This paper was presented at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in October 2013 in Rio De Janeiro.
Development Efforts to Promote Investigative Reporting: A Preliminary Assessment of Centers in Azerbaijan, Jordan, Bangladesh, and Bosnia
By Rosemary Armao, State University of New York at Albany and Hawley Johnson, Ph.D. Columbia University
Over the past decade the international development community, from the World Bank to USAID, has come to regard investigative journalism as a silver bullet to fire at corruption and public apathy in its fight for good governance in emerging democracies. Internationally, governments spend more though media development than do private media on investigative reporting. This has contributed to the emergence of more than 100 investigative centers around the world, according to Center for International Media Assistance reports on global trends in investigative reporting. But while the goals of these centers are similarly lofty – reduce corruption, empower citizens, increase transparency, improve government accountability — results are mixed. This paper will compare and contrast the evolution of four centers: The Center for Investigative Reporting in Bosnia-Herzegovina, The Caucasus Media Investigations Center in Azerbaijan, The Journalism Training and Research Initiative in Bangladesh and the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism in Jordan. Two of these are thriving; two have stumbled. We will explore the organizational, economic, political, and social environment of each. We will also discuss problems related to institutional design, methods, lessons learned about watchdog journalism and governance and identify pressing concerns for the future. These questions are especially salient now in the face of ongoing global crises of democracy, journalism and the economic order. We are at a critical juncture where those shifts combined with dramatic advances in and access to communications technology have culminated in lack of trust in many political systems, challenges to institutionalized authority, and greater reliance on interpretive forms of journalism. To navigate these global transitions, the internationally recognized journalism standards, professional ethics, and in-depth reliable reporting that investigative centers can provide may be vital.
Development Efforts to Promote Investigative Reporting: A Preliminary Assessment of Centers in Azerbaijan, Jordan, Bangladesh, and Bosnia
Over the past decade the international development community, from the World Bank to USAID, has come to regard investigative journalism as a silver bullet to fire at corruption and public apathy in its fight for good governance in emerging democracies. Internationally, governments spend more through media development on investigative reporting than do private media. This has contributed to the emergence of more than a 100 investigative centers around the world. While the goals of these centers are similarly lofty — reduce corruption, empower citizens, increase transparency — results are mixed.
This paper compares and contrasts four centers: The Center for Investigative Reporting in Bosnia-Herzegovina (CIN), The Journalism Training and Research Initiative in Bangladesh (JATRI), the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism in Jordan (ARIJ), and The Caucasus Media Investigations Center (CMIC) in Azerbaijan. No officials or funders ever announce failures or label projects like these failures. But this paper posits that those centers designed and run by journalists to actively report are more effective in fulfilling their role as watch-dogs, as well as more sustainable. They perform better at developing future practitioners and instilling an investigative reporting tradition in new places. This examination suggests that donors hoping to implant successful centers increase their chances when they match ambitions to the political and legal climate of host countries, commit to multi-year involvement, and select passionate leaders with clout in the eyes of other journalists in their host regions. This study suggest that centers designed by outsiders and run by non-journalists tend to evolve into generalized research, resource and training centers.
This is a short paper on a big topic which ultimately demands more in-depth analysis than can be offered within this framework. We, therefore, intend to broadly address some larger questions while providing insights into best practices and lessons learned. We will explore the models used and founding goals as well as problems related to institutional design. We will further consider the “enabling environment” of each – the relevant economic, political, and social factors influencing their development.
These questions are especially salient in the face of current global crises of democracy, journalism and the economic order. We are at a juncture where those shifts combined with advances in communications technology have culminated in lack of trust in political systems, challenges to institutionalized authority, and greater reliance on interpretive forms of journalism. Moreover, we live in an increasingly interconnected world where local problems reflect global concerns, and organized crime and corruption span continents. Most importantly for the recipient communities, the needs are great and the expectations high, and improper implementation can lead to disillusionment and distorted outcomes. It is in everyone’s best interest that taxpayer money and donor investment be well spent.
Methodology and Delimitations
This study employed qualitative methods, comprising interviews with journalists, trainers, donor organizations, program managers, and media development experts related to the respective centers and their local communities. We also reviewed available program materials, independent evaluations, and a range of literature on media development.
