Social media is changing the world of investigative journalism, are you listening?

Whistle-blowers don’t need journalists or governments anymore. It’s the other way around.
Social media is changing the world of investigative journalism, are you listening?
Social media is changing the world of investigative journalism, are you listening?

Take the tweet from Edward Snowden on Monday evening this week alerting journalists to duplicitous semantic jugglery by the British government. He said

“Journos: UK officials don’t want to “ban encryption” – they want to ban encryption that *works*. Deceptive intent.”

He explained what to watch for. Imagine connecting with Snowden even if it is a one-way conversation. Something like that was simply not possible so openly even five years ago. From somewhere in Russia, here is a former CIA employee sharing his expertise with the media in particular and the world in general. Snowden who revealed details of classified United States government surveillance programme is facing charges of theft of property and unauthorised communication of national defence information of one of the world’s most powerful, if not the most powerful country.  That is the power of this nascent beast which makes twentieth century mediums of communication look like stone-age tools.

Beyond the cacophony, social media is ensuring that the disruptive power of accurate information provided by people with vast technical expertise in programming and encryptions reaches journalists and beyond them, anyone with access to internet. For those in the media, Wikileaks and subsequent leaks modelled on it have ushered in a new 101 in journalism. For a start, journalists from across the world are looking at the leaks together, analysing the treasure-trove of more than 10 million documents which Julian Assange, the man who co-founded Wikileaks himself describes as “a giant library of the world’s most persecuted documents.” Speaking via skype at an international seminar on investigative journalism in Geneva last week, Editor-in-Chief and Director Wikileaks Kristinn Hrafnsson said if all else failed for whistleblowers, Wikileak-like models are available worldwide. The site posts information from around the world having gained international notoriety after posting US State Department cables in a redacted format in 2010-2011.

Massive leaks of this nature have ensured that journalists are no longer the sole players in the world of investigative journalism and they will have to be on their toes if they don’t wish to be reduced to bit players. Information will come at us from sources which are asymmetric and at different speeds and languages. Almost anyone can place documents in the public domain now. Assange, a programmer himself, has put in place systems showing how information transfer can transcend political, financial and editorial room barriers. In other words he has shown journalists a way forward leaving them to decide if they want to catch the ball and run or stick their heads in sand. This is where the social media is playing a critical role.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) which led on Swissleaks, off-shoreleaks and Luxembourgleaks has gone one step further in forcing journalists to collaborate. Working with over 140 scribes in 45 countries the ICIJ removed the territorial angst between journalists. Newsbreaks were internationally timed leaving journalists the scope and privilege of taking the investigations further in their countries. “The ICIJ documents were dense, they required further digging and analysis. The international deadline was respected by all and this was preceded by weeks if not months of work in individual countries,” says Francois Pilet of the Swiss magazine L’Hebdo which is in the international team. “Journalists hate to share their scoops in newsrooms, they want to beat competition – Assange, ICIJ and Snowden have forced journalists to work together. This is completely new,” he added.

While Assange has been granted asylum by the Ecuadorean embassy in London and has addressed pressers from there, Snowden appeared on Twitter recently with a first tweet that asked if he could be heard! His leaks of classified information from the United States Security Agency (NSA) in 2013 revealed a global surveillance programmes many run by the NSA in collaboration with telecommunications companies and European governments. He gave the information to Julia Poitras, a filmmaker, Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer, author and columnist who wrote for The Guardian and Ewen MacAksill, also working for The Guardian. The NSA reporting by them contributed to the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service awarded jointly to The Guardian and The Washington Post. The stories were taken further by the German magazine Der Spiegel and the New York Times. All this has meant that classified information that goes public is no longer the property of one media outlet or a government or political class and journalism as a public service is acclaimed and feted.

