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Joining forces

What the corrupt have to fear when journalists and civil society activists come together

Journalists participate in TI Indonesia's fellowship scheme Anti-corruption Residency: Reporting Legal Journalism. Photo: Transparency International Indonesia

Headshot of Matthew Jenkins, Research Manager at Transparency International
Matthew Jenkins

Research Manager – Knowledge Services, Transparency International

It is now clear beyond any doubt: democracy around the world is in retreat with nearly half of countries experiencing some form of democratic decline. This has led some analysts to speak of a global “democratic recession” as authoritarian forms of government become more prevalent.

This is concerning news for anti-corruption activists. While the relationship between control of corruption and democracy is complex, we know that two of the hallmarks of a vibrant democracy, robust institutional oversight and social accountability mechanisms, are crucial in controlling corruption. The performance of these checks and balances on executive power relies heavily on the critical role played by journalists in reporting on government actions and uncovering misconduct; free and independent media are thus key actors in the accountability ecosystem. In response to democratic backsliding, we as civil society need to make concerted efforts to join forces with potential allies in the press and play to our respective strengths.

That is why over the last six years Transparency International has increasingly teamed up with investigative journalists.

When the journalists dig up evidence of wrongdoing, Transparency International and its national partners step in to push for the perpetrators to be held to justice and build pressure for reforms to close loopholes that enabled their malfeasance. As civil society, we strengthen the impact of such investigative reporting by making sure it results in concrete follow up to enhance democratic accountability.

The Global Anti-Corruption consortium (GACC), a formal partnership between the investigative journalists of the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project—OCCRP—and the Transparency International network of anti-corruption activists, has supported over 200 investigations into corruption and organised crime since 2016. These investigations have led to actions in 22 different countries across Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe and Latin America. The collaboration has resulted in Transparency International and its partners making around 90 submissions to 28 different enforcement authorities to investigate the corruption uncovered by journalists. These resulted in resignations, arrests, changes to legislation, improved regulations and numerous judicial authorities acting upon our alerts.

In Europe, reporting by OCCRP brought to light how criminals, oligarchs, and corrupt officials were abusing citizenship-by-investment schemes, also known as “Golden Visas”. On the basis of these revelations, Transparency International successfully campaigned to end programmes

awarding investment-based citizenship to EU countries. Just this year, the European Commission referred Malta to the EU Court of Justice over its golden passports scheme, drawing on arguments first highlighted by OCCRP and Transparency International back in 2018.

Where skilful journalism is paired with savvy advocacy and campaigning, outrage can turn into impact remarkably quickly. However, in many environments, technical competencies must be developed to allow such collaboration to blossom, and steps need to be taken to familiarise journalists and activists with each other’s ways of working.

One global initiative has set out to do just that by nurturing partnerships between local investigative journalists and anti-corruption campaigners. Coordinated by Transparency International, the Strengthening Accountability Networks Among Civil Society (SANCUS) project works with civil society groups in 26 countries to address accountability gaps and corruption vulnerabilities by targeting the shortcomings of public officials and oversight institutions.

Deepening collaboration with journalists is key to this endeavour. In many of the countries in which SANCUS operates, investigative media face constraints such as obstructive legal frameworks, political pressure, security threats and limited capacity and resources. Given the time- and resource-intensive nature of investigations, collaboration with civil society organisations provides journalists with new opportunities to dig deeper. And rather than taking it for granted that media reporting will result in improved accountability and responsiveness of public institutions, through the SANCUS project, Transparency International engages journalists to expand space for their reporting and links them to local activists to ensure reporting leads to public interest advocacy.

Journalists in Guatemala participate in Acción Ciudadana's training on how to report on corruption issues. Photo: Acción Ciudadana

In Guatemala, Transparency International’s national chapter Accion Ciudadana partnered with community journalists to strengthen local governance. Alone, these community journalists operate in small associations and networks with financial limitations and lack of formal journalistic training. Accion Ciudadana supports them to identify and use sources of information to better report on corruption issues at the municipal level and can then uses this reporting to advocate against rampant graft, abuse of power, and political violence at the municipal and rural levels, which usually goes unnoticed in the national press. To date, 64 community journalists have graduated from the training programme.

On the other side of the world, in Sri Lanka, a lack of an open data culture makes the role of investigative journalists more difficult but no less important. The Investigative Journalism Fellowship run by Transparency International Sri Lanka under SANCUS fosters journalistic investigations into corruption and lack of disclosure within local governmental institutions, which is heavily underreported.

Since May 2022, our chapter mentored a group of Sri Lankan journalists on the topics of corruption, transparency and participatory budgeting, to improve reporting on these crucial matters. Using this newly acquired knowledge, the journalists published 28 articles written in Sinhala and Tamil in prominent online and offline press outlets that enjoy wide circulation across the country. Stories included the mismanagement of procurement and distribution processes, a lack of oversight in the use of public assets, and resistance from local authorities to citizen participation.

Similarly, In Indonesia, the local TI chapter supports a joint initiative between activists and journalists to investigate proposed judicial appointees to the Corruption Court. With support from the European Union, TI Indonesia organised a fellowship scheme called the Anti-Corruption Residency: Reporting Legal Journalism, attended by participants from 13 provinces across Indonesia. After the session, the participants had a strategic hearing with the Supreme Court and Judicial Commission to advocate for greater disclosure of information from the judiciary.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, civil society groups engaged in the SANCUS project have liaised with renowned journalists and media outlets, including NewsHawks in Zimbabwe, to provide training on investigative techniques to dozens of aspiring young journalists, with a special focus on cross-border investigations. The initiative, led by TI Kenya, TI Zimbabwe, and TI Zambia has enabled collaborative approaches between the chapters in building the capacity of journalists to investigate corruption and strengthen peer learning among reporters from the different countries. In 2023, Transparency International and OCCRP will build on this work to train journalists from eight African countries on techniques for investigating illicit financial flows.

Civil society and reporters have much to teach each other. The more activists and journalists join forces, the better placed our societies will be to generate stories that inform policymakers, educate citizens, and hold the powerful to account.