Our collective experience brings three perspectives, that of journalist, scholar, and media development implementer. Rosemary Armao is a journalism professor at the State University of New York at Albany, an international editor for CIN and the related Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, (OCCRP) and has consulted and trained at numerous centers. She worked briefly as an advisor in the set up to the Bangladesh project examined in this report. Hawley Johnson works with OCCRP, and previously was the International Programs Manager at New York University, which helped to set up the Bosnian center. She wrote her dissertation on media development policies in the Balkans from 2000-2007. While our intimate involvement with the establishment of CIN does represent a bias, it also allows us to share the inside view of the challenges of program implementation and sustainability.
A 2007 report by David Kaplan entitled “Global Investigative Journalism: Strategies for Support” identified an estimated 40 non-profit journalism centers operating worldwide, a significant increase from the late 1980s when there were three.(Kaplan, 2007) Today, he estimates there could be up to 115, while others, notably Drew Sullivan, co-founder and editor of CIN and OCCRP, say the number could be as high as 200-300 if short-term and unsustainable programs are added in.(Sullivan, 2013) The four centers in this study were all begun as part of media development initiatives by foreign donors.
Media assistance emerged as a democratization and development strategy during the wave of political transitions after the fall of the Eastern Bloc. Philanthropic organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as foreign governments provided funding as a foreign policy tool, usually under the rubric of democratization or civil society development programs. Ellen Hume, in a study of worldwide expenditures from 1994-2004, found that U.S. sources invested some $600 million into foreign aid to independent news organizations and that more than $1 billion was spent when combined with European assistance. (Hume, 2004) George Soros, through his Open Society Foundation, she reported, has invested nearly $500 million annually since 1984 toward fostering democratic societies, including support for independent media and freedom of information.
On the programmatic level, democratization scholar Kumar, Krishna has found, media assistance projects are largely designed as capacity-building initiatives to support local independent media. (Kumar, 2006) They often include journalism and management training, legislative and regulatory reform, establishment of professional and advocacy organizations, transformation of state media into public service broadcasters, as well as commodity assistance and other specific strategies. Investigative reporting projects represent a small segment of overall media development initiatives, yet the expectations for them are exceptionally high. They are viewed as the best means to empower journalists to promote transparency and good governance, to test the political system and new legislation, to inform and motivate citizens to demand accountability, and to clean up the corruption and political abuses that hold back development.
Around 2000, in the face of faltering programs and weak impact, donors began to evaluate their development strategies. A 1999 USAID-sponsored report, entitled The Role of Media in a Democracy, called media strategies encompassing a “‘web’ of mutually reinforcing activities,” an approach other authors have referred to as “holistic.” (Center for Democracy and Governance & Bureau for Global Programs, Field Support, and Research, 1999) Among the elements identified as contributing to success were: donor mission and funding commitment, internal issues pertaining to leadership, management and external factors. Monroe Price honed in on what he called the “enabling environment”, identifying the “legal and institutional requirements for free and independent media.” (Price and Krug, 2000) His study offers a compendium of media-related laws and institutional structures, as well as variables such as political pluralism that are needed elements for democratization. Ellen Hume characterized these “the alchemic mix of economic and legal reforms, political culture and media policies that transforms autocracy into civil society.” (Hume, 2004)
Four essential components in this mix comprise the filter through which the four programs of this study can be compared and judged: donor expectations and rules, political environment, quality of leadership and management, and type of center output. To briefly elaborate:
Donor commitment: Kaplan’s 2007 study, based on a survey of 39 investigative centers, identified chronic donor-related problems that can thwart success. He found that donor support can be episodic, uncoordinated, short-term, or ad hoc. He further found that monitoring and evaluation of media projects, known to be difficult, were badly flawed, meaning errors made or lessons learned have not been acknowledged or built upon. (Kaplan, 2007) He urged consistent and sustained funding for investigative centers. USAID Senior Media Consultant Meg Gaydosik, in a recent interview, said there still are not “serious resources” for investigative centers even while they have “become trendy.(Meg Gaydosik, 2013) Everyone recognizes there is value to it; they don’t recognize what investigative reporting takes.” Sullivan, in a 2012 report for the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), argued that the problem stems from a lack of professional journalists in the media development sector. He contends that bureaucrats think all or any reporters can quickly be turned into investigators and do not appreciate the time and expense actually required for extensive research, protection against legal exposure, travel, and detailed editing. (Sullivan, 2012) Gaydosik, one of a half dozen media specialists in the giant aid agency, has a journalism background. She has pushed for major multi-year funding for centers and argues that small grants or what she calls “small bits of money” given for short periods have little lasting effect toward building a free press in emerging democracies. (Meg Gaydosik, 2013) Aside from how much and under what conditions they give money, donors need to have a focus if the centers they sponsor are to succeed. Sheila Coronel, former head of the Philippines Center for Investigative Journalism and now director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Reporting at Columbia University, sees multiplicity of goals as a hindrance in the development community’s approach to media assistance. (Sullivan, 2012) She told Sullivan in his CIMA report: Donors see funding the press not “…as an end in itself but as a means to an end, whether it’s fighting corruption, bringing about democracy, bringing about gender equality, sustainable development, or whatever the fashionable buzzwords are at the time.”
