Accountability

Published — October 6, 2000 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Commentary: Protecting the rights of the people through investigative reporting

Introduction

The most beloved American president, Abraham Lincoln, once said, “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”

Founded under oppression

The Namibian newspaper was founded in 1985, at the height of apartheid oppression, by Gwen Lister, a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and several of her colleagues. The newspaper was actively engaged in efforts to implement the U.N. settlement plan for Namibia that led to elections in 1989 and independence in 1990. In the process, the newspaper was firebombed on several occasions, Lister and members of her staff arrested and detained, and the newspaper subjected to a campaign of harassment and intimidation. The newspaper actively fought for freedom of speech, free press and democracy in the dark days of apartheid and continues that tradition today. It remains committed to independent journalism, an indispensable pillar of any working democracy. For her efforts, Lister, the founder and editor of the The Namibian, was honored in April 2000 as one of the “50 World Press Freedom Heroes” of the last half-century by the International Press Institute, a global network of editors and media executives.

In the almost century and a half since those words were uttered, however, we have all learned the hard way that politicians are rarely honest or completely candid with the public. Almost by definition, elected officials constantly seeking public approval are unreliable purveyors of “the whole truth” unless it fits neatly into their own parochial, partisan prism of reality. Therefore, people throughout the world understand that in order to get the “real facts,” they cannot merely subsist on the self-serving statements of government officials or corporate executives. Instead, to get the truth, people in any country must rely on respected, independent sources of information trusted newspapers, magazines, radio and television news programs, and more recently, from various news-related websites.

Indeed, no democracy ostensibly of the people, by the people and for the people noble ideas enshrined in U.S. history can operate honestly and openly if its citizens are uninformed and unable to get independent information about society and government. In the United States, for example, in the late 1960s, the American people began to oppose the nations involvement in the Vietnam war after reading investigative news stories about a massacre by U.S. soldiers of unarmed women and children in My Lai. They began to question the wars true costs after seeing, at home in their living rooms, night after night, television news stories featuring vivid pictures of dead American soldiers in body bags.

In 1974, after hundreds of investigative reports about lying and abuse of power in the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon became the only U.S. president to resign from office. Had he not resigned, he would have been impeached, removed and prosecuted. Why? Because the American people had learned, largely through news media reports, the undeniable truth about his administration, and they felt obligated and empowered to act. In any country, how can the people exert their popular will if they are only spoon-fed public-relations pablum by paid politicos? The fact is, they cant. As Thomas Jefferson, the American founding father and author of the Declaration of Independence, once wrote: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

It is hard to imagine a newspaper in the world today that has been more courageous or more tenaciously persistent in its pursuit of the truth than The Namibian. Congratulations to Gwen Lister and her brave colleagues at The Namibian for persevering through firebombings, arrests and other outrageous forms of harassment and intimidation for the past 15 years. And congratulations to the hardy citizens of Namibia for supporting this heroic newspaper in the quest for truth and true democracy.

Speaking truth to power

Speaking truth to power is never easy, and it never has been throughout time.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 34 reporters were murdered last year around the world, with 10 killed in Sierra Leone. Another 87 journalists were imprisoned because of their work; China was the “leading jailer of journalists,” with 19 in prison by years end. Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of the worlds countries today restrict print and electronic journalists, according to the New York-based research organization Freedom House. Some 80 percent of the 6 billion people on this planet “live in nations with less than a free press.” The exciting explosion of news and information on the World Wide Web is enormously threatening to governments ability to control information and “the truth” as it is presented to the populace. Which explains why, according to a French organizations estimate, 45 countries today restrict Internet access under “the pretext of protecting the public from subversive ideas or violation of national security.”

Gutsy comrades around the world

In addition to Gwen Lister and her dedicated colleagues at The Namibian, there is today a long list of gutsy comrades in journalism the world over whose inconvenient stories have incurred the wrath of the powers that be.

Chris Anyanwu, the founder and publisher of The Sunday Magazine in Nigeria, saw her newsmagazine shut down by former dictator Sani Abacha, and she was later imprisoned by the Nigerian government. Pius Njawe of Cameroon, founder and editor of Le Messager, was arrested more than 30 times for his newspapers independent and sometimes critical reporting. Kabral Blay-Amihere, editor of The Independent newspaper in Ghana and president of the West African Journalists Association, was taken into custody by armed soldiers this past January after writing an editorial the government didnt like. Dai Qing of China was imprisoned for 10 months not long after her public denunciation of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Goenawan Mohamad, founder and editor of Tempo, Indonesias most respected newspaper, saw his publication banned by the Suharto government in 1994. While working for the BBC in India, Yusuf Jameel survived a parcel bomb explosion after a colleague in the office opened a package addressed to him. Julio Godoy was Guatemalas top investigative reporter before he was kidnapped, and the newspaper he helped to found was blown up. Mara Christina Caballero, Ignacio Gomez and Mara Jimena Duzn Senz of Colombia have all separately fled their country because of death threats related to their reporting.

