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Dec. 20, 2010, 11 a.m.

Secrecy conference: In countries like Romania and Cambodia, illegal leaks can be transparency’s only hope

While, in the United States, WikiLeaks has caused a furor for its journalism-by-data-dump, similar leaks abroad are a major source of reporting on government operations — occasionally providing the only transparency available, as journalists struggle against secretive governments, corrupt media, and threatened or actual violence. At the first morning panel of the Nieman Foundation’s secrecy and journalism conference, international reporters and editors drew connections and contrasts between the situation here and abroad.

When media is part of the problem

Stefan Candea, a Nieman Fellow and founder of the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism, was 11 when communist rule collapsed in his home country, ending 50 years of media as propaganda tool. Today, however, the media is still far from being without fear or favor.

“We were told by the chief justice in Massachusetts that a functioning democracy requires a free ballot, free judges, and a free media. We have none of those in Romania,” he said. “The traditional media is not free because it’s run by local oligarchs whose main source of income is working with the state. Their only motivation with owning media is to stay out of jail.” Candea said that one one media owner told his top news management that his company should act like the keys to his limousine: “If you turn the key to the right it should start; if you turn the key to the left it should stop.”

So Candea left Romania’s print world, which he said taught him what not to do, and formed CRJI, which began tracking and exposing the close ties between media, political power and organized crime. But to gather that information, his organization has had to be flexible on its sources. “We don’t refuse access to any databases, whether it’s a hacked database or not, because we have so few sources of information,” he said.

Desperate times, creative measures

In 1993, Cambodia saw its own revolution in the form of free elections, which also ushered in the creation of a free press. But while things were better, newly passed freedom of information laws were almost universally unenforced, according to Kevin Doyle, Nieman Fellow and founder of the Cambodia Daily. After a 1997 grenade attack on peaceful protesters outside the country’ judiciary left 16 dead, officials were widely suspected of encouraging the attacks. Weak freedom-of-information laws, however, meant journalists could do little but question the government’s flat denials. Years passed without any progress on solving the case.

And then the Cambodia Daily got creative: One of Doyle’s staff, based in the United States, suggested a Freedom of Information Act request might yield results, since the FBI had come in to investigate because one of the dead was an American. Two years later, after a long and dogged process, the FBI finally released the files.

“The FBI found witnesses that implicated the state in the attacks, to the point of the police allowing the attackers through a police brigade while those persuing them were stopped,” said Doyle. In a country with so few sources of official information, it was a major coup.

WikiLeaks with a local impact

Well before the current blockbuster leaks made WikiLeaks a household name, the organization made several releases that still had a wide ranging impact. One occurred right in the backyard of Rob Rose, a Nieman Fellow and reporter for South Africa’s Sunday Times.

South Africa had convened a commission to look into banking inequality — a legacy of the country’s apartheid past — but the released report was so redacted as to be almost farcical. WikiLeaks obtained and released the unredacted report, possibly by simply removing the commission’s poorly performed blackouts. The impact was tremendous. “It accelerated change in the banking system, which I thought was a critical event,” said Rose.

Another incident, however, exposed the dangers journalists face when aggressively pursuing leaked stories. World Cup soccer is big business for the host country, but contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars in public money were withheld from the public. Then the Sunday Times received a CD full of the unredacted contracts, exposing contractor and bidding corruption that cost taxpayers millions. But the day before Rose left for his Nieman Fellowship, he said, a colleague was arrested for reporting on the documents.

The prospects for improved press freedom laws in the future aren’t looking bright. “What hasn’t helped is that countries like China have seen huge economic success without a free press,” he said. “China is a huge trading partner of many African countries, and they’ve used the success of China to repeal certain press laws.”

The limits of leaks

But while leaks, even those of dubious legality, are a critical reporting tool throughout the world, they cannot begin to replace solid investigative reporting, Alejandra Matus said.

Matus, a Nieman Fellow last year and a freelance investigative journalist from Chile, spent six years investigating the Chilean court system, hoping to emerge with enough material for a book. “I found myself reporting in the courts where everything was secret,” she said. “The testimonies, the disposition, how they arrived at decisions.”

It was a long, tedious process of showing up to the courthouse, meeting people, and slowly gaining their confidence. Sometimes, Matus said, they gave her documents but more often they just gave information. “That is not the type of information you could leak to WikiLeaks,” she said. Instead, it was the explaining the procedures and systems, and the back story, that allowed such a broken court system to continue.

And at the end of her six years, Matus found she still did not have enough for her book. Instead, she went and studied other legal systems around the world for reference. “It was not that the book revealed one secret or one wrongdoing of one person, but the book put in context a whole system that wasn’t working,” she said. Part of the job was getting the secrets, she said but the bigger task was the processing of the information, much of which was already public or at least known locally, in order to create a traceable, irrefutable account of what was wrong.

“I’ve seen a lot of hysteria by journalists around WikiLeaks — they feel threatened,” she said. “I think the most meaningful part of this is he had to give the information to journalists to process it. That’s why there are journalists: to do the boring part.”

POSTED     Dec. 20, 2010, 11 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Secrecy and Journalism
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