Investigative journalists and the fight to unearth the corrupt

Former Sussex student Juan Leopoldo Martinez explains why investigative journalism really does need to be at the forefront of the anti-corruption fight 

When facing state, judicial or parliamentary inertia or a lack of effectiveness in fighting corruption, investigative journalism is one of the main tools societies have left to fight graft. However, investigative journalists faces two main problems when trying to do justice to this honourable aim.

The first is the overflow of information in societies that receive important news minute by minute. This becomes an obstacle to in-depth research; there is no time for details, only for the next major event that happens somewhere in the world.

The second problem is more complex: the threats against those who investigate the events, for those journalists who go beyond the known or told facts, for whom it’s not enough to take the statements made by politicians and public figures, but who want instead to reach the truth behind the discourse. By pursuing this truth, they touch important interests of powerful people who are not willing to accept any risks to their business, especially if their activities are dishonest or if disclosing certain information would damage their reputation.

Reporters Without Borders have reported that, during 2017, at least 47 journalists have been killed worldwide while 183 social communication professionals have been imprisoned. To those, we should also add the risks taken by citizens who help journalists and media assistants; in this group, at least 13 have been murdered and 182 put in jail. There are no statistics on the amount of intimidation.

One recent example of such horrific crimes against journalists is the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, one of the journalists who led the investigation of the Panama Papers and the corruption that it brought to light within her country, Malta. Even when she informed the police around two weeks before her murder that she was receiving death threats, security forces were not able to provide the protection needed and her life ended tragically.

The threats against investigative journalists are not just based on violence. Reporters Without Borders also publishes the annual World Press Freedom Index, a measure that considers several factors to determine “the level of freedom available for journalists”. By their analysis, the level of freedom has worsened considerably even in democratic systems. But the most disturbing fact, as per their report, is that the attacks on the media and newspersons are increasing worldwide.

Despite the danger, the risks reporters take are valuable. Investigative journalism is a key factor in the fight against corruption, with the capability to prompt real action by the state to prosecute graft or to stimulate collective action initiatives when sectors of society consider that something must be done against such problems.

Investigative journalism is essential to anti-corruption, and is often the last bastion of scrutiny in the most corrupt environments.  It is a fundamental instrument for good governance and a pillar of democracy. From that, it can be understood that investigative journalism is a fundamental factor to the improvement of the democratic system. But for investigative journalists to play their role, it is essential that journalists -and the media- are protected and free. Society should make efforts to promote the kind of journalism that brings positives outcomes as put public resource management under surveillance, and all the subsequent collective benefits that such actions involve.

Juan Leopoldo Martinez


Juan Leopoldo Martinez studied for an MA in Corruption and Governance at the University of Sussex in 2016-17. Previously, he graduated with BA in Journalism and MSc in Organizational Communication in Venezuelan universities. His work experience includes an internship at the APPG on Anti-Corruption of the UK Parliament, PR Director at the regional parliament of Carabobo in Venezuela and advisor at the same institution. He has a background working for private media, political and not-for-profit organizations.


When is an anti-corruption campaign not an anti-corruption campaign?

When does an anti-corruption campaign do enough to justify the claims made of its supporters? How, in other words, can we know that anti-corruption campaigns really are about tackling corruption? SCSC Director Dan Hough outlines how we might begin to see the wood for the trees.

Anti-corruption campaigns are once again in the news. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MbS, as he is often known), the ambitious heir to the Saudi throne, is at the centre of the most recent attempt by a country to root out high-profile corruption. MbS heads up a new, powerful anti-corruption committee that, within hours of its creation, prompted the arrest of a clutch of rich, powerful and previously untouchable Saudi princes and assorted others. Even close family members of King Salman have not been exempted; two of the King’s nephews have been detained as has the brother-in-law of the late King Fahd (who passed away in 2005). 30 plus members of the ultra-elite are now in some form of custody. MbS appears to mean business.

Yet it has not taken long for dissenting voices to question what’s driving this sudden quest for probity. On 6 November the UK’s Financial Times, for example, noted in a leader column that what the FT called a “purge” was “all about consolidating power”. Martin Chulov in the Guardian, meanwhile, described the arrests as part of a broader “revolution” of reform that had the much large goal of shifting internal bases of power.

Similar claims have been made about Xi Jinping’s efforts to fight corruption in China, where, despite the arrest of over a 100,000 people (including a significant number of high-ranking officials), there remains a strong suspicion that the campaign in the Middle Kingdom has rather more to do with maintaining stability (and indeed Xi’s personal powerbase) than it does about genuinely getting to corruption’s root cause.

