Johannesburg, South Africa—Stellar investigative journalism had already upended politics in South Africa when more than a thousand overseas colleagues assembled here from November 16–19 to plot further disruptions of business as usual the world over. Convened by the Global Investigative Journalism Network, some of whose member organizations helped bring us the Panama and Paradise Papers’ exposes of tax evasion by international elites, it was one of the largest international conferences of investigative journalists ever held.
In a keynote address, Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize–winning economist who popularized the term “the 1 percent,” saluted investigative journalism for spotlighting the roots of economic inequality and dubbed Donald Trump the “money launderer in chief.” At a time when news organizations in the United States are besieged by collapsing revenues, shaky public confidence and bogus charges of “fake news,” to hear investigative reporters from 130 countries describe their latest revelations—and unpack how they did them and brainstorm their next targets—was a bracing reminder that bona fide journalism is capable of shaking establishment structures to the core. “We’re the backlash to the backlash,” David E. Kaplan, the global network’s executive director, told The Nation.
Perhaps the most striking success story was unfolding throughout the conference in the South African mass media: stunning revelations by the unforgettably named reporting outfit AmaBhungane. In Zulu, the name means “dung beetle,” an animal that “digs through shit”—as reporters must often do to uncover the truth. Under the motto “digging dung, fertilizing democracy,” this spunky nonprofit has been probing into the expansion of South African president Jacob Zuma’s financial empire since he took office in 2009. In June, AmaBhungane and companion outlet the Daily Maverick received more than 100,000 e-mails detailing how myriad business deals were cut, the government officials involved, and the amounts of money changing hands under the table at the highest levels of Africa’s biggest economy.
The effect has been explosive. Even as dictator Robert Mugabe was being overthrown by a military coup in neighboring Zimbabwe, South Africans of all colors and classes were riveted by a seemingly endless series of revelations about corruption in their own country. Zuma is scheduled to term out as president of South Africa in 2018. However, his ex-wife and long-standing political ally, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, hopes to be elected president of the African National Congress, the political party once headed by anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, at the ANC party conference that begins December 16. AmaBhungane’s exposés, which fanned widespread popular anger at Zuma’s alleged corruption, may jeopardize Dlamini-Zuma’s prospects to succeed him.
“Investigative journalists have stepped in where the state has retreated,” said Anton Harber, director of the journalism department at the University of Witswatersrand, a co-host of the GIJN conference. “There’s been a burst of investigative journalism against all expectations.”
The journalists gathered here are not only documenting the abundant turmoils of 2017; they are also igniting plenty of turmoil of their own. Traversing the open-air hallways and broad brick plazas of the Wits campus—once practically whites-only, now a 33,000-strong reflection of South Africa’s diversity—I heard again and again how the techniques, mindset, and ruthless focus of investigative reporting have taken root in countries long seen as impermeable: Peru, the Philippines, Brazil, India, Jordan, China. The GIJN, with a full-time staff of eight based on five continents and a daily stream of news and resources in five languages, has grown explosively over the past five years to 155 member organizations in 68 countries.
In Peru, a team from the nonprofit outfit Ojo Publico traced the ownership of illicit gold mines in the Amazon to major financial firms in the United States and United Kingdom, which contributed to inquiries by financial authorities in Switzerland and the UK. In Mozambique, journalists with the investigative news site Oxpeckers tracked illegal logging to unscrupulous dealers selling to buyers in China, revealing an illicit supply chain that contributed to the seizure of 1,300 containers filled with illegally harvested trees at the north Mozambiquan port of Nacala.
But if there was one overarching theme here, it was illicit money. Several dozen of the participants in the Paradise Papers investigation were present. That investigation has revealed how some of the world’s top political, financial, and cultural figures in over 200 countries have exploited offshore tax shelters, thus shifting their nations’ tax burdens onto the rest of society. Among those implicated are US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and 12 advisers and top contributors to Trump; Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief fundraiser; the Queen of England; Brazil’s ministers of finance and of agriculture; the financier George Soros; U2’s lead singer Bono; and multinational corporations Apple and Nike. The documents revealed Ross’s investment in a shipping company owned by a Russian oligarch that he had neglected to report in his financial-disclosure forms—providing another clue, potentially, in the special prosecutor’s investigation into President Trump’s ties to Russia.
