Fake News in Indian General Election 2019: Interview with Nikhil Pahwa

Nikhil Pahwa, journalist, digital activist and founder of Medianama.com

Nikhil Pahwa is an Indian journalist, digital rights activist, and founder of MediaNama, a mobile and digital news portal. He has been a key commentator on stories and debates around Indian digital media companies, censorship and Internet and mobile regulation in India.

On the even of India’s general election 2019, Nalaka Gunawardene spoke to him in an email interview to find out how disinformation spread on social media and chat app platforms figures in election campaigning. Excerpts of this interview were quoted in Nalaka’s #OnlineOffline column in the Sunday Morning newspaper of Sri Lanka on 7 April 2019.

Nalaka: What social media and chat app platforms are most widely used for spreading mis and disinformation in the current election campaign in India?

Nikhil: In India, it’s as if we’ve been in campaigning mode ever since the 2014 elections got over: the political party in power, the BJP, which leveraged social media extensively in 2014 to get elected has continued to build its base on various platforms and has been campaigning either directly or, allegedly, through affiliates, ever since. They’re using online advertising, chat apps, videos, live streaming, and Twitter and Facebook to campaign. Much of the campaigning happens on WhatsApp in India, and messages move from person to person and group to group. Last elections we saw a fair about of humour: jokes were used as a campaigning tool, but there was a fair amount of misinformation then, as there has been ever since.

Are platforms sufficiently aware of these many misuses — and are they doing enough (besides issuing lofty statements) to tackle the problem?

Platforms are aware of the misuse: a WhatsApp video was used to incite a riot as far back as 2013. India has the highest number of internet shutdowns in the world: 134 last year, as per sflc.in. much of this is attributable to internet shutdowns, and the inability of local administration to deal with the spread of misinformation.

Platforms are trying to do what they can. WhatsApp has, so far, reduced the ability to forward messages to more than 5 people at a time. Earlier it was 256 people. Now people are able to control whether they can be added to a group without consent or not. Forwarded messages are marked as forwarded, so people know that the sender hasn’t created the message. Facebook has taken down groups for inauthentic behavior, robbing some parties of a reach of over 240,000 fans, for some pages. Google and Facebook are monitoring election advertising and reporting expenditure to the Election Commission. They are also supporting training of journalists in fact checking, and funding fact checking and research on fake news. These are all steps in the right direction, but given the scale of the usage of these platforms and how organised parties are, they can only mitigate some of the impact.

Does the Elections Commission have powers and capacity to effectively address this problem?

Incorrect speech isn’t illegal. The Election Commission has a series of measures announced, including a code of conduct from platforms, approvals for political advertising, take down of inauthentic content. I’m not sure of what else they can do, because they also have to prevent misinformation without censoring legitimate campaigning and legitimate political speech.

What more can and must be done to minimise the misleading of voters through online content?

I wish I knew! There’s no silver bullet here, and it will always be an arms race versus misinformation. There is great political incentive for political parties to create misinformation, and very little from platforms to control it.

WhatsApp 2019 commercial against Fake News in India

[Op-ed] April Fools, All Year Round? A Call for Fact-Checking Our Media & Politics

Text of my op-ed article published in Weekend Express newspaper on 7 April 2017.

April Fools All Year Round? Op-ed by Nalaka Gunawardene, Weekend Express, 7 April 2017

April Fools, All Year Round?

By Nalaka Gunawardene

April 1 is observed in many countries as a day for fooling people with practical jokes and harmless fabrications. This aspect of popular culture can be traced back to the times of ancient Greece.

There is now a new twist to this tradition. Every day is beginning to feel like April Fools’ Day in the age of Internet pranks, clever satire and fake news!

Sadly, many among us who apply some measure of skepticism on April 1 are not as vigilant for the rest of the year.

Ah, how I miss the time when intentional misleading was largely confined to just one day. I’m old enough to remember how some Lankan newspapers used to carry elaborate – and seemingly plausible – stories on their front pages on April Fools’ day. The now defunct Sun and Weekend excelled in that delightful art of the tall tale. Of course, they owned up the following day, poking fun at readers who were fooled.

During the past two decades, our media landscape has become a great deal more diverse. Today we have 24/7 SMS news services, all-news TV channels, numerous websites and, of course, millions using social media to spread information (or misinformation) instantaneously.

