Reporters without boundaries

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Most of the reporting we do, even the in-depth investigative projects, stretches only as far as our borders. But the real world isn't like that. Corporations and crooks electronically shift billions of dollars around the globe in seconds, drug smuggling is an international business, and issues like global warming, sex slavery, economic restructuring, genetic manipulation, disease, technology and poverty, to name a few, ignore national borders.

Traditional journalism struggles to explain these issues adequately.

Imagine then, something completely new: investigative journalists spread throughout the world working on the same story to a common editor and having a year or more to complete the job. Working, for example, on a money-laundering story with journalists in the US, Russia, South America, Italy, England and Africa. And then publishing the findings internationally.

That’s what the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) was set up to do.

My invitation to join arrived soon after the consortium was established in 1997. The letter almost ended up in the bin after I’d read the first paragraph. “I would like to invite you to join us in an unprecedented assembly of the world’s premier journalists, formed in order to produce international investigative reports,” it began. Yeah, right, I thought.

At the next bit, I nearly choked. “Let me assure you that this is not a sales pitch. We are contacting you because of the outstanding work for which you are known by your peers.” Okay, okay, what’s the scam?

The letter continued, saying the invitation was to join the ICIJ, a project of the Centre for Public Integrity in Washington.

I was in the sedate eastern suburbs of Melbourne, had never heard of either of these organisations, and suspected that anything called the “Centre for Public Integrity” must consist of a bunch of right wing, religious American nutters.

After a bit of sniffing around, I began to get the gist of what they were about. The vision of a global approach grabbed me first. The second thing that appealed was the people involved were real reporters, as distinct from pretend journalists. The ICIJ director was Maud Beelman, an Associated Press reporter who had covered wars in the Balkans and worked in the Middle East; Bill Kovach, another ICIJ luminary, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and a former chief of the New York Times‘ Washington bureau; and Charles Lewis, the founder of the Centre for Public Integrity, was an investigative reporter at the ABC and a producer with the American 60 Minutes at CBS.

When I read that Australian journalist and author Phillip Knightley was a key adviser, and that he believed that ICIJ could be the rebirth of investigative journalism, I was hooked.

Back then, the fledgling ICIJ had 18 members. Today, it has about 75 investigative journalists in 41 countries, including five in Australia (The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Marian Wilkinson, Ross Coulthart from the Nine network Sunday program, Mary-Louise O’Callaghan from The Australian, Perth freelancer Jan Mayman and myself).

The ICIJ canvases ideas for projects with a global theme and then invites members to become involved. Journalists sign contracts similar to those for books and are paid for their work. Recently I was part of a project that exposed links between big tobacco and organised crime syndicates. It involved journalists from Italy, Canada, England, Colombia and the United States. I investigated the smuggling of billions of British American Tobacco cigarettes into China and went to Hong Kong to research the project. Like the other reporters, I worked to an editor in Canada, and Maud Beelman in Washington, using encrypted e-mails.

When our 15,000-word report was complete, its findings were published world-wide in the participating members’ newspapers, and in newspapers or media willing to pay for the articles, as well as the Centre for Public Integrity’s web site.

The project was a follow up to the ICIJ’s first investigative report on tobacco smuggling in January 2000 which was picked up by 40 media outlets in at least 10 countries and prompted an official inquiry in Britain.

To date, the ICIJ has brought together its members for conferences in Boston and San Francisco and will meet in Washington this year. Speakers include Bob Woodward and Seymour Hersh. Apart from the opportunity to report on global issues, meeting like-minded reporters from around the world is both a thrilling and humbling experience.

I have met my journalistic heroes at these conferences. People like Gwen Lister, the five-foot nothing editor of The Namibian, which has survived for 15 years despite fire bombings, arrests, and harassment. Last year, she was named one of 50 World Press Freedom Heroes of the past half-century by the International Press Institute.

Then there are others such as Ignacio Gomez, a young man with a cheeky grin who was forced to flee Colombia after receiving death threats and attacks by right-wing paramilitary forces; Kabral Blay-Amihere who was taken into custody by armed soldiers over an editorial he wrote; and the rotund Gustavo Gorriti, forced to flee Peru after being “disappeared” by intelligence forces for several days. And there are many more heroes in what the Guardian has described as “world journalism’s awkward squad”.

The ICIJ’s latest newsletter announces that Ray Choto from Zimbabwe has joined. He was imprisoned and tortured for not revealing his source about a story about an attempted overthrow of President Robert Mugabe.

The ICIJ is evolving: it has not produced a lot of journalism yet. It has a couple of projects under way and is planning several others. They are incredibly ambitious and will take a long time to do. I know that given the time and expense involved, probably no other media organisation would even consider them.

Then there is the funding. Both the ICIJ and the Centre for Public Integrity rely on philanthropic American foundations which I do not know much about, other than we don’t have anything like them in Australia. But I know enough of Maud Beelman, a nuts and bolts journo, and Charles Lewis and Bill Kovach to trust their judgement.

The Centre for Public Integrity in Washington was formed about 12 years ago by Lewis and has published more than 100 investigative reports and eight books. It’s broken key stories on campaign financing and other political and financial scandals. Today it has 35 full-time staff, at least 15 paid interns a year and a near $7 million annual budget. The centre has raised $36 million from foundations, individuals and revenue from publications since being formed.

If the ICIJ follows its footsteps, expect to see some precedent-setting journalism over the next decade. ICIJ might be independent journalism’s answer to globalisation. For me, it’s a reporter’s dream.

The ICIJ each year awards a US$20,000 prize for outstanding international investigative reporting. Anyone can enter. See the consortium’s web site – http://www.icij.org – for details. The Centre for Public Integrity’s reports are on www.public-i.org; its site is www.publicintegrity.org.

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