Research: “Investigative journalism in the post-truth era: Views from Mauritius”

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This is a research paper that was presented at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference 2017 Academic Track, which IJEC organized and covered. For more research and coverage of GIJC17, see here.


 

 

Investigative journalism in the post-truth era: Views from Mauritius 

 

 

By Azhagan Chenganna, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Mauritius

 

 

Abstract

Journalism, investigative journalism in particular, is undergoing major change. This paper focuses on the investigative journalism culture in Mauritius and more broadly on the challenges of investigative journalism in the post-truth era in Mauritius. With the emergence of social media and the phenomenon of an amplification of news sources, investigative journalists are often solicited and obtain information from many sources including hackers and leakers. In Mauritius, leaked documents including electronic and secretly recorded materials have recently constituted the backbone of investigative stories.

Based on comparative media research work and interviews of Mauritian investigative journalists, this paper argues that the relationship between Mauritian journalists and their sources has become more tenuous and delicate in the post-truth era, even more so in a context where access to information remains limited. Constrained by the difficulties to corroborate the stories leaked to them due mainly to limited access to information, Mauritian journalists may often have to work in uncertain conditions and maintain very close ties to their sources, often relying heavily on them or go into speculations about the stories. In spite of these constraints, some investigative stories have had real impact uncovering bad governance and corrupt practices.

The paper holds that in the post-truth era the pursuit of truth has become more messy and murky forcing Mauritian investigative journalists to take greater risks to reveal the truth. The paper concludes by making the case that Mauritian journalists adopt a policy of open journalism to draw on the potentials of new sources within the ethical parameters of journalism practice and work on fostering a culture of greater public trust and credibility in order to act more efficiently as the watchdogs of democracy and upholders of truth.

 

Investigative journalism in the post-truth era: Views from Mauritius 

 

Introduction 

In April 2017 Time Magazine pictured a cover story with a question in bold red ink: Is Truth Dead?[1] The magazine chronicled the FBI chief’s testimony to the US House of Intelligence Committee rejecting President Trump’s accusations that the Obama administration had put Trump Tower under surveillance. James Comey, the FBI Chief who has since been ousted, disparaged Trump’s charges as false and made up by “a fabulist” (Time, 2017). Despite no evidence of wire-tapping from the Obama administration, Trump maintained his allegations on the premise that he is “a very instinctual person, [and that his] instinct turns out to be right”. While interviewing Trump, Time journalists remarked that “the more the conversation continued, the more the binary distinctions between truth and falsehood blurred” and that “rather than assert things outright, [Trump] often couch[ed] provocative statements as “beliefs,” or attribut[ed] them to unnamed “very smart people.”” Since Donald Trump’s election, the media has been wrestling with how to cover a President “who can’t be taken at his word”[2] and who seems to make false claims and lie blatantly[3].

With the effect of Twitter, the tweets of President Trump are shared instantaneously amongst his approximately 36 million followers, even though they may also contain deceitful assertions. Occasionally the presidential tweets are disparaging as they dig deep into the crisis of trust against journalists with statements like the “media is the enemy of the people” or “You [the media] are fake news” while the Twitterati pokes fun at the memes war where the President is seen trolling CNN.

If true information is crucial for citizenship, in the post-truth age, right-wing political parties and their radical counterparts, the alt-right movements, have spread their ideologies through the use of social media to the point of threatening democratic systems and values. Their brand of authoritarianism, demagoguery and fake news or “alternative facts” constitutes serious challenges to democracy. The election of Donald Trump as well as the Brexit Election in the UK have opened wide the door on the “post-truth era” defined by Oxford Dictionaries as  “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” (Oxford, 2016).

A second starting point to the post-truth era is the massive dump of data. Email accounts are hacked and their contents are made public as in the case of the WikiLeaks emails about the Clinton campaign. In South Africa, the #GuptaLeaks have rocked the ANC showing widespread corruption inside the Zuma administration. The Guptas, a wealthy and influential family, have been accused of buying influence into the South African state and the works of investigative journalists have exposed the extent of the state capture in South Africa. The massive dump of data through the Panama Papers, led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), has forced the prime minister of Iceland to step down in April 2016 following revelations that “his family had sheltered money offshore”[4]. More recently, Nawaz Sharif has had to resign as prime minister of Pakistan following investigations triggered by the Panama Papers which revealed the networks of corruption inside the Pakistani Prime minister’s family and his entourage.