Duncan Campbell’s investigations have resulted in his arrest and trial under the British Official Secrets Act. After his investigative reporting, Gustavo Gorriti was arrested by Peruvian intelligence squads and “disappeared” for two days before international protests forced President Alberto Fujimori to release him. Gorriti left Peru and began reporting in Panama, and, remarkably, the government there has tried, more than once, to deport him.

The heroic, inspiring acts of journalists doing their job in the face of government repression exemplifying the stubborn, indomitable human quest to seek the truth at all costs occur every day around the world.

Gwen Lister of The Namibian and all the valiant souls mentioned above are today members of an elite, new global network called the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). It was begun and sponsored in 1997 by the Center for Public Integrity.

The ICIJ was created because there is a need for in-depth information that transcends national boundaries. It extends globally the Centers style of enterprise journalism in the public interest by marshaling the talents of the worlds leading investigative reporters to produce collaborative, multinational reports on important issues that do not stop at the waters edge, such as organized crime, political corruption, military proliferation, environmental degradation. The ICIJ now has 77 members in 41 countries.

Increasingly, many news stories can no longer be told in the context of a single country, and by collaborating electronically across borders, journalists can produce unprecedented investigative reporting. Take, for example, the subject of international tobacco smuggling.

Earlier this year, led by ICIJ director Maud Beelman, reporters in four countries (Colombia, England, Australia and the United States) on four continents worked together for half a year, obtaining and analyzing 11,000 pages of internal documents from British American Tobacco, the worlds second-largest tobacco company. The documents confirmed what tobacco companies have been denying publicly for years: direct involvement by corporate executives in smuggling billions of cigarettes into countries around the world to avoid paying customs duties.

The Center report, released on the Internet, prompted 40 news media stories in 10 countries and three government investigations on two continents. The pre-publication libel review process involved four lawyers on two continents in two languages.

A more precarious world

There is a growing need for international information about virtually every conceivable subject. With the end of the Cold War, we now face a more complicated, more precarious world that presents new challenges for every citizen and every journalist. For example, we are now ironically more susceptible to weapons of mass destruction than we were before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The nuclear, biological and chemical warfare technologies used in 20th century weapons of mass destruction were almost entirely military, developed in and paid for by government laboratories.

But todays breathtaking 21st century technologies robotics, genetically engineered organisms, biotechnology have wildly unpredictable aspects to them. Because these new technologies are being developed almost entirely by corporate enterprises, for commercial purposes, there is no real political discourse, no collective discussion about shared values, ethics, morals. And unlike atomic and nuclear weapons, these powerful, unprecedented new technologies are obtainable and usable by individuals or small groups. They do not require large facilities or rare raw materials, and these technologies are not under the control of any nation-state. All that is required is knowledge and money.

Because of these new, disconcerting circumstances, the co-founder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, Bill Joy, recently wrote in Wired magazine that we have entered “the century of danger.” He believes that “it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals.”

What’s legal; what’s illegal?

What exactly is the role of national and international governments in all of this? Who is protecting the public interest? How can journalists get information from multibillion dollar, transnational corporations that increasingly are under no legal obligation to disclose their activities to anyone? What is legal when there are technologies so new that the laws have yet to be written anywhere?

Is anything illegal? Is everything legal?

How do nations that sell off their natural resources, from water to diamonds, ensure that all of their citizens benefit from such financial dealings? To what extent are the wealthy, industrialized nations in the North acting sincerely and in good faith on such vital subjects as global warming with the poorer countries in the South? In the U.S. right now, companies are patenting human genes. From human genes to specific plant species and seeds, who owns the commercial rights? Is everything for sale?

There are thousands of these kinds of new questions, all of them requiring imagination and innovation and international insight by todays news organizations if they hope to remotely explore them with their readers, viewers, listeners, browsers. Almost all of these new questions affect the health, safety or financial well-being of everyone. Physical nation-state borders are substantially irrelevant.

Meanwhile, all of the tragically familiar inequities and injustices continue on a global scale, all notably underreported by the Western news media. The wealthiest fifth of the worlds people consumes 86 percent of all goods and services, while the poorest fifth consumes 1 percent. Almost 800 million people roughly one-sixth of the worlds developing nation population are malnourished, and 200 million of them are children. One in four adults in the developing world is illiterate. Approximately 1.3 billion people lack access to safe drinking water.

All of these complicated, vexing issues somehow must be understood and investigated by journalists around the world. Companies and governments, large and small, would like the public perceptions about these subjects to comport with their own specific financial and political agendas. While the role and the future of the nation-state today are unclear, in any country, the perceived threat posed by an independent truth teller rooting around, looking for the “real facts,” is very clear. As Nobel Prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer recently wrote in Living in Hope and History, “The State wants from the Writer reinforcement of the type of consciousness it imposes on its citizens, not the discovery of the actual conditions of life beneath it, which may give the lie to it.”

The inconvenient, unmanageable presence of the investigative journalist is a problem for governments and corporations all over the world. That explains why reporters are murdered, tortured, deported, sued for criminal libel and otherwise harassed. Despite such intimidation, fearless, intrepid investigative journalists such as Gwen Lister and her newspaper, The Namibian, press on, against all odds, bringing the truth to light for all of us to see.

And the world is a better place because of it.

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