Political environment: In the initial Kaplan report on Centers, Coronel attributes the success of her s in the Philippines to rule of law established after the Marcos regime fell, the tradition of a “lively and competitive press,” a strong enough market to support independent media, a respected role in society and strong leadership. (Kaplan, 2007) Alternatively, a Dutch study and research by the World Bank and CIMA concluded that a lively press – creative, well-managed and willing to take risks, can have an impact in even those places where other democratic institutions do not exist or are ineffective. (The Right to Tell: The Role of Mass Media in Economic Development, 2002) (Kaplan, 2007) Journalists can at least shame institutions into doing their jobs, for example, or celebrate anti-corruption efforts. But where government is actively anti-press, investigative centers face persecution, censorship, and danger. Gaydosik said deep and detailed assessments must precede establishment of centers. “What can you do?” she said. “What are the conditions you are working under” the laws, the supporting civil society, the regime’s stance toward media, professionalism of working journalists. (Meg Gaydosik, 2013) When deciding where to invest development dollars, it’s important to be realistic about what is possible at any given time. Kaplan similarly warns that no one model of centers is likely to work in different regions and countries. (Kaplan, 2007)
Leadership: Media development experts talk about centers that grow “via the organic route” and those set into place by fiat. Investigative centers begun at a grassroots level by journalists demoralized by existing media – exemplified, perhaps, by the Philippines and Romania centers – were the only model until recently when U.S. and European donors began calling for proposals and funding the establishment of them. Either may theoretically result in strong and sustainable organizations under certain conditions. People can combine forces and lobby for what they want, or, alternatively, a charismatic leader selected and backed by donors can inspire action. The impact of outsiders on the quality of journalism centers turn out and the ability to generate donor confidence and continued funding are critical factors to study. Do media developers bring better management practices – everything from budgeting and grantsmanship to succession of leaders – than do journalists turned into administrators without previous experience or training?
Impact: Ultimately evaluation of investigative centers must center on their impact, difficult as that is to capture in metrics. It is all too easy, Gaydosik notes, to turn out “a long, texty piece” — or many of them — full of history, that no one reads, that does not nail down corruption or place blame, that changes nothing. (Meg Gaydosik, 2013) The hope for investigative centers is that they’ll help to get laws altered, dirty officials removed and citizens fired up. A close second in goals is to influence changes in the way journalism is done in a country or region, in other words, to inspire copycats. Yet, proving that a particular story or project directly and solely caused such change is impossible, as nearly all experts attest. Instead evaluation tends to emphasize number of stories done or people trained. Successful centers, says experts in the field, can point to a few highly meaningful projects that changed thinking, and not coincidentally, inspired additional funding, assuring sustainability.