The international collaboration behind the Paradise Papers project, and the Panama Papers before it, has helped spread investigative journalism to such previously inhospitable regions as the Middle East, where the Arab Network for Investigative Journalism played a key role in tracking down dozens of top financiers and political figures linked to the Panama and Paradise Papers leaks. A new, independent, pan-Arab news site named Daraj (Steps, in Arabic) launched in November with explosive revelations from the Paradise Papers. “This was the first test of our credibility,” Alia Ibrahim, one of Daraj’s co-founders, told me. Over the past month, Daraj has released a series of stories linking top officials in Jordan, Egypt, the UAE, and Qatar to offshore tax havens. Among other continuing ripple effects, pressure is building on the Turkish prime minister to resign after his two sons were found to be among those with secret accounts.
Marina Walker Guevara was at the heart of the landmark journalistic collaborations that yielded first the Panama Papers and then the Paradise Papers. After an anonymous source leaked 13.4 million documents to journalists at the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, the paper contacted the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in Washington, a GIJN member organization that specializes in transborder investigations. Walker Guevara, the consortium’s deputy director, coordinated virtual meetings among the more than 300 journalists from 95 media partners who joined the Paradise Papers project, parceling out leads and supervising the intensive sharing of sources and insights that ultimately broke the story.
Such “radical sharing” is the secret sauce behind the Panama and Paradise Papers, which Walker Guevara hails as a replicable model for future investigations. Radical sharing means no secrets among those working on a project. All documents and sources are available to everyone, in return for an ironclad commitment not to leak to anyone outside the project. (For an inside look at these collaborations, check out the Center for Investigative Reporting Paradise Papers podcast and this Vice News documentary on HBO.)
“We need this level of sophisticated organization to confront criminality and abuses at the highest global level,” Walker Guevara told The Nation. “That’s why this meeting [in Johannesburg] is so important. This is where the next big collaborations will happen. Watch, what’s being discussed now may be the biggest stories over the next two years.”
There is also a primal benefit to such collaborations: protection. Investigative reporting is still a very dangerous business in many countries—as was illustrated yet again in October, when Daphne Caruana Galizia, a celebrated journalist in Malta, was murdered. Galizia had built on Panama Paper revelations to produce a series of scathing reports for her popular blog on corruption by the Mediterranean island country’s prime minister and top political associates and their links to organized crime. Galizia’s voice was silenced by a car bombing. She was the thirty-second journalist killed for their work thus far in 2017, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, with Mexico, Iraq, Russia, Syria, and the Philippines the deadliest locations.
Yet recent events the world over have only increased popular interest in investigative reporting, contended Kaplan of GIJN. “There was the Panama Papers release, which showed how a small nonprofit can coordinate the work of 400 journalists around the world to expose offshore financial secrecy,” he said. “Then Brexit happens, showing what a blizzard of disinformation can do, affecting even the future of the European Union. Then Trump comes along with a tsunami of propaganda and fake news. The public understands why investigative journalism is essential to a democratic society. Institutions are being undermined. People are scared.”
Contrary to conventional expectations, the fervor for investigative reporting has powerfully taken root in Africa. In the past few years, GIJN has advised new investigative centers opening in Botswana, Sierra Leone, and Guinea-Bissau, and worked with similar organizations in Nigeria, Ghana, and South Africa. “You have a battalion of journalists now in the Global South who have the skills and technical facility to hold their governments and companies to account in an evidence-based and nuanced manner,” explained Anya Schiffrin, a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a co-editor of African Muckraking, an anthology of investigative journalism by Africans that was launched at the conference to boisterous applause.
One African investigative team has upended the age-old dynamic of Western journalists parachuting into developing countries to define those places for the outside world. Using cameras mounted on drones, photographers affiliated with African DRONE created portraits of economic inequality in Africa by publishing aerial photos of affluent neighborhoods side by side with impoverished shanties. They then decided it was time to move beyond Africa, said Justin Arenstein, a South African journalist who helped to support the Unequal Scenes project. “We decided to parachute into this ‘developing country’ called America to see how they’re dealing with inequality,” he said wryly. First stop: Seattle, to document homeless encampments abutting the bustling business district.
It may be hard to appreciate within the confines of Trump’s United States, but journalism globally has entered one of the most tumultuous but productive periods in the profession’s history. For example, among the winners of the GIJN’s award for the most consequential expose of the year was a Nigerian newspaper, Premium Times, for an investigation into extra-judicial killings by the country’s security forces. “In the 1990’s, all the methodologies and techniques [of investigative journalism] came from the US,” said Brigitte Alfter, the founding director of the European Fund for Investigative Journalism. “Now people are putting those techniques to work all over the place.”