The new networked media ecology is hence information-abundant and disruptive. This information revolution is a double-edge knife as it represents challenges, both opportunities and risks to the practice of investigative journalism. With threats to freedom of expression and new forms of censorship coupled with media systems which tend to coalesce around greater media concentration along with the phenomenon of click-bait journalism, the right to inform and uphold the truth has become more hazardous.

 

A glimpse into Mauritian Investigative Journalism

Investigative journalism in Mauritius is a tough craft given that access to information is limited as there is no legislation for Freedom of Information, no open data policy and no policy and law for the protection of whistleblowers. Yet, several political scandals have recently hit the headlines. The most recent scandals revealed by local investigative journalists with the support of whistleblowers include the “Bal Kouler” affair (Colour Bags), the “Euroloan” saga, the ‘Choomka affair’ eponymous of a government representative allegedly acting as a lobbyist between government institutions and potential investors in exchange of influence and money, the ‘Chapekar affair’ based on allegations of an Indian businessman against a senior minister that the latter had asked him for money and many other affairs amongst others. Besides the money trail which is foregrounded in these cases, these investigative stories share a common thread as they are based mostly on secretly recorded materials and/or leaked electronic documents.

We focus below on three prominent scandals which have been exposed by investigative journalists and which are based on leaked digital information. The case of what has come to be known as “Bal Kouler” evolves around a secretly recorded conversation between a businessman and a minister of Environment in December 2016. A business promoter is heard exhorting the minister to grant him an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) license so that he can start his building project. A voice which appears to be that of the minister informs him that he will not be able to do so immediately unless the business promoter provides him with money to fund the purchase of 50 bags of colours for the Holi, a religious festive celebration around colours. “We have activities that you need to support. I have to give 50 colour bags to people… you will need to fund”[5] is heard in the recording.  The secretly recorded conversation has been passed on to a Mauritian journalist who broadcasted it on Radio Plus, a local radio station, following which the minister has had to step down from government. Prosecution authorities have taken the matter to the courts. The journalist who obtained the information from sources and broadcasted the affair has been awarded by the Media Trust, a local media organization that aims to promote journalism.

Another prominent scandal that has caught media attention is the ‘Euroloan’ saga. A series of leaked information in the press reported that the then minister of Finance and Economic Development had obtained a loan of 1.1 million Euros from a parastatal bank which falls under the responsibility of his ministry. The leaked news seemed to indicate that the minister had allegedly used his position to obtain the loan on very favorable terms. In his defense the minister swore an affidavit in the Supreme Court of Mauritius pointing finger at his ministerial colleague, the then minister of Financial Services and Good Governance, as the one who leaked the information. Rivalry between the two top guns of the Government (the minister of Financial Services and Good Governance has since left the Government) had reached a point of no return and the minister of Finance accused his colleague of being an informer to the media. According to the minister the leaked information was intended to defame him as the informer was willing to grab his post of minister of Finance. Following the leaks in the press, the prosecution authorities began an investigation but a while after, the authorities stated that no evidence of wrongdoing was found and no further action would be undertaken.

As the ‘Euro loan’ saga seemed to reach its epilogue, an investigative journalist of La Sentinelle Ltd, a Mauritian media group, in possession of leaked banking files regarding the loan granted to the minister reported on the many questions raised by the Bank’s management regarding the loan and its approval. The article titled “Euroloan: Le grand cover-up?”[6] pointed fingers at the minister following which the latter organized a press conference to challenge the reporting of the investigative journalist. During the press conference a brazen exchange between the journalist and the minister took place and while the journalist questioned him the minister ordered his expulsion from the press conference. Thereon, the minister sought a gagging order in order to prevent the journalist from making further revelations but the courts refused to accede to the minister’s demand. The follow-up articles by the investigative journalist flagged up that the minister had provided “insufficient”[7] bank guarantees to obtain the loan. On the other hand, the Bank has started proceedings to sue the local media company for breaching the bank’s secrecy.

A recent piece of investigative journalism made revelations about a senior minister.  Sunday Times a local newspaper published a series of WhatsApp messages exchanged between a senior minister, an intermediary and an Indian businessman which seemed to reveal that the Indian businessman and the senior minister had several meetings in Mauritius and in Dubai.

The Indian promoter wanted to start the building of low cost housing units in Mauritius. Sunday Times reported that the Indian businessman alleged that he had lent a sum of Rs 1 million (approximately 30,200 USD) to the senior minister at the request of the intermediary[8]. After allegedly handing over Rs 1 million to the senior minister, the businessman was informed that he will have to make further arrangements for more money.