The Center for Investigative Reporting (Centar za Istrazivacko Novinarstvo), or CIN, in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina provides an interesting example of a successful center because by all logic it should have failed. It was started by a foreigner, an American in Bosnia, with relatively short-term donor funds, in a hostile environment with initially weak local buy-in. At one point its then-sole donor pronounced it unsustainable and recommended a shutdown. Yet 10 years later CIN is thriving, a Bosnian not-for-profit managed by locals, integrated into the Bosnian and regional media. It is winning international awards for its reporting and its staffers are in demand to teach what they know, particularly about covering organized crime and business scams.
Drew Sullivan set up CIN, he explains, by tailoring the models of the Philippine Center and the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco to the Bosnia environment – which was rough. (Sullivan, 2013) He faced a dearth of seasoned journalists who had been killed or emigrated during the 1990s war, a dysfunctional legal system, little access to information (a Freedom of Information Act had not yet been approved) and bitterly divisive politics. The country was in transition from Communism where news was controlled and censored, and journalists saw themselves as political advocates not watchdogs. Sullivan argued that if he worked with existing news organizations they would have to compromise on standards and ethics and would not have political and financial editorial independence. (Sullivan, 2013) USAID invested in his idea of building a new organization from the ground up in 2003 as part of a Civic Society Strengthening initiative. But it offered just three years of funding, saying CIN had to be transferred to local management after 18 months and put under full Bosnia control with no American involvement in 36. The initial grant was for $1.4 million. That represented a miniscule part of the near $131 billion the U.S. and Europeans spent on media assistance in Bosnia from 1996-2006. In these early days of media development, aid, short term as it was, was not synchronized with reform in other sectors (libel and slander had not been decriminalized when CIN opened) or even between donor-agencies. For all of that, CIN was supposed to promote transparency and good governance, test the political system and new legislation, inform and motivate citizens to demand accountability, and clean up the corruption and political abuses retarding development.
CIN stories were a hard sell at first because the format so differed from usual Bosnian fare. Reporters complained that they were too long and not chronological; they, therefore, would not appeal to the average reader.
Nevertheless, CIN instituted a highly structured copy flow and newsgathering process and kept the center focused on investigative journalism without branching off into other activities. American editors knew how to run a news room and produce high-quality investigative stories, but they had to learn the international media subcontracting business, how to fund raise and navigate donor politics. Sullivan banked on the knowledge that funding would be available for Bosnia due to the lengthy EU accession process and that corruption would be a critical issue for years. And it took years for CIN stories to win recognition and for journalists to began to believe in the power of this, to them, new reporting. In short order afterwards, competitors started paying attention, readers began calling in with ideas and comments, and politicians responded.
The feedback loop was tested often since there is no tradition of government transparency in Bosnia. Doing investigative reporting challenged the culture, the new laws, and the political system. Western editors drilled its journalists on how to interview public officials. Politicians, in turn, had to see that they do, in fact, have a responsibility to speak with journalists and account for their actions.
In 2006, CIN became a Bosnian NGO, although international oversight continued, scaled back. International consultants are still employed. Shortly thereafter, a USAID external assessment deemed the model “unsustainable,” despite CIN’s attempt to leverage evidence of its impact. (Sinclair Cornell & Terry Thielen, 2006) USAID ceased core funding. Local and international editors defied that death notice and have since garnered enough grants from other governments and donors to keep running.
CIN stories appear now in nearly all the local media and it breaks many important stories each year. CIN reporting has led to the resignation of a prime minister, numerous indictments, the closure of corrupt businesses and organizations and changed laws. CIN has not only carved a niche for itself in the Bosnian media sector but also in the region. It is also integrated regionally through the OCCRP, another project co-founded by Sullivan and the charismatic originator of the Romanian Investigative Reporting Center, Paul Radu. The network approach has allowed these organizations to pool resources and share liabilities as well as to share the costs of media insurance and research tools such as Lexis/Nexis. Both CIN and OCCRP have won global attention, prizes including the 2012 Daniel Pearl Award for cross-border investigations, and, most important, recognition as a model to be copied elsewhere. Radu, Sullivan and other OCCRP staffers have changed the look and methods of multinational reporting. ICFJ, a partner with OCCRP in southeast Europe, is beginning a new organization with USAID funding in Latin America that looks much like OCCRP.