But does more necessarily mean better? That is a highly debatable question. We seem to have too much media, but not enough journalism! At least journalism of the classical kind where facts are sacred and comment is free (yet informed).

That kind of journalism still exists, but along with so much else. Today’s global cacophony has democratized the media (which is to be celebrated). At the same time, it spawned veritable cottage industries of fake news, conspiracy theories and gossip peddlers.

Image source – American Journalism Review, 21 April 2015

Fact checking

What is to be done? The long term solution is to raise media literacy skills in everyone, so that people consume media and social media with due diligence.

That takes time and effort. Since misinformation is polluting the public mind and even undermining democratic processes, we must also look for other, faster solutions.

One such coping strategy is fact checking. It literally means verifying information – before or after publication – in the media.

In a growing number of countries, mainstream media outlets practise fact checking as an integral part of their commitment to professionalism. They seek to balance accuracy with speed, which has been made more challenging by the never-ending news cycle.

In other cases, independent researchers or civil society groups are keeping track of news media content after publication. In the United States, where the practice is well developed, several groups are devoted to such post-hoc fact checking. These include FactCheck, PolitiFact, and NewsTrust’s Truth Squad. They fact check the media as well as statements by politicians and other public figures.

In 2015, fact checking organisations formed a world network and this year, they observed the inaugural International Fact Checking Day.

Not coincidentally, the chosen date was April 2. (See details at: http://factcheckingday.com)

The initiative is a collaboration by fact checkers and journalism organisations from around the world, “with a goal to enlist the public in the fight against misinformation in all its forms.”

“International Fact Checking Day is not a single event but a rallying cry for more facts — and fact checking — in politics, journalism and everyday life,” says Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in the US.

Oops!

Pinocchios

One visual icon for the Fact-Checking Day is Pinocchio, the fictional puppet character whose nose grew long each time he uttered a lie.

We in Sri Lanka urgently need a professional, non-partisan fact checking service to save us from the alarming proliferation of Pinocchios in public life. Not just our politicians, but also many academics and activists who peddle outdated statistics, outlandish claims or outright conspiracy theories.

Take, for example, the recent claim by a retired professor of political science that 94 Members of Parliament had not even passed the GCE Ordinary Level exam. Apparently no one asked for his source at the press conference (maybe because it fed a preconceived notion). Later, when a (rare?) skeptical journalist checked with him, he said he’d “read it in a newspaper some time ago” — and couldn’t name the publication.

A simple Google search shows that an MP (Buddhika Pathirana) had cited this exact number in September 2014 – about the last Parliament!

Given the state of our media, which often takes down dictation rather than asks hard questions, fact checking is best done by a research group outside the media industry.

A useful model could be South Asia Check, an independent, non-partisan initiative by Panos South Asia anchored in Kathmandu. It “aims to promote accuracy and accountability in public debate” by examining statements and claims made by public figures in Nepal and occasionally, across South Asia (http://southasiacheck.org).

See also: Getting it Right: Fact-Checking in the Digital Age: American Journalism Review, 21 April 2015

South Asia Check – home page captured on 10 April 2017

Nalaka Gunawardene is a science writer and independent media researcher. He is active on Twitter as @NalakaG

තොරතුරු අයිතිය සමාජ සාධාරණත්වය වෙනුවෙන් හොඳ ආරම්භයක් – නාලක ගුණවර්ධන

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at public forum on Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) law. Colombo, 15 Feb 2017

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at public forum on Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) law. Colombo, 15 Feb 2017

On 15 February 2017, I served as main speaker at a public forum in Colombo on Sri Lanka’s newly operational RTI law and its wider socio-cultural and political implications. The event, organized by the National Media Forum (NMF), was attended by a large number of journalists, social activists, lawyers, government officials and other citizens.

Here is one news report on the event, by Lanka News Web:

තොරතුරු අයිතිය සමාජ සාධාරණත්වය වෙනුවෙන් හොඳ ආරම්භයක් – නාලක ගුණවර්ධන

තොරතුරු දැන ගැනීමේ අයිතිය පිලිබඳ ඉදිරියේදී දුර්මත ගොඩනැගීමටත් දියාරු කිරීමටත් හැකියාව ඇති හෙයින් එම තත්ත්වයන්ට මුහුණ දීමට සූදානමින් සිටිය යුතු බව ප්‍රවීණ මාධ්‍යවේදී නාලක ගුණවර්ධන මහතා පැවසීය.