Politicising Anti-Corruption

Working out what’s really going on in either Saudi Arabia or China is difficult. Neither are states that where politicians are naturally open to rigorous questioning. Indeed, hereditary monarchies and communist autocracies remain instinctively averse to being open about their inner workings.

However, getting to the bottom of why anti-corruption campaigns take place in democracies is actually not that much easier. India’s anti-corruption movements, for example, have often been criticized for being middle class vehicles for defending their own (privileged) positions in society, whilst the Kaczynski twins in Poland were widely criticized for what looked much like their overtly political anti-corruption initiatives of the late 2000s. The USA’s constant pushing of the OECD to adopt an anti-bribery treaty has also been criticised for being rather more about defending the interests of US business than genuinely clamping down on corrupt practices. Political imperatives and anti-corruption campaigns often appear to sit uneasily side-by-side.

There may well be (very) good reasons to be sceptical of the motives of politicians who launch large-scale anti-corruption initiatives. Beware, for example, those who ‘wage war on corruption’. If we learnt anything from the tenure of George Bush Jr’s time as US president, we should know that waging war on abstract nouns (terror, in Bush’s case) gets you nowhere. Corruption is, for better or worse, part of the human condition. Attempts to understand under what conditions it flourishes and what can subsequently be done to counteract it subsequently tend to be better served by nuance rather than bombast.

Furthermore, fighting corruption is not simply a technocratic challenge. It is not the case that if politicians simply showed a little more gumption then progress would inevitably be made in stamping it out. Many (no doubt well-meaning) anti-corruption activists misunderstand the challenge to hand. It is easy to assume that there are ‘right answers’ when tackling graft, but in the cold light of day there is plenty of politics involved. Anti-corruption is not like mail-order shopping; it is not possible to pick the right policies from a catalogue. Politics, of all sorts, complicates matters.

That is not a defence of the corrupt. It is an attempt to acknowledge that anti-corruption is political and that politics itself is messy, difficult, unsatisfying and at times unedifying. People disagree (often fundamentally) on what is right and what is wrong. Revelations in both the the ‘Panama‘ and newly the ‘Paradise’ Papers have, for example, led to loud calls for reform to prevent power brokers corrupting away their allegedly ill-gotten gains. Off shore jurisdictions have come under sustained fire for helping the rich and powerful in effect mitigate their tax liabilities. For some, this is corruption in all but name. Yet a plurality of UK citizens, as even the pro-reform Tax Justice Network (TJN) acknowledges, are happy for the UK to compete with the EU on the basis of tax competition (or ‘tax war’, as the TJN prefers to call it). A significant number of UK citizens, in other words, are quite happy to act in ways that many see as not just dishonest and unethical, but also plain old corrupt.  As I say, anti-corruption can be difficult.

Focusing Anti-Corruption Efforts

If the way forward is not necessarily high-profile and top down then what indeed should the focus be? If one is going to try and make a difference, it makes sense to be specific about what exactly the corruption problem is by defining the terms that are relevant to it. Successful reform, in other words, requires the identification of specific goals and a clear explanation of (i) why these reforms are necessary and (ii) how these reforms are going to be achieved. In a world of ever more verbose rhetoric, it is much better to under-promise and over-deliver than the other way around.

The most thoughtful NGOs in this area realise this. Transparency International in the UK, for example, focuses on the problems in specific sectors with a view to finding out what drives corrupt practice before then suggesting specific reforms to achieve specific goals. That TI UK doesn’t always get it right is a given. But the logic of the approach is surely correct.

The mass of anti-corruption literature that now exists tells us that the best reforms are those that bring a broad range of actors together to pursue sets of agreed aims. Sometimes this involves talking to power-holders or power-brokers who have interests that need to be respected. This may involve talking to people who ideally would be avoided. But in many states there is no way around the fact that those in power could potentially have much to lose if genuine reforms were to be enacted. Expecting them to give up what they have and even agree to things that could lead them or their allies into conflict with the law is simply unrealistic. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas, after all.

The real challenge is working out what progress is possible where. Policies that help citizens find out just a little more about how decisions are made and how they can legitimately defend their own interests as well as hold those in power responsible for their actions are likely to be steps forward. However, do not expect them to be simple steps or ones that those with something to lose will take lying down. The road to reform is incremental and confusing, and it often involves spending considerable time lost down cul-de-sacs.

