Whither investigative journalism in Sri Lanka?

Ideally, all good journalism should be investigative. So what will it take for more journalism to be investigative?

Ideally, all good journalism should be investigative. To get to the heart of most stories, journalists need to follow the money and power – two factors that often lead to excesses and abuses.In reality, however, internal and external factors prevent every story from being sufficiently investigative. Over the years, investigative journalism (IJ) has evolved into a specialised genre of the profession: it is where reporters dig deep and ‘connect the dots’ on a single topic of public interest.

IJ skills may be used to probe serious crimes, political corruption, human rights violations or corporate wrongdoing. In recent years, probing environmental crimes, human smuggling and match fixing in sports have also joined IJ’s traditional topics.

Depending on the topic and its complexity, investigative journalists may spend months or years researching and preparing their media product – a news story, feature or documentary film. In that process, they would interview eye witnesses and subject experts, and sometimes consult lawyers to get their story exactly right.

In some cases, they would also have to withstand extreme pressures exerted by the party being probed. A good example is found in the 2015 movie Spotlight, which was based on The Boston Globe’s investigative coverage of persistent sexual abuse by some Catholic priests. Many influential members of the community did not want that can of worms opened, and the team of reporters had to contend with cynics within and without.

In mature democracies, freedom of expression and media freedom are legally guaranteed and respected in practice (well, most of the time). In contrast, many Asian journalists investigate tough stories while facing uncaring or repressive governments, intimidating wielders of authority, unpredictable judicial mechanisms, and unsupportive publishers. They often risk their jobs, and sometimes life and limb, going after investigative stories. Investigative journalists are more at risk of being assaulted and murdered for their work.

Yet, IJ prevails against many odds. It even thrives when courageous journalists are backed by bold editors and publishers.

“Investigative journalism, though still in a budding stage, has exposed many scandals in Sri Lanka,” noted journalist M A M Shihar in an overview written in 2015. “From exposing politicians’ corrupt deals to inflated infrastructure costs, brave Sri Lankan journalists have done a yeoman service to the citizens of this country. They faced death threats, job loss, abductions and legal actions by those they exposed. But still, they were determined despite some of their colleagues being killed and while others left the country.”

IJ prevails against many odds. It even thrives when courageous journalists are backed by bold editors and publishers

Reflecting after participating in the 9th Global Investigative Journalism Conference in 2015 in Lillehammer, Norway, Shihar wrote: “It is unfair by those brave media personnel to say that investigative journalism in Sri Lanka is at a primitive stage. But there are several crucial areas where budding investigative journalists can learn, improve and help the public in deeper investigative reports.”

He emphasized the need for greater professionalism in media at all levels – reporters, editors, managers and publishers – for IJ to take root.

“The world is not the safest place for investigative journalists, but professionalism is the key to success. It has been an on-the-job process because situations change from one journalist to another. But the world needs investigative journalism at any cost,” he said.

One of his observations was how our journalists don’t make enough use of the existing resources and tools available freely on the web. In recent years, so many data sets, data analytic tools and data visualisation software have been placed online. These can enhance the work of journalists – if they know where to look.

There is a new tool for accessing government information too: the Right to Information (RTI) law, adopted in mid-2016. Although not specifically meant for journalists, they can exercise this new right as all other citizens. As they have been trained in the art of asking questions, journalists’ RTI applications tend to be more targeted and specific.

As I wrote last September, more and more Lankan journalists are using RTI to elicit officially held information, which they then complement with ground level investigations. RTI-enabled journalism has already inspired stories on a wide range of issues such as public sector corruption, state land ownership, macroeconomic policies, access to subsidies, police brutality, mishandled foreign relations and enforced disappearances. If these trends continue, RTI can usher in a new era of data-driven and evidence-based investigative journalism. However, that would require more supportive editors, specialised training for journalists and sustained partnerships with civil society groups.

Of course, Lankan journalists have been practising IJ for decades before RTI’s arrival. They relied on trusted sources, as well as whistleblowers (or confidential collaborators) in public or corporate institutions. Many malpractices in public administration, financial institutions and state subsidies came to light thanks to an insider who was outraged and leaked the relevant information to a journalist.

There is some debate on whether or not the media’s use of leaked information amounts to IJ. Whistleblowers can have their own axes to grind. A good test for IJ is that it always needs to be independent of special interests—it must aggressively serve the public trust and enrich public debate.

For countries such as Sri Lanka that need greater transparency and accountability at so many layers of society, even imperfect IJ is better than the self-censoring, dictation-taking kind of journalism that abounds.

Journalists committed to the basics of journalism find a way to get the story out, even in the harshest of conditions. Poddala Jayantha was a shining example of one who managed to do that inside a state-owned media house that is not generally known to be critical of government agencies.

Working for Silumina (a Sunday newspaper of Lake House) some years ago, he fearlessly exposed lapses in various sectors including health, education and transport, while also reporting on fraudulent job agencies, notorious ‘child farms’ (engaged in the illegal adoption of unwanted babies) and tax evasions. One of Jayantha’s stories blew the lid off a massive scam in value-added tax (VAT), which cost the state at least Rs1.5 billion in tax revenue.

Jayantha’s brave journalism and his activism for media freedom earned him the wrath of many. He received death threats. In June 2009, he was abducted and brutally assaulted by an unidentified gang who later dumped him on a roadside – sending a chilling message to all journalists asking inconvenient questions.

Jayantha went into exile shortly afterwards, joining others who fled for their lives. He now lives in the US, and the perpetrators of his assault were never caught. In 2010, he was given the Global Integrity Award by the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International (TI).

The safety of Lankan journalists has improved significantly since the change of government in 2015, but other pressures on media continue. Chief among them is advertiser clout of state and corporate entities. Those with large adverting budgets often leverage it to ‘kill’ or dilute a damaging story. Marketing staff in media houses prevail upon editors to ‘go easy’ on certain big time advertisers.

A few factors need attention for IJ to take root and thrive in Sri Lanka. Protecting journalistic sources is a basic condition for ensuring media freedom. Sri Lanka does not as yet have a specific law guaranteeing the right of journalists to maintain the confidentiality of their sources. From time to time, media houses have come under pressure from law enforcement officers or judges to reveal their sources.

In 1996, an expert committee on the reform of laws affecting media freedom in Sri Lanka, headed by the eminent lawyer R K W Goonesekere, noted that the absence of source protection was a ‘serious impediment to investigative journalism and the exposure of public scandals and wrongdoing’. Their recommendation of such legal protection is yet to be acted upon.

Journalists lack opportunities for specialised training in areas like data journalism and data visualisation that can enhance their IJ work. As media convergence gathers pace, long form text needs augmentation with interactive graphics, as well as video or audio elements.

Experienced IJ practitioners have also recognised the need for a Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) as an independent, nonprofit entity that can engage in specialised training, and defend and promote IJ in all media outlets.

“A Sri Lanka CIJ should work with all local media outlets, scrutinising and strengthening democratic institutions, defending and asserting press freedom, freedom of information, and freedom of expression,” Shihar wrote in 2015.

Such CIJs already exist in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan with local philanthropists funding some of their work. Might Sri Lanka’s high-net-worth individuals consider support for such an exercise as an ‘insurance’ against abuses of power and money?