The story was published in Sunday Times but on the day of the publication, the newspaper reported on its website that it had learnt all the copies of the newspaper were bought by a group of people “who looked suspicious”. Since the print copies of the newspaper were unavailable, the editorial team took the decision to publish the article online. After publication of the story the senior minister lodged a complaint to the police and the editor-in chief of Sunday Times received the visits of the police. During her interrogation at the police headquarters, the police queried her about her sources. The editor-in-chief refused to reveal the sources of the article and used her right to remain silent.

 

Methodology 

This paper highlights the challenges of investigative journalism in Mauritius in an era of technological proliferation and in a culture of leaked information. It underlines the state of the relationship between Mauritian journalists and their sources, and the power relations and risks in a context of limited access to official information. It highlights the bottlenecks in carrying out exposure journalism and some of the practices adopted by investigative journalists and the associated risks. It dwells on the extent to which the leaks in the networked news media ecology represent a challenge to conventional journalism and redefines the craft of investigative journalism. The paper provides a Mauritian view of the challenges and messiness of doing investigative journalism in the post-truth era.

In order to carry out this research, comparative media research work allowed the contextualization of the Mauritian investigative journalism culture within a larger framework of journalism and news practice. We interviewed local investigative journalists, namely the three investigative journalists[9] who have been upfront in the revelations regarding the investigative stories mentioned above. A questionnaire containing open-ended questions has been used for the interviews. We have also used available data namely press articles and video materials related to investigative journalism in Mauritius. The study reveals the opportunities and impasses of carrying out investigative journalism in Mauritius in the post-truth era. The working conditions of investigative journalists are characterized by greater availability of sources and yet greater reliability on them in a context where paradoxically sources are viral but access to official information is limited.

 

Investigative journalism

Rusbridger (1999) states that “all journalism is investigative to a greater or lesser extent, but investigative journalism – though it is a bit of a tautology – is that because it requires more, it’s where the investigative element is more pronounced” (Cited in De Burgh, 2000, p. 17). Waisborg assures that investigative journalism “goes beyond conventional reporting” and that its “mission [is] defined as the discovery of the truth” (Waisbord, 2002, p. 377) through evidence. The work of investigative journalists towards upholding the truth is crucial as “sometimes, at least, reporting what authority says, or even analyzing it, is not enough; because authority may have an agenda that is counter to the general interest; because there are officials and politicians who are swayed by ignorance or self-interest; because there are systems that work to the detriment of people who have no voice” (De Burgh, 2000, p. 12).

Investigative journalism is about revealing public abuses that individuals and institutions want to remain secret. De Burgh expands on the muckraking functions of investigative journalists as “‘going after what someone wants to hide’ although not everything that someone wants to hide is worth going after” (De Burgh, 2000, p. 15). Investigative journalism appeals “to our existing standards of morality, standards they know that they can rely upon being held by people they know will be shocked by their violation”.

The search for truth does not refer to absolute hard facts “because what the investigative journalist is after, as with the historian, is a more complete version of truth” and De Burgh states that it is the method and the substantive documentary evidence used by the investigative journalist that make a difference. De Burgh adds that investigative journalists “can move towards a more complete truth by collecting good evidence and by corroborating accounts of people who can either be shown to be disinterested or who speak from different vantage points” (De Burgh, 2000, p. 16).

Along the digital age, WikiLeaks has come to prominence and interrogations abound as to whether it can be considered as a part of investigative journalism. It has gained worldwide attention with the publication of “Collateral Murder”, a video showing the crew of an Apache American helicopter shooting at a group of Iraqis. In the 2016 US elections, WikiLeaks released an avalanche of hacked emails from Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta’s gmail account[10].  Beckett and Ball (2012) underline the paradox of WikiLeaks which advocates for transparency using the power of the internet to keep the powerful on check and yet remains a closed and secretive organization.

Another phenomenon of the networked age and information revolution, in the lineage of WikiLeaks, is the rise of hacktivism, epitomized by the group Anonymous and represented by the Guy Fawkes mask. Klein underlines the paradox of the activities of such a group and highlights the contrasting personas of the hacktivist movement which may be cast “in the eyes of citizens as being in league with spies, traitors, and threats to national security; hence, “hackers are a danger to everyday citizens”. However, for open-source advocates, which include some journalists, Anonymous’ work and association with actors such as Assange and Snowden would be viewed nobly as part of a changing wind of media and politics that is challenging old power structures and reforming them through their unique brand of communicative sabotage” (2015, P. 382). Anonymous has taken on corruption, especially in global institutions.