Evaluating MbS’s reform agenda

All this leads us back to Saudi Arabia. As things stand, we know too little about what Saudi Arabia will look like (or indeed is supposed to look like) by the time MbS’s work is done. The current push is almost certainly ensnaring some people who more or less everyone would understand to be ‘corrupt’. But one swallow a summer does not make, and that is certainly not enough for us to be able to say in good faith that this really is all about corruption.

We’ll learn much more when (or indeed if) the anti-corruption committee’s work translates in to detailed policy. Will we be able to learn more about who generates wealth and how they do it? Will we be able to make more sense of who takes which decisions and why they take them? Will the process of governance reform lead to (slow, but steady) changes in political culture? It’ll take time for answers to these issues to be forthcoming. Only when they do will we really begin to know whether MbS’s drive is going to lead to sustainable changes in behaviour.

Dan Hough, University of Sussex


Don’t take norms for granted. The case of the USA’s ‘adieu’ to the EITI

In the first week of November the United States announced that it would cease to implement the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), thus choosing to exit an international club that has spread the norm of transparency with considerable success. In this post, Liz David-Barrett reflects on what this means for extractives globally and what it tells us about how international norms spread.

The EITI is a voluntary initiative through which governments commit to disclose the payments they receive from companies in the extractives sector – oil, gas, forestry and mining – as well as simultaneously compelling the companies operating on their territory to publish what they pay. The logic is that this transparency, overseen by a multi-stakeholder group comprising government, the private sector and civil society should help to curb corruption. That in turn will mean that more of the revenues earned from resource wealth reach the people, combating the ‘resource curse’.

There is a lively debate on whether the EITI works or not. Some researchers argue that it is not much more than ‘cheap talk’, a cynical effort to signal good intentions on which governments never follow through.  The EITI is seen as a sham particularly in countries where governments repress civil society, undermining the ability of the multi-stakeholder group to hold the key actors to account. Then again, the fact that US oil companies fought it so hard – the withdrawal is a victory for companies that lobbied to keep their tax affairs secret – suggests that implementation of the EITI standard does change the power balance among citizens, governments and companies.

Ken Okamura and I have argued that, even if the evidence is mixed on whether the EITI curbs corruption in implementing countries, the initiative has at least served to spread norms about transparency and disclosure in the extractive sector. We find that the promise of reputational benefits is a key motivation for governments to join and that the reputational capital earned through implementing the standard translates into material rewards such as increased aid. But that does not undermine what the initiative has achieved in terms of increasing the level of transparency and scrutiny of a sector that is highly vulnerable to corruption.

One of the key factors in the EITI’s ability to spread the norm of transparency was the fact that it had a wide membership which included some key players.  The value of different types of new members has varied over the initiative’s life. At the beginning, it was critical to have some big oil-producing countries on board, and countries which were rated as ‘highly corrupt’ on indicators such as the TI Corruption Perceptions Index. Nigeria and Azerbaijan, as pilot countries, were a good choice to get things started. These were, in the terminology of Finnemore and Sikkink, ‘norm entrepreneurs’. Subsequent joiners were inspired partly by a desire to ‘keep up’ with their neighbours – there was a flurry of West African interest following the Nigerian role model.

After some years though, critics began to argue that the initiative was the rich global north imposing values on the poor global south. Few developed countries were implementing the standard themselves, attracting charges of hypocrisy. In response, at the G8 summit in 2013, all of the G8 countries made at least some form of commitment to move towards implementation. Transparency in the resource sector seemed to have reached the third stage in Finnemore and Sikkink’s life cycle – internalisation. It was even institutionalised in law in the United States (the Cardin-Lugar amendment to the Dodd-Frank Act) and in an EU directive, although the former ran up against legal challenges more or less immediately.

And that is why the US decision to leave is such a blow. The United States has said that it will continue to be involved at the international and board level. But it will be impossible to be constructive or serve as a role model when it has walked away from the initiative itself. Now, when trying to attract new members, the initiative will not be able to sell itself as a prestigious international club striving for universal values. Even the argument that greater transparency is inevitable – and hence it is better to earn reputational capital by getting ahead of the game – will flail. Indeed, the EITI is also in trouble in the UK, where a protracted crisis in the multi-stakeholder group has recently come to a head and the civil society network has walked out. It looks like the initiative’s reputational pull is diminishing fast.

More broadly, the US decision is a reminder that the diffusion of international norms is not a unidirectional or inexorable process. Sometimes things go into reverse.

Liz David-Barrett, University of Sussex,