Concerns still remain about CIN’s sustainability in terms of personnel and money. Sullivan, years after his schedule withdrawal, remained vital to CIN management, as he and USAID acknowledge. Recruiting, training and retaining local investigative editors have proven more difficult than envisioned. And while CIN is fully funded for the near future, events such as the global financial crisis and the rapid transformation of the news ecology due to the Internet which hit news organizations the world over has hit places like Bosnia even harder.
Ultimately, CIN survived because of commitment. As Sullivan recently explained in an interview: “CIN was always more a journalism and not a development project to us. We were journalists who cared about journalism and the passion kept the center directed.” (Sullivan, 2013)
In 2007, the US Government’s plan was to set up an independent investigative reporting center in Bangladesh as a centerpiece of a $18.2 million assault on corruption called PROGATI (Promoting Governance, Accountability, Transparency and Integrity) that also included working with parliament, government and civil society. (Armao, 2013) USAID attempted in this notoriously corrupt Asian country the kind of multi-sector development project the World Bank and corruption experts say is most effective in stalling graft and sparking reform.
After three years and an extra year of partial funding USAID withdrew from JATRI (It stands for Journalism & Research Training Initiative but also means “voyager” in Bangla). Its partner in the enterprise, Brac University, has subsumed JATRI as a de facto journalism school and Chief Executive Officer Jamil Ahmed says degrees will be offered soon. That was not part of the original conception. Assessing JATRI illustrates the difficulties that arise when media development backs investigative reporting projects.
In a February 2011 audit, the USAID Inspector General office reported that the PROGATI project had failed to get an investigative center up and running, in three years had trained only 61 journalists, had no clear future without USAID, and had not established itself as a center of expertise to which media houses would flock. The report included photos of boxes of unopened, unused supplies and computer and editing equipment. (Armao, 2013)
Six months before the IG auditors arrived, a USAID consultant wrote in “Remaking JATRI: A Draft Strategic Plan,” that “…there is a feeling that something is fundamentally wrong at JATRI, that it needs to be “fixed.” Created as an engine for investigative reporting in Bangladesh, JATRI has drifted far from that mandate and morphed into just another media training NGO – albeit an expensive one. It has yet to inspire, sponsor or produce one journalistic expose and has released only one mediocre piece of research…” (Armao, 2013) Golam Kibria, training manager until he quit JATRI in December 2010, said the focus of the center shifted from investigative reporting to less controversial areas — advertising, news presentation and public relations. (Armao, 2013) He described JATRI as a façade. No journalists came into the resource center, he said. An idea to provide a digital news archive for small news outlets did not get off the ground.
Ahmed counters characterization of JATRI as anything but an unqualified success. He says JATRI has trained some 5,000 journalists over the past five years in ethics and standards, source development and other issues. (Ahmed, 2013) It has given fellowships, promoted women as reporters and investigative reporters and because of Brac has outgrown the need for donor support. Ahmed had little news experience, and his selection for JATRI over more experienced and respected journalists was seen as evidence of further drift from investigative work. His background is in public relations and he was communications director of CARE in Bangladesh at the time he was chosen. Ahmed was the choice of University officials. And Brac was USAID’s selection to partner on the media portion of the PROGATI project. Development Associates, Inc., (DAI), as the main implementer of the overall project, brought in media development experts with journalism experience supplied early in the planning. They warned against partnering with Brac, saying it would be a conflict of interest.(Armao, 2013) The university relies on the government for grants, making it an odd choice to champion watchdog journalism that typically aims at government and big business. Indeed, university officials from the beginning expressed skepticism about the value of investigative reporting, comparing it to policing. (Armao, 2013) School officials repeatedly talked about how research was comparable to investigations. (Armao, 2013)
Brac, it must be noted, was a known and respected entity and afforded the fledgling JATRI stability and credibility. But critics say that U.S. taxpayers through USAID provided Brac with a new $800,000 school of journalism and public relations for free. (Armao, 2013)
Hugh Orozco, DAI chief of party in Dhaka for a year in 2010-2011, worked with the inspector general toward making a success of JATRI and the wider project. As he sees it, JATRI was a victim of the complexity of PROGATI. (Armao, 2013) Navigating the web of players and the peculiarities of the different organization involved in JATRI including Brac, DAI, and USAID was frustrating. This was made worse by staff turn-over and vacancies in DAI and other organizations which meant new people coming in and having to learn a complex structure from scratch. There were conflicting visions of JATRI and of investigative reporting among Brac, USAID and media developers brought in on the project. He also said that USAID contracting processes unnecessarily delay and restrict procurement and can hinder programming. Because U.S. government regulations required that equipment be acquired in the US JATRI was unable to start up in time and had to pay Brac to use university equipment. Orozco said the grant timetable was too short to change a media culture, train reporters and unleash then to do projects with impact, even if all had gone well. In the end no one agreed how to improve journalism in Bangladesh to a point where it combats corruption. Confusion and discord got in the way of the center’s work.