Cyber-hacks have garnered a lot of attention. For instance, US Intelligence agencies believe that the Russians hacked the 2017 US elections in favor of Donald Trump even though the Kremlin has vehemently denied such activities. On the other hand, in the wake of the US presidential election, the #pizzagate internet conspiracy “falsely claim[ed] Clinton and her campaign chief John Podesta were running a child sex ring from the restaurant’s backrooms”[11]. The absurd and fake news had real consequences as one man armed with an assault gun went to the pizza restaurant and fired to only discover that the internet information was a hoax[12].

The new media ecology is disruptive. Audiences stand divided living in ‘filter bubbles’ and the question is to what extent can the media create an informed opinion in such an environment and keep truth alive?

 

Access to information

One of the major challenges of Mauritian journalists and of investigative journalists in particular is the limited access to official information and the subsequent difficulty to verify and fact-check information. Despite the many promises of several governments to come with a legislation that authorizes access to official information there is no Freedom of Information Act or Access to Information Act or Right to Information Act, whatever denomination that may be used in this respect. In fact, it is the Official Secrets Act which is currently enforced and it forbids the disclosure of official information. It is a colonial law which prevents public officials from disclosing and releasing official documents into the public domain. This culture of secrecy is an obvious hurdle as it complicates and renders the work of journalists difficult.

It has become customary for many public and private tenders and contracts to be kept secret and this practice of opacity has become prevalent even when contracts are signed between Government to Government. When contracts are signed, the latter often contains clauses that forbid their disclosure into the public domain. This absence of transparency breeds rumors and public suspicion of wrongdoings. When journalists put questions regarding these contracts often they are told to refer to parliamentary proceedings to get some elements of information. The problem is that even parliamentary questions may at times remain unanswered. Similarly, citizens hardly have access to information pertaining for instance to how public lands are granted and used.

Axcel Chenney who is a journalist at La Sentinelle Group who investigated the “Euroloan” saga and who is also a multimedia producer observes that

The absence of access to information is like the Sword of Damocles dangling over the heads of journalists. Without official information, we use our address book and our contacts for verification purposes. We corroborate with the sources we can in order to verify the truthfulness and authenticity of the information. When we receive leaked information, for instance, we make sure that we know the context of the story and we verify with the people who are immediately concerned with it. However it takes a whole lot of work to verify a piece of information. If there was access to information, a simple email to verify the information would have probably been enough.

Yaasin Pohrun, who was an investigative journalist at Le Defimedia Group who revealed the “Bal Kouler” affair also agrees that the difficulty to access information is a major hurdle, even when information is leaked to journalists. He asserts that

Ministries and parastatal bodies are often perceived as being difficult zones to investigate especially if it is about a scandalous matter. Sometimes they delay in giving you the requested information or they simply don’t answer the queries. To get the facts correct, the journalist needs a good network of contacts through which s/he would be able to make the coherence of events or the exact chronology and put forward facts without any official inputs.

Zahirah Radha, Chief Editor at Sunday Times who investigated the “Chapekar Affair” observes that there is a need for a culture of transparency and accountability to citizens and the media and that

Until the Freedom of Information Act is not introduced, we will always be debarred from information which is of public interest, especially when the information is related to the decision-makers of the day, to public administration or even private companies.

 

Sources

The relationship between sources and Mauritian journalists is a top-down relation and with the absence of the Freedom of Information Act, sources retain a lot of power over official information. Official sources are generally forthcoming when they act as Communication officers inviting journalists to public events like press conferences, make use of prepared public statements and play spin to the benefit of their institutions and their representatives. Communication is hardly the turf of investigative journalists.

The vertical power relationship between sources and journalists is highly problematic for investigative journalists since information is often monopolized by these institutional sources, including by sources such as police and prosecution authorities.  The situation becomes even murkier to handle by investigative journalists when people stand accused under provisional charges. In fact, no reference is made in the Mauritian statute books about provisional charge but Boolell remarks that “it has survived as a settled practice and is probably unique to Mauritius” (Boolell, 2016). In an article titled “Provisional Charge Conundrum” , Boolell who currently holds the post of Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) notes that “given its purpose of bringing a detainee under judicial control, one would assume that any transgression or abuse by the police when effecting arrest would be set right by the magistrate, yet there is a well-founded (but not new) concern […] that the judicial control is inadequate and provisional charges are being used as a cover for arbitrary arrests and detentions. It would appear that very often police officers have recourse to a provisional charge as a mere routine practice ignoring completely the principles attached to the lodging of provisional charge” (Boolell, 2016).   When a provisional charge is lodged, information about police enquiries is often leaked to journalists as a way to cause prejudice and damage to the reputation of the accused. Often the provisional charges are later struck off in the courts.

