalism has collapsed because of these market pressures, and the political sensitivity of reporting on corruption made it especially vulnerable to cuts. While it is still hard for local media to finance investigative journalism, transnational investigative networks have through their work demonstrated that they bring public benefit. And that has enabled them to access funding through other methods, including individual donors and international foundations that make grants in line with their broader mission to maintain a free media.
  • Second, there has been a shift in the culture of journalism away from a collection of “lone wolves” competing for career-burnishing scoops, and toward a more collaborative and mutually supportive model. That is in part because, as several journalists explained to us, investigating and writing about the perpetrators of grand corruption remains an extremely dangerous business, and transnational cooperation helps reduce the inherent risks of taking on the powerful and well-connected. Part of this risk-mitigation is due to safety in numbers. As one journalist told us, “I lived in a small town and if I was going to publish something by myself on corruption I felt completely unsafe. I didn’t have any support. Once I received a death threat after publishing something. With the transnational work you have a network of support, and it’s not only your name that becomes a target or is connected to a publication, it’s loads of names being connected.” Relatedly, the involvement of many journalists in a network makes it possible for individual journalists who might be at risk if their names are connected to certain stories to shift the story to someone else in the network. If a case is highly sensitive in one country, for example, the network might pass it to someone who does not live there. This approach can also help evade curbs on media freedom. Notably, none of the Suisse Secrets stories have been published under the bylines of Swiss reporters, out of concern that these reporters could be prosecuted under Switzerland’s archaic secrecy laws. Similarly, other journalists have told us that they used transnational networks to get around Nicaragua’s laws against publishing stories based on leaks. Once the story has been published elsewhere, outside the jurisdiction of those laws, a synthesis can more safely be reported in the Nicaraguan media.
  • Third, transnational networks of journalists have created new tech tools and developed methods that are helping to build the capacity of the global anticorruption community. The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project has brought together journalists and data scientists to develop an investigative dashboard, called Aleph, that helps journalists all over the world to find company ownership records and other information using data from public records as well as data from past leaks. The networks also sometimes assist with access to tools and data that might be too expensive for small outlets to finance, such as satellite information, export-import figures, and telephone numbers or addresses. Some networks have in-house data scientists to perform sophisticated searches and analyses. This tech revolution also means that it is now much easier for whistleblowers and other sources to contact journalists anonymously and provide them with huge quantities of information in electronic form. Technology also facilitates the use of the investigative journalists’ reports by law enforcement: The journalists’ articles, and the databases on which those stories are based, create an archive that can be useful to law enforcement looking for evidence, especially now that search engines make it easy to find information from the past and connect the dots.

Transnational investigative journalism is now an important part of our global armory against grand corruption. But there are limits to its impact. Journalists can discover corruption schemes, or evidence of them, but they cannot prosecute. Relatively few of the cases of cross-border corruption revealed by even the most spectacular leaks have led to trials and verdicts, because it is eventually up to domestic authorities to prosecute, and that legal process is fraught with obstacles. Similarly, it is not clear that all the great work that journalists do to expose legal gaps and institutional weaknesses is provoking systemic reform. Once public attention subsides, it takes Herculean efforts from the anticorruption community to get governments to consider new regulatory solutions against tax evasion and money laundering. Yet before these networks existed, most cases of cross-border corruption went undiscovered as well as unprosecuted. Transnational networks of investigative journalists provide unsolicited but rigorous narratives linking information and actors, and the evidence they uncover can be used both by the general public and by law enforcement agencies. In doing so, they are performing an essential function in the global fight against grand corruption and illicit finance.

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