Orozco, a veteran of 16 years of development programs, like Ahmed, says JATRI is helping Bangladeshis. Training reporters in basics of their craft so that the quality of their work improves and giving women in a Muslim country a real role in newsrooms can make for a better effort against corruption. Still, that accomplishment pales before the original expectations, which leads to some basic questions. Would a director with a more investigative intensive background have created a more effective investigative organization? Were the right local partners selected, and why was the vision so different among the organizations implementing the project? Even more basic, was Bangladesh ready for an investigative reporting center? The Freedom House in studies of the country painted a bleak picture. (Freedom House Freedom of the Press Index 2001-2011) Political unrest in late 2006 caused the government to declare a state of emergency and install a military-backed interim government in January of 2007. Although there were numerous media outlets, many were politically aligned, dependent upon government advertising, and those that did operate with limited independence were heavily monitored. Politically, the government kept close tabs on the media, overtly censoring stories it feared could threaten national security. Libel and defamation were criminal offenses and the government wielded a 1974 Special Powers Act to arrest and detain journalists for up to 90 days to punish them for critical stories. A 2006 law allowed the government to suspend any programs if it deemed that in the public interest. As late as 2006-7, only 1 percent of the population had access to the Internet limiting that as a means for independent information. “In a transitional society like in Bangladesh,” Narul Islam, chief reporter for the Daily Sun told the Committee to Protect Journalists, “I believe, lack of democratic practices in almost all spheres of life hinders the growth of purely professional journalism.” (Angur Nahar Monty, n.d.)
Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) based in Amman, Jordan, was established in 2005 as the first non-profit investigative journalism center in a nine-country region. It is notable both because local journalists and media stakeholders designed and have managed it from inception, and because it has been supported long term by the Danish government. From the outset Rana Sabbagh, an indefatigable and respected journalist of some 30 years experience, which included being the first female top editor of the Jordan Times, has led ARIJ. She and others saw in ARIJ a chance to do investigative reporting that would raise journalism standards and expand media freedoms. The Danes envisioned it as a mechanism to build a dialogue between them and the people of the Middle East and North Africa and to support democratic growth in a region threatened by extremism and terrorism. (Transtec/ Media Consulting Group, 2013)
As to the external environment, ARIJ came about at a hopeful time when the political system seemed open to change. In 2005, the King had committed the country to a national reform platform which included business development and possible easing of restrictions on the media. (IREX Media Sustainability Index 2005) IREX‘s Media Sustainability Index ranked Jordan 2.16, putting it in the near sustainability category. Other countries in the region scored much weaker, with Egypt coming in at 1.88 and Tunisia at .97. Unfortunately, a series of hotel bombings that year and the resulting turmoil lead to a rolling back of reform initiatives. The legal environment was not at all conducive to investigative reporting. Access to public records was limited; libel and slander were criminal offenses. A draconian Press and Publications Law allowed journalists to be prosecuted or jailed for reporting deemed to threaten national unity, incite sectarianism, or insult the royal family.
Over the past decade, in spite of and in some cases because of the political turmoil in the region, there has been modest opening up of the media space. But to look at simply Jordan, a journalist must still be a member of the Press Association to work legally. (IREX Media Sustainability Index 2002-2012) State monopoly over the media was lifted in 2002, but the government retains control over terrestrial TV. The government has a majority ownership of two leading dailies and appoints editors to some news outlets resulting in some overt censorship and self-censorship. Print and online media still need a license to operate.