Hence, the information exchange system is often skewed against journalists and official sources may, in intent, force journalists to be dependent on them for information and seemingly to be under their control. This dependence is even more tenuous when these formal sources, despite playing a public role, insist on anonymity and provide information which is “off-the-record”. Hence, articles involving police and investigative sources are often attributed to unnamed sources unleashing cycles of speculations over the police enquires and the reported stories.

It has become customary for Mauritian journalists to write articles using conditional verbs, highlighting the probability of an information, because they have not been able to officially confirm the information. This practice has developed especially when journalists deal with powerful institutional sources in politics. Another characteristic of unconfirmed news is that often journalists use question marks in the title and in the text of their articles. The reason being that the information has had no confirmation from official sources and that by turning the article into a series of questions, the journalist speculates and expects that s/he will be able to get feedbacks and later rebound with a follow-up article. Hence the constraints imposed on journalists to toe the line, particularly with regards to state and authorized sources.

Nonetheless, the post-truth era which is characterized by technological proliferation has also transformed the nature of the relationship between journalists and their sources as it has also become a horizontal relation based on networked interactions. Charon, a French scholar, notes that “there is a change in the ways of getting informed. That is, the passage from a vertical relation between the public and newsrooms, to a horizontal research of information […] based on social media and information platforms. The shift is ongoing. It is incomplete” (Charon, 2017).

In the networked era, mainstream media has lost its exclusive character. As noted by Wasserman “the contemporary news ecology is a place where mainstream news outlets do not have the monopoly of breaking news anymore. Some of the most incisive analysis can often be found online on independent platforms or individuals blogs, and social media have caused ‘filter bubbles’ where users can surround themselves by others who share and confirm their views and entrench pre-existing beliefs” (Wasserman, 2017).

Yet, Mauritian sources who prefer to leak information are generally doing so from a position which is personal and at best civic. Even though they may wish for anonymity, there are some leakers who have had no qualm that their identity is revealed. In the Mauritian context whistleblowers often leak information because it is their last recourse.  They often turn to the media in their capacity as citizens and they expect that by exposing their situation they will benefit from the support of public opinion and that their political and civic rights would be respected and restored. The advent of mobile phones and electronic media has made it easier for these whistleblowers and leakers to expose their situations.

However, leaked information can also be misleading and misrepresenting. Often leakers use fake profiles, for instance on Facebook, to leak information which journalists can hardly use. Recently a spat of hoaxes hit social media falsely claiming that the children of a very important personality were involved in an overseas accident; that a beauty pageant was arrested for drug trafficking and even that a foreign country had requested the Mauritian government to prepare for snap general elections. The problem is compounded by the fact that the Mauritian social media landscape is, to a large extent, a space often filled with acrimonious and abusive discourses and polarized political exchanges.

 

The right to inform

Being at the receiving end, investigative journalists are required to take information obtained from leakers and verify to see whether there is evidence and truth to the story. Krüger (2017) observes in reference to South African journalists that they are used “to see political warfare by leak, and journalists should not allow themselves to be misused in factional battles.” Nonetheless, Krüger adds that “this is a secondary question to the one about whether the information is true and in the public interest. If the leaked stands up as accurate, and if it is important for the general public to know, it would be reasonable to publish even if it furthers somebody’s interest”.

Regarding the fact that sources and leakers may be motivated by political interest, especially when it comes to political partisanship and brinkmanship, Zahirah Radha, the Chief Editor at Sunday Times, underlines the role of journalists in terms of assessing the intents and the credibility of the sources. She highlights the need to be skeptical vis à vis sources and to assess their motivations and to look into the evidence.

The denouncer may have certain interests with regards to the denunciation but it is up to the journalist to make sure that there is no manipulation. We need to have evidence that the denouncer is acting in good faith.

Yaasin Phorun insists on the contextualization and the write-up as a way to avoid the trap of manipulation by sources. The editing process is crucial as

An article will not stand if it has not been corroborated and verified.  Because it is all about relating facts which should at least have been certified even by unofficial or off-record means, without imputing any biased tendencies, be it political or commercial. A proper investigative article will necessarily require not only a fact checking process but also a comparative analysis. For example, X on the market would leak to you news about Y. Your pen is not to write about Y to play the game of X. You should define properly the angle of your article and make it of journalism nature. The paper should be of public interest and not pleasing to vested parties. As an investigative reporter, you don’t judge for the public rather you let the public judge independently.

