Journalists are facing one of the most difficult times to investigate misconduct and hold power to account, a group of investigative journalists have said.
Regional editors of the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) expressed their concern at the growing challenges faced by reporters across many different countries but added that there is still hope amid the growing hostility.
The Middle East and North Africa
Majdolin Hassan, Arabic editor for GIJN, painted a bleak picture of the extent that investigative reporting has been curtailed by different authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, speaking at the Investigative Reporting Around The World event (10 April 2019) in London.
"If you want to imagine someone disabled, paralysed, and who doesn’t have any potential future, that literally describes our reality in terms of investigative journalism in the region," she said.
Hassan spoke of her personal experience of some of the methods used by governments to try and force journalists into silence. In 2010, she uncovered sexual and physical abuse against orphans in Jordan, but was shocked by the response that she got after the story was published.
"I worked extremely hard on that story, digging, linking the dots, and I believed as a fresh investigative reporter that everybody would thank me after the publication. The reaction was totally different. I was forced by the government to reveal our sources, or otherwise the newspaper would retract my story. I insisted not to reveal my sources. So the retraction was issued the next day," she explained.
So what can a journalist do when they do not have any resources or contacts, and has even been taken to court by the government? Hassan found GIJN, and through that launched GIJN Arabic in 2017. Two years later, the initiative has gained 12,000 followers on major social media platforms.
It has made it possible to give much-needed scrutiny in countries like Sudan and Egypt by working with foreign publications and journalists. Despite this optimism, Hassan warns that this route results in going down a road they cannot come back from.
"Safa Al-Ahmad, who used to work with Channel 4 and the BBC publishing great investigative reporting in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, paid the price. She has been abandoned by her family and cannot visit Saudi Arabia for fears of being arrested," Hassan added.
Her experience is not an isolated incident.
Happening now: GIJN is delighted to be at the @frontlineclub with a great crowd, including enterprising local investigative & data journalists, to discuss the state of investigative reporting worldwide pic.twitter.com/F0DHNooQnR— GIJN (@gijn) April 10, 2019
A country well-known for its restrictions on free speech, China has seen a massive crackdown on journalism since President Xi Jinping took power in 2013, as Chinese journalist, Joey Qi, explained.
"There are fewer and fewer investigative journalists in China and the censorship has got stronger and stronger. The media is becoming more and more submissive and self-censorship has become very strong everywhere."
However, Qi added that not all hope for investigative reporting is lost and can sometimes be found in surprising places, such as popular Chinese communications app WeChat, which is a lot like WhatsApp.
"WeChat has a function called the WeChat official account where people can publish their articles and the subscribers can read them. One of such articles was from a health information provider about Quanjian, a healthcare company, revealing sale of fake healthcare which caused deaths," he explained.
"The manager of Quanjian, Shu Yuhui, has connections to high-level Chinese government officials. He denied all allegations first and even threatened to sue WeChat official account. But under pressure of public opinion, he was arrested at last."
With NGOs chipping in, independent journalists have also been spurred on to take action by publishing stories either through Hong Kong, Taiwan, or other foreign media publications.
“Even in the hardest time, investigative journalism will never die. Even when we are in the dark, there’s still a brave journalist, the brightest light, reminding us of the significance and meaning of our work," Qi concluded.
Russia and Eastern Europe
Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has become a tightly controlled nation, increasingly difficult for journalists to expose government corruption.
"Any independent media website can be blocked within 24 hours after publishing something the authorities don’t like," said Olga Simanovych, Russian editor, GIJN.
There are also cases of social media users facing accusations of extremism and imprisonment by 'liking' posts which are critical of the government. In fact, new laws allow the general prosecutor to block any website that is 'disrespectful to authorities' or is seen to have 'enemy' ties.
"Any journalist in Russia can be accused of a crime if he or she accepts a grant or award from a so-called undesirable organisation, such as The National Endowment for Democracy," she added.
For the Russian secret service, there is no such thing as confidentiality, as passport data and bank account information can be accessed, bought or blocked.
"The third suspect in the Skripal poisoning case, for example, were hidden from official databases in Russia, and from the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs as well. But two investigative teams, Bellingcat and Insider Russia, managed to identify the existence of the suspect and uncover his real name, even not having his photo," she said.
"Investigative journalism really can influence society, and even change the results of elections. Just look at the rating of Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko after the recent investigation by my friends and colleagues. Other such examples have taken place in Armenia and Kyrgyzstan."
Podcast: @clobo_guerrero explains how investigative journalists in South America have found new strategies to report the truth in countries clamping down on independent journalism https://t.co/bcBZEziHKx— Journalism.co.uk (@journalismnews) April 12, 2019
Miraj Chowdhury, Bangla editor at GIJN, said cross-border investigations between India and Bangladesh, such as the special investigation into the holy river Ganges by Abu Siddique and his team, have been key turning points.
It identified how India was withdrawing water from 15 points of the river, and the impact that had on the climate and the quality of living for poor communities in Bangladesh and India.
"This is one of the first times a Bangladeshi journalist has crossed the border for an investigation and it is a significant moment because there was this psychological barrier of crossing the border," he said.
"We can see a new generation of journalists who are trying to break the barrier of the border for investigative journalists. They dare to dream big."
Despite his initial optimistic tone, Chowdhury was quick to point out the difficult times ahead. Last year’s general election, for example, was surrounded by allegations of vote-rigging in favour of the government.
“I think Bangladeshi journalism is facing its hardest time. The government is being more repressive and there is more pressure on the press than ever before," he added.
Chowdhury also said that with owners of news companies often working alongside government officials, self-censorship among journalists is growing with dire consequences. Six Bangladeshi TV channels are cutting jobs, with one now closed down. Add to that two daily newspapers going bankrupt in recent times.
"This new generation of journalists, when they are ready to take the challenges, they are afraid of job security. Some of them are frustrated because they are facing high levels of censorship from their bosses.
"Mainstream media has failed to make the powerful accountable. The new generation needs alternative, independent platforms where they can publish their reports. If we can not do that, we lose our rights as journalists."
In countries such as France, where press freedom is higher, the challenge for investigative journalists is the lack of credibility in traditional ‘mainstream’ news sources.
French editor Marthe Rubió said that great investigative pieces can be achieved even without many resources. She explained that mainstream news outlets during the 'yellow vest' protests had only covered reports of violence from protesters towards police, but not vice versa.
David Dufresne, an independent reporter, began to verify images being circulated on social media of police violence towards protesters and tweeted each image that he confirmed to be genuine, tagging the French Department for Homeland Security in each one.
"After working on his own for three months, he was contacted by the independent French investigative media organisation, Mediapart, which offered to analyse all the data he had collected, visualised it and published it on its website. His work had a great impact. After only one month of silence, mainstream media started to cover violence against 'yellow vests'," she said.
"I think it shows how investigative journalism and data journalism can play a crucial role to give back credibility to traditional media. I also think it’s a great example of how investigative journalism doesn’t always have to be about having the best sources or using the most sophisticated technologies; sometimes it can be just about having an obsession and sticking to it."