ARIJ was a small part of a much larger 10-year Media Cooperation program The Danish Arab Partnership Program put together. Program records show that it received $2.5 million from 2006-2011, or about 10 percent of the overall program budget. (Transtec/ Media Consulting Group, 2013) The Danes tied their evaluation indicators to the usual standards in media assistance: UNESCO’s Media Development Indicators, Irex’s Media Sustainability Index and Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press Index. ARIJ’s mission statement and objectives were keyed to getting out stories and edging journalists into stronger journalism through writing, along with training, mentoring and award programs.
A recent evaluation by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (DANIDA) declared ARIJ a success on both the “individual reporter and the media industry level.” (Transtec/ Media Consulting Group, 2013) Evaluators concluded, “ARIJ has not only equipped individual investigative journalists with innovative and competitive skills for unearthing and presenting stories hitherto thought taboo, it has also strengthened the media industry’s watch-dog role in terms of enhanced audience feedback and growing numbers of whistle blowers and informers.” DANIDA believes ARIJ has set a benchmark for the region. According to the report, journalist unions and media associations have bound together to lobby for improved standards, expanded media freedoms and to fight restrictive legislation. Journalists report less overt censorship and self-censorship. Evidence of increased publishing of investigative stories exists and more citizen responses as documented by emails, letters and phone calls. ARIJ has also made the most of social networking sites earning more than 4,000 Facebook followers and more than1,200 on Twitter. Like CIN ARIJ projects have won international prizes and the attention that comes with them.
Admittedly, the investment has been high, with stories costing out on an average of US$16,352 per story counting start up costs, the evaluators reported. (Transtec/ Media Consulting Group, 2013) In the words of Kaplan of the Global Investigative Journalism Network: “Many stories do not have impact for years – you are building a public record on accountability and transparency. Nor can you measure it well through numbers of stories produced – this is about quality and establishing high standards. You are also investing in changing newsroom culture, and that can take a generation.” (Transtec/ Media Consulting Group, 2013) Anecdotal evidence suggests that ARIJ’s reporting is making a difference across the region. An example cited on its website: a project on day care abuse by BBC and Al Balad Radio in Jordan that led to the closing of centers, prosecution of staff, and establishment of a government investigative commission. Stories in Egypt led to new regulations for the construction industry. By some accounts ARIJ reporting fills an institutional vacuum in society, as a consumer protection agency, for example, where no private or governmental organizations takes care of that. (Transtec/ Media Consulting Group, 2013)
ARIJ still faces sustainability and other challenges. As with CIN, additional support has been found from other governments and foundations, and also as with CIN, ARIJ officials are looking to improve revenue with better branding and marketing. In another similarity with CIN, emergence of strong managers in addition to the executive director has lagged. Most decision making goes through Sabbagh and it is difficult to see an ARIJ without her.
The Caucasus Media Investigations Center (CMIC) was founded in 2005 by ICFJ and the Human Rights and Democracy Fund of the U.S. State Department. Azerbaijan falls into the category of countries where investigative journalism is difficult and dangerous. An analysis of the local political situation shows a profound disabling environment making investigative reporting nearly impossible.
The government is intolerant of any criticism and insulting the president is illegal. (IREX Media Sustainability Index 2000-2013) The government and ruling party heavily control the media industry. Most outlets are heavily reliant on advertising which comes with political strings and on government grants issued through the State Council to Support Media – which also hands out apartments, cash awards and other gifts to compliant editors and journalists. The advertising sector is non-transparent, and generally supports entertainment programming while shying away from anything that is not pro-ruling party. There are few independent outlets and since they cannot get advertising they are dependent on foreign assistance. The Internet and social media provide the only uncensored forum for reporting on government corruption. Professional standards are weak. Journalists are poorly paid with few benefits, so most see journalism as a stepping-stone to better jobs in public relations or politics. Freedom of speech and freedom of information are guaranteed on paper only. In 2012, Parliament banned public access to information regarding registration and ownership of commercial companies in Azerbaijan – this is allegedly in response to investigative reporting exposing corruption linked to the President’s family. Libel is a criminal offense and since 2010, Azerbaijan ranks in the top ten countries with highest numbers of journalists jailed. Over 13 years, if we take IREX’s MSI as a measure, Azerbaijan has hovered between a 1.67 -1.90 ranking, never evolving out of an “unsustainable mixed system.”