Axcel Chenney observes that if the good faith of sources is proven they can be powerful allies in the search for truth. Chenney observes that sources had provided him with documentary evidence of Bank files in the case of the ‘Euroloan’ affair and that he had more than necessary information and facts to question and quiz the minister. In the brazen interaction, the minister expelled Chenney from the press conference. The heated exchange was video recorded and shared on the web and social media platforms. Chenney asserts that

In the case of the Euroloan saga, I had a copy of the banking file and documentary evidence which were given to me by a source. With such material, I could go to the moon and come back. I had no other choice than to challenge the minister in his press conference. For sure when I interrogated him he got rude but there was no reason for me not to be defiant and combative as an investigative journalist. The video of the press conference was viewed several times on social media and I did not expect that I would receive so much overwhelming support from people on Facebook who encouraged me in my work.

 

Code of ethics

Only one Mauritian media group, La Sentinelle Ltd, has officially adopted a code of ethics for its journalists. Other media groups and outlets do follow codes of ethics for journalism even though they have not officially formalized such usage. The code of ethics at La Sentinelle Ltd contains a number of principles that journalists have to follow. With regards to investigative works, it notes in Section I (c) under the ‘obligation of honesty’ that “the recourse to a false name or to a hidden mic is acceptable only in exceptional cases where the information is of primordial public interest (illegal practices, trafficking, etc) and when all the authorized means have been exhausted. If s/he has operated in clandestine manner, the journalist has to indicate it to the reader”.  However, the code of ethics at La Sentinelle Ltd makes no mention of digital sources and the kind of relationship, the buffer, that journalists should maintain with whistleblowers, hackers and leakers.

Nonetheless, even though not formalized, a code of ethics remains an important guide and harbinger to investigative journalists. Yaasin Pohrun underlines its importance as

Journalism is either about informing or exposing. If a code of ethics is not taken into account, journalism would turn into a platform for settling scores.

Following the revelations of the “Chapekar affair”, Zahirah Radha was interrogated “under warning” by the police and despite being compelled, she refused to reveal the source(s) of the investigative story published in Sunday Times. She underlines the need to protect sources as

Confidentiality and the protection of sources are sacred principles in journalism. The fact that someone gives information to a journalist is a mark of trust. If the informer chooses to remain anonymous, we have at all cost to preserve it.

However, the challenge is for investigative journalists to make sure that their sources, including digital ones, are protected. The mobile phones of journalists should be secured and protected. Mauritius has voted The Prevention of Terrorism Act in 2002. The Prevention of Terrorism (Amendment) Act of 2016 notes that orders and directives may be given by the authorities to Communication Service Providers for the interception of information and digital materials. Hence citizens as well as journalists may be under surveillance and tapped as per the Terrorism laws. In such a context, the sources of journalists, especially digital sources, remain vulnerable and laws allowing journalists to protect their sources should be considered as a democratic imperative.

 

Newsroom support

Investigative journalists take several risks in the context of the profession. The support of the management, the editorial team and the editor-in-chief remains an important back-up and assurance for them. Media companies should generally ensure psychological and professional support to investigative journalists in a context where they are often intimidated. Often important stories can be discarded because media managers do not want to take risks especially when the stories are based on anonymous sources and may entail legal actions and commercial liabilities. Support to investigative journalists entails that the management stands up to protect and ensure the safety of the journalist against possible threats before, during and after the publication of an investigative article. From the sourcing of information up to its publication, professional support is crucial.

Yaasin Pohrun notes that

Sometimes investigations can have major consequences on the personal life, political positions or even future of implicated parties. The investigative journalist should definitely be needing the support of the newsroom and the editor-in-chief to go through with the article. In cases where aggrieved parties will try to threaten or retaliate, the newsroom will be the only place to secure your position, as far as you were right.

Axcel Chenney highlights the need for a conducive organizational set-up that supports investigative journalism in a context where such stories entail financial costs. He observes that investigative journalism is

A question of solvability as it implies a lot of costs. Unlike traditional reporting, it may take a long time, at times up to three months, to investigate a story. The newsroom may provide you with leave of three months for your investigation and colleagues may replace you and this is an indirect kind of support as you get release. Besides, there is need for team-work. For instance, as a matter of reference, it is known that at the Washington Post there were at least three journalists working on the Nixon affair.

 

Risks

There are plenty of risks associated with investigative journalism in Mauritius.  Defamation, sedition and publication of false news are documented in the Mauritian Criminal code. Journalists are often intimidated and at times the state may use financial pressure as was the case recently of L’express newspaper which was hit with a financial boycott[13] to the point that public institutions would not advertise in the newspaper and systematically boycott the outlet.

