New challenges for investigative journalism

Investigative reporting is the preferred scapegoat of the powerful when they have something to hide, writes Almeida.

Rafael Correa
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is well known for his hyperbolic animosity against the private media [AFP]

What do a Saudi billionaire, a Ukrainian businessman, an Icelandic Bank, the Hungarian Prime Minister and the President of Ecuador have in common? They all hate and fear investigative reporters, whose job is to dig deeply into issues of public interest often involving political corruption or corporate wrongdoing. 

Around the world, investigative journalism is under threat from a variety of hostile forces that may seem to have different agendas yet use similar tactics and procedures. Governments – regardless of their professed ideologies – big corporations, powerful personalities and overzealous institutions are high-jacking the judiciary system and promoting a perverse regulatory framework to prop up their self-defined right to be immune from criticism and scrutiny. 

One of the preferred instruments of those institutional Goliaths playing David in the courts is the British law that allows a claimant to sue for libel without any need of proof that their reputation has suffered serious harm. 

Any publication, journalist or scholar, wherever they are based, can be the target of this form of “offshored” justice and any fat cat can claim millions in compensation for every perceived slight to their PR-enhanced image. Quite often, the threat of huge legal fees to be paid in London courts is enough to deter editors from publishing their reporters’ finds. 

‘Libel tourism’

In 2004, Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz demanded reparation from American author Rachel Ehrenfeld for claiming that al-Qaeda had received funds through his charities and financial institutions. Though Ehrenfeld’s book, Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed – and How to Stop It, had sold only 23 copies in the UK, its distribution in the US was prohibited and the author was ordered to pay a quarter million dollars to the aggrieved magnate. 

Ehrenfeld’s case was so outrageous that it had a least one beneficial consequence: the approval of local and federal legislation protecting US journalists, authors and publishers from the enforcement of any foreign libel judgment. Currently, a defamation reform bill requiring that the claimants demonstrate the seriousness of the supposed harm they have suffered and introducing a “public interest” defence is also being analysed in the British Parliament, though it remains short of providing all the protections demanded. 

In another egregious example of “libel tourism”, Ukrainian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov used the London courts in 2007 and 2008 to muzzle the investigations of English language newspaper Kyiv Post and website Obozrevatel. In 2010, he also obtained  a public apology from French daily Le Figaro, who had called him “a scandalous Ukrainian oligarch”. 

The world financial meltdown apparently made bankers equally eager to get rid of nosy reporters. In February 2008, eight months before its collapse, Reykjavik’s Kaupthing Bank sued the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet for articles published in 2006. 

According to British reporter Nick Cohen, author of You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom (Fourth Estate, London, 2012), Kaupthing went for the paper in the UK not just because it wanted to kill the original story, but to deter other media from suggesting that Iceland was not a safe place for investors. 

The soft censorship strategy is also a favourite of thin-skinned governments with an inclination for self-righteous authoritarianism. And those do not need to go to London since they can tailor their own legislation and exert undue pressure on their judiciary. 

In Hungary, the media laws elaborated by the ruling right-wing party, Fidesz, impose a very subjective definition of “objective and balanced coverage” and establish severe fines for violations – up to $840,000 for broadcast media. The new legislation and its subsequent reform have given the Media Council, controlled by the government, such an extraordinary power that it can oblige internet service providers to block any web-based news outlet. 

 Talk to Al Jazeera – Ricardo Patino:
Ecuador ‘acts on principles’

Last week, the Hungarian channel ATV was reprimanded by the authorities for calling Jobbik (The Movement for a Better Hungary, a government ally) an “extreme right” organisation. Next time, ATV can expect a financial penalty. 

One understands why Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban would find an independent press to be annoyingly meddlesome: one year ago, for example, his close ally President Pal Schmitt had to resign after the news portal revealed that 180 of his 275 pages doctoral thesis were the fruit of plagiarism

To delegitimise foreign criticism, Orban is playing the sovereignty card, accusing the European Union of treating Hungary as a colony and labelling his local detractors as traitors. A similar rhetoric is used by some governments in Latin America. 

Human rights violations

Ecuador is currently leading an aggressive campaign against the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), described as a stooge of imperialism. 

In fact, in the past, IACHR has saved many lives of activists threatened by right-wing dictatorships supported by Washington. Today’s human rights violations are fortunately not so gruesome, but some “progressive” regimes show a surprising level of intolerance towards any scrutiny of their practices. 

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is well known for his hyperbolic animosity against the private media. Every Saturday, on his radio and TV-broadcasted personal show, individual reporters and columnists are the target of a torrent of abuse. 

In 2012, the Supreme Court, newly elected by a three-member council controlled by the government, confirmed a sentence against daily El Universo for an article signed by its opinion editor. The writer and three members of the publishing board were condemned to serve three years in jail and to pay a $40m fine. 

Even for an editorial that could be construed by some as implied defamation, the case was so outrageous that Correa was pressured to “pardon” the newspaper. Legally, though, the sentence is still standing. 

The new media law currently submitted to the Parliament – controlled by a pro-government majority – requires that every piece of news in Ecuador should be “verified, corroborated, contextualised and opportune”. This slippery definition is rather disturbing, more so when the government systematically denounces as malicious and conspirative any form of in-depth journalistic investigation. 

It has done so when the press revealed the millionaire public contracts benefiting companies related to the President’s brother. It reacted with threats when another relative of Correa, then director of the Central Bank, was accused of falsifying his university diplomas. Which was ultimately proven true, as is the fact that parts of an engineering thesis written by the elect Vice-President was copied from the internet. 

Be it from the recalcitrant Right or the authoritarian Left, on behalf of the sacred rights of free enterprise or in the name of national sovereignty and “anti-imperialism”, the objective is always the same: impunity. And investigative reporting is the preferred scapegoat of the powerful when they have something to hide. 

Monica Almeida is the Quito editor of daily newspaper El Universo. She has worked for AFP in Paris and was a 2009 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.