The Center’s goals, as noted on its website, are sweeping: supporting in-depth media investigations, and media freedom in Azerbaijan, promoting use of new online media tools and new media in general, bolstering citizenship and civic society, increasing government accountability and transparency and developing citizen journalism.
In reality, hard-nosed investigative reporting of the kind CIN and ARIJ produced proved impossible. Charles Rice, an experienced journalist with extensive media development in difficult locales including East Timor, Mongolia and Tajikistan, said. “We flew under the radar of the Azeri government. That was the key to success… a lot of little stories. No big, big stories.” (Rice, 2013) They wrote about corruption in passport offices, shoddy construction, and the lack of toilet stops on bus routes. Kadija Ismayalova, today Azerbaijan’s most well-known investigative reporter and chief trainer for the school in 2007, said reporters found topics that citizens cared about, but the government did not. (Ismayalova, 21013) She herself has since gone back since leaving and reported on some topics uncovered by the center, including the involvement of the first family in a gold-mining operation that has environmentally raped a rural area of the country.
Besides government interference, the center ran into initial problems with the local partner to the project, independent TV station, ANS TV, which supplied office space and equipment. As it turned out the building was an old macaroni factory on the edge of Baku and its independence relative. Ismayalova said station officials were uncomfortable with what it regarded as the anti-government stance of the center and did not want to use its stories. (Ismayalova, 2013). She said at one point the station lobbied to have her removed and the center staff trained in “patriotism.” ICFJ and ANS soon split.
The staff also moved quickly into work that was safer than reportage – notably training on Internet use, storytelling, journalism and TV production. Ismayalova credits Center classes for training about two dozen people, at least half of whom continue to do what they see as significant journalism. Rice said Radio Liberty in Azerbaijan has given them, along with Ismayalova, some measure of protection against the government. (Rice, 2013)
ICFJ did not continue funding after a year. Rice said its involvement was conceived as short-term and while he has urged another effort, money has tightened and life for NGOs in Baku has gotten more difficult. He said his happiest thought has been that people he worked with and whom he remains in touch with continue to contribute. Equipment and materials were turned over to locals who continue to operate the center under the directorship of Anar Orujov. Recent projects, according to the organization’s site, include a report on popular web sites in the country, lobbied the government for better and equal treatment of bloggers, and promotion of citizen journalism.
In their hearts – and in reports back to donors — no dedicated worker at an investigative reporting center announces failure.
Even when initial goals go unrealized and programs lapse, it is possible to point to small victories and movement toward change. The media development donor system requires that kind of attitude. Honest assessments that might result in better project planning and design do not result in new funding.
This paper examined four independent investigative reporting centers, each in different geographic and political places, established since the early 2000s. Research suggests that such centers have proliferated and become a popular area for investment by media developers pushing democratization, sometimes as small segments of larger grants dealing with civil initiatives, anti-corruption, or media reform. There are perhaps unrealistically high expectations of investigative journalism being an agent of that democratization, and a need for quantifiable results in the face of short-term commitments.
Much research beyond this brief report which is based on mostly qualitative evidence is needed. But our findings are suggestive. Of the four centers examined, two appear to be thriving and measuring up to goals even in the face of challenges and difficulties. The other two have not fared as well. The variables at play in their differing fates appear to be donor dedication and willingness to invest long-term, a political climate that is at least not threatening to reporters revealing corruption, internal center leadership that is consistent, professional and knowledgeable about journalism, and impact, resulting from luck or skill, of at least a small body of work capable of awaking response from citizens and politicians. Our findings give clues about where and when, centers truly can build a vibrant and free press and promote democracy. There is neither a simple nor assured connection between the two. Investigative centers as some kind of template for reform workable universally is unrealistic. Rather than a silver bullet to be relied upon to slay the enemies of democracy, investigative reporting is a part of a complex systemic process interdependent upon the functioning of other social institutions.
Note on the Author
Rosemary Armao is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism Program at the State University of New York at Albany.
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