Zahirah Radha of Sunday Times who has taken on several powerful political figures details the nature of the risks that her newspaper has undergone in the ‘Chapekar affair’.

We did not take the allegations lightly. We asked the different sides for their versions. Right at the outset, we knew that retaliation will be coming sooner than later. Between the purchase of all the copies of Sunday Times by a group of individuals on the day of publication of the article, to the hacking of our website and the statement made against us to the police, everything was done to try to deny the right to information to our readers but also to intimidate us.

She observes that

In Mauritius, the risks associated with investigative journalism are almost always the same, especially when your investigation is related to the government of the day: either you are sued for defamation, or you are summoned to the police for interrogation ‘under warning’. You also run the risk, as in our case, that you no longer receive governmental advertisings. The goal is simple: use all the means of possible repression to censor you.

Another tactic used by the powerful is to undermine the works of investigative journalists on the basis that the latter are not experts. For instance, several times the professional identity of journalists has been challenged by asking whether they are experts in the fields in which they are investigating. These deliberate attempts aim to intimidate but also to put a layer of supposed expertise through legalese and technicality on the issues involved so as to stop investigative journalists from putting questions.

Chenney observes that

When I was asked if I was doctor or a lawyer, I laughed at it as I have a sense that I am doing my job. Politicians know that we are doing our job. However, they will never tell you same. During press conferences or their press interventions, they will challenge your motivations as a face saving device.

 

The way forward

The new media environment and the availability of data are redefining the ways and practices of investigative journalism. Digital convergence is a major advantage. As a multimedia producer of media programmes, Chenney notes that

The future is challenging as digital technologies and platforms have changed the profession. Journalists cannot work only on one single platform. They have to make the most of media convergence. Unlike a newspaper article where journalists are constrained by space, both digital large volumes of data and evidence can be graphically and visually represented through multimedia and this is a definite advantage that journalists have to tap on. The future is also going to be in the fields of data journalism and there is need for greater skills for investigative journalists.

Investigative journalism aspires to make a better society where there is transparency, good governance and where power is kept in check.

Radha asserts that

As long as there will be suspicions of wrongdoings, investigative journalism will have its full right of existence. Under the condition, of course, that we have a press which is independent and works without fear or favour.

There is surely not one single response as to what attitude should Mauritian journalists adopt in a context of networked journalism and yet limited access to official information. Mauritian government has to come forward with the Access to Information Act so as to ease both the work of journalists and facilitate citizen’s empowerment. However, as sources multiply and become viral, this paper highlights that journalists should embrace a policy of open journalism which is able to tap on the potential of the new information ecology. Drawing on new sources of information for news gathering can foster greater partnership between journalists and civil society as well as redefine the contours of investigative journalism in a changing digital landscape without surrendering the core values of journalism.

Fact-checking remains a key element. Beckett in his analysis of the current information ecosystem notes that “the news media should not abandon traditional journalism values. Journalists have much-needed skills in processing information as well as ethical and political values that we need to sustain democracy. But the answer is not to return to a mythical model with journalists as gatekeepers of objectivity” (Beckett, 2017). Fact-checking is a basic cursory of journalism and Mauritian journalists should go beyond fact-checking. Mauritian journalism seems to be too focused on politics and on its adversarial role towards political figures to the detriment of other issues which matter for citizenship.

In a context where information is widespread especially on the web and social media, building greater trust and credibility into journalism is also primordial. Against the cacophony which prevails on social media there is a new opportunity for mainstream media to reaffirm its identity and authority as space of facts and verified information. Wasserman (2017) notes that “the rise of fake news may have a positive outcome for mainstream news outlet to whom audiences may start returning after they have deserted them for more individually-tailored online sites”. In the new media ecology mainstream media can reclaim its place for informed public opinion.

The question of the independence of media groups is also a crucial one. Mauritian media companies have to demonstrate that they are independent from political and financial powers. It is at this cost that public trust in journalism and in investigative journalism in particular will be reinforced. Beckett argues that “transparency and interactivity are key” and he makes the call to journalists to “show your sources, admit that you don’t know, find better experts, listen to your audience and act with greater humility and engagement.” (Beckett, 2017). This call is more than relevant to Mauritian journalism.