The story of Hervé Falciani who walked out of the HSBC in Geneva with 13, 619 files totalling 67GB is muddy. In 2009, this French-Italian HSBC programmer took his files to the French government which gave him a new identity. Falciani discarded his new face and it is widely believed that absence of pecuniary gain could have been the reason. While Snowden has been called a traitor, a patriot, hero and dissident and Assange has been at the receiving end of colourful adjectives, neither have been accused of seeking financial benefits. Falciani lost the plot after he tried to sell his information to various governments, eight according to one count. He has denied this publicly saying his sole motive was public interest but Swiss court documents accessed by The News Minute detail serious charges of economic espionage including offers of sales to governments. Quizzed by the French wire service AFP about his source of income and countries he was working with at a recent presser near Geneva, Falciani was evasive. Pressed, he said Spain and other governments with whom he is discussing the setting up of global platforms for surveillance which, among other issues will also address High Frequency Trading (HFT)! It is difficult to grasp what Falciani is actually doing. He told journalists he had been in touch with the Brazilian government and an announcement of his work with the Indian government was imminent. This is a closely watched space by people who follow international cases in Swiss courts one of whom remarked that after. One of them remarked that Bern had handed over two boxes full of secret bank documents to Delhi in the Bofors case and no domestic action followed. The possibility of India now collaborating with a fugitive is rich in irony. Read our earlier story here.

There is a flip side to this as well, one that could pit whistleblowers against each other. Governments are keen to work with whistleblowers not always to get at the truth, but also to find out if they are implicated in any way. There is also the very real danger of governments collaborating with corrupt institutions with the whistleblower providing the proverbial fig leaf. Falciani’s documents did result in HSBC coughing up over $40 million in fines, but the Canton of Geneva did not press criminal charges and the money was lose change for the bank.

For journalists and editors the ground rules are very different beginning with the question – should they buy documents? Sucheta Dalal, Managing Editor, Moneylife, who exposed the Harshad Mehta hawala scandal in the 1990s aptly calls it the ‘Google effect’ where Indian whistleblowers read about massive rewards for informers in America and think the same works in India where there are no rules and trust comes at a high premium. “Once in the 1990s I got a call from someone who thought I was collecting rewards from the income-tax department etc. for giving information. He offered me a story if I shared the money,” she said. Dalal says she thought the caller was joking and asked him to inform the government agencies directly. “I do believe government agencies hand out rewards to informants,” said Dalal widely respected as the go-to journalist in India for investigative work on banking and financial journalism. Dalal and Debashis Basu of the webzine Moneylife were sued for Rs. 100 crores in defamatory damages by the NSE which claimed that an article written by them in June this year had defamed them. The Mumbai high court threw out the case and asked the NSE to pay the journalists and two hospitals a total sum of Rs. 50 lakhs. The centrepiece of the case is HFT and algorithms that enable monies and financial products to move at the speed of lightening. Dalal and Basu worked from tip offs and some documents, did their due diligence including writing to the NSE and published their story when no response was forthcoming. Between getting documents and publishing them is the hard work of verification – there are no short cuts here and neither hundreds of pages or 100GB can do your work. Read our story on the Moneylife case here.

Editor, Investigations with Outlook Meetu Jain welcomes the “explosion of platforms” but wonders if they will be make a dent in the larger narrative. “In today’s day and age, Bofors would have got a lot more play, but, in the end there would be enough pliant channels and papers to take the contrary view,” she said. Jain who quit recently as Deputy Editor, Times Now over allegations that she had accepted favours in a leak relating to the Essar group – an allegation she vehemently denies – says the future of investigative journalism in India is bleak. “Journalists report without following up from older-stories, documents come from dubious sources – I would say the more things change, the more they remain the same.”

There is little doubt that 24/7 news cycles have taken their toll, but new technologies are challenging complacency. Absence of footwork, lazy fact-checking, the bad-practice of running single-source stories, repeating drawing room conversations, maligning people and pursuing angles to bolster personal egos have also run their course.  Technology coupled with best practices that have stood the test of time in the world’s best newsrooms will make a difference. Sten Lindström who gave me over 350 Bofors documents detailing the bribes and crime in Sweden and India via Switzerland made me work for them for over a year before handing over the cache. The work included returning empty handed to Geneva from Stockholm as a test run. The work included verifying information he had given to from other independent sources. The work included patience and respect for sources, I learnt about the need to give time to time. As the chief of police leading the investigation, his decision to speak to me was taken only after he saw all avenues in Sweden turning silent on the corruption. This could involve two prime ministers and leaking documents was an onerous call. “People trust people – I decided to speak to you, not a newspaper or a media organisation because governments have ways to get around them and each other,” he said in 1987. Today he says journalists must be even more agile to spot cover-ups and subversion like Snowden’s tweet at the start of this piece. This is where the battle between people in power and those voted them to it becomes interesting – social media is where the role of the media as the fourth estate is most likely to grow stronger.

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