 

Conclusion 

This paper has looked at the challenges of investigative journalism and particularly at the puzzle of the relationship between sources and journalists in the post-truth era. It has highlighted the uncertain and murky conditions in which Mauritian investigative journalists have to work in a context where information has exploded and sources have become viral and yet there is no access to official information. Among the challenges, the paper has also underlined the skewed relationship of police and prosecution sources with investigative journalists, especially when suspects stand accused under provisional charges. Despite the odds, the practice of investigative journalism is resilient in Mauritius and the paper has argued that by adopting a policy of open journalism and by building greater trust of the public to their journalism practice, investigative journalists may redefine themselves in the new information system and consolidate their place as upholders of truth and watchdogs of Mauritian democracy.

 

Post-script

On September 11, 2017 L’express newspaper penned an investigative story regarding money laundering through a gambling platform in which the Mauritian Attorney

General would have allegedly been involved. The newspaper published a letter signed by the Attorney General in which he provides guarantees in these terms: “there is no legal impediment to Mr [the name is masked] lawfully receiving any stakes due to him from BET365.” The letter states further that “I am providing this letter as a formal clearance in respect of Mr [the name is masked].” The last line of the letter reads “I may be personally contacted should any other clarification be required.” The whistleblower in the case is the gambler himself who has an earlier case of swindling. Through his letter, the Attorney General seems to give assurances to the various authorities so that the gambler’s travelling ban could be lifted given the fact that he faced charges of swindling. The gambler was able to travel to Europe and make arrangements to receive the gambling money. A series of allegations regarding the opening of bank accounts in Dubai and Switzerland are also reported.

The following day of the article, the whistleblower swore an affidavit in the courts to certify that he was telling the truth and the affidavit contained documentary evidences including emails, WhatApp messages, photocopies of passports, pictures pointing to the Attorney General. The latter has had to step down.

A week later, on September 21, 2017, the whistleblower, on a radio station, changed the version of his accusations stating that he “has been manipulated” by the three journalists[14] of L’express who reported on the case and presented live on radio his apologies to the fallen Attorney General. The whistleblower argued that the journalists wrote the affidavit for him and claimed that the journalists held him in sequestration. The journalists denied these accusations.

A few days following the dramatic twist, the police made very early morning landings with search warrants to the homes of the journalists but they were not present. Later the three journalists reported to the police and they were seemingly to be arrested under charges of “conspiracy against the Attorney General”. The journalists were allowed to return home after the interrogation sessions. After several visits to the Police headquarters, they recovered their right to freedom. It seems that the police case is not over yet since several journalists of La Sentinelle Ltd, which publishes the L’express newspaper, are still being called for questioning. The police has been adamant that the mobile phones of the journalists are searched risking that their sources are compromised. But the police met with strong and severe resistance.

Several criticisms have been formulated against the three journalists. Amongst them that they rushed to publish the story without taking time to verify the information of the whistleblower and to corroborate with other sources; that they overstepped their role by helping the whistleblower to write the affidavit and that they should not have kept the whistleblower in their custody. However, this event has also triggered a “#Fight for Truth” media and civic campaign and as part of their defense, the investigative journalists have maintained that they have been pursuing the truth in this affair. They insist that the whistleblower may have changed his version but ultimately the truth will prevail!

 

[1] Time Magazine, April 2017

[2] http://time.com/4710615/donald-trump-truth-falsehoods/

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/04/opinion/trump-truth-wiretapping-obama.html

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/05/iceland-prime-minister-resigns-over-panama-papersrevelations

[5] https://soundcloud.com/radioplus3/affairebalkouler

[6] https://www.lexpress.mu/article/303990/euroloan-grand-cover

[7] https://www.lexpress.mu/article/304103/pret-en-euros-lutchmeenaraidoo-tente-museler-lexpress

[8] https://www.sundaytimesmauritius.com/kedar-chapekar-ceo-de-garware-infra-projects-ltd-allegue-showkutallysoodhun-ma-demande-un-million-de-roupies/

[9] Axcel Chenney is an investigative journalist and multimedia producer at La Sentinelle Ltd. Yaasin Pohrun is a Mauritian investigative journalist who worked at Le Defi Media Group. Zahirah Radha is the Editor-in-Chief of the Sunday Times.

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/06/wikileaks-emails-hillary-clinton-campaign-john-podesta

[11] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/dec/05/gunman-detained-at-comet-pizza-restaurant-was-selfinvestigating-fake-news-reports

[12] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jun/22/pizzagate-conspiracy-theorist-prison-sentencewashington

[13] https://www.lexpress.mu/idee/boycott-publicitaire-juste-les-faits

[14] Nad Sivaramen, Director of Publications at La Sentinelle Ltd; Axcel Chenney and Yasin Denmamode, both investigative journalists at L’express

 

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