ඔහු මේ බව සඳහන් කළේ ඊයේ (15) පැවති ජාතික මාධ්‍ය සංසදය මඟින් සංවිධානය කර තිබූ “තොරතුරු පනතට සමාජ සංස්කෘතිය ඉක්මවිය හැකිද?” සංවාද සභාවේ මුඛ්‍ය දේශනය පවත්වමිනි.

පනතේ 20 වැනි වගන්තියට අනුව ප්‍රගාමී තොරතුරු දීම සම්බන්දයෙන් කර ඇති සඳහන ඉතා හොඳ ආරම්භයක් බවයි ගුණවර්ධන මහතා ප්‍රකාශ කළේ.පුරවැසියන් තොරතුරු ඉල්ලීමට ප්‍රථම ස්වෙච්ජාවෙන් ඒවා ලබා දිය යුතු බවට වන වගන්තිය පුරවැසියන්ගේ තොරතුරු අයිතිය තහවුරු කරන්නක් බව පෙන්වා දෙන හෙතෙම අවධාරණය කළේ කලාපයේ තොරතුරු නිතිය ක්‍රියාත්මක කිරීමේ අත්දැකීම් ඇති රටවල සහය අපටද ලබා ගත හැකි බවයි.මේ සඳහා පුරවැසියන්ගේ සක්‍රීය දායකත්වයද අවශ්‍ය බව හෙතෙම සඳහන් කළේය.

ඉන්දියානු සමාජයේ තොරතුරු අයිතිය දිනා ගැනීමේ ප්‍රබල අරගලයක් කළ සමාජ ක්‍රියාකාරිකයෙකු වන ෂෙකර් සිං සමාජ ගත කරමින් පවතින කාරණා පිළිබඳවද නාලක ගුණවර්ධන මහතා අදහස් පළ කළේය.ෂේකර් සිං මතු කරන ප්‍රධාන කාරණයක් වන මෙම අයිතිය දිනා ගැනීම වෙනුවෙන් ප්‍රජාතාන්ත්‍රීය, ප්‍රගතිශීලි හැමදෙනාම එක්ව ක්‍රියා කළ යුතු බව ගුණවර්ධන මහතා පෙන්වා දුන්නේය.

දේශපාලන අධිකාරිය හා නිලධාරීන් මේ සම්බන්ධයෙන් නිවැරදිව සක්‍රීයව මැදිහත් වන්නේ පුරවැසියන් ඊට දක්වන ප්‍රතිචාරය මත වන හෙයින් පුරවැසියා මේ පිලිබඳ බලගැන්වීම අවශ්‍ය කරුණක් බව හෙතෙම අවධාරණය කළේය.

L to R - Nalaka Gunawardene, Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, Priyantha Wedamulla

L to R – Nalaka Gunawardene, Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, Priyantha Wedamulla

සංවාද සභාව ඇමතූ ජාතික මාධ්‍ය සංසදයේ කැඳවුම්කරු මාධ්‍යවේදිනී මන්දනා ඉස්මයිල් අබේවික්‍රම මහත්මිය ප්‍රකාශ කළේ මෙතෙක් පැවති අත්දැකීම් අනුව තොරතුරු ලබාදීමට ආණ්ඩු සුදානම් නොමැති හෙයින් තොරතුරු පනත ක්‍රියාත්මක කරවාගැනීමට සිදුව ඇත්තේ වෙනසකට ලක් නොවුණු දේශපාලන සංස්කෘතික පසුබිමක හිදිමින් බවයි.පාර්ලිමේන්තු මන්ත්‍රී වරප්‍රසාද යටතේ පවා තොරතුරු ලබා ගැනීමට නොහැකි දේශපාලන පසුබිමක අපට කටයුතු කිරීමට සිදු වූ බව ඇය පෙන්වා දුන්නේය. එහෙත් මෙම තත්ත්වයන් අභියෝගයට ලක් කළ යුතු බවත් ඊට පුරවැසියා මැදිහත් විය යුතු බවත් ය වැඩිදුරටත් පැවසීය.

Here is the video of my full speech (in Sinhala):

Can Right to Information (RTI) Transform Lankan Society? Yes, but we have much to do…

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at public forum in Colombo on Sri Lanka’s newly operational RTI law. 15 February 2017 (Photo courtesy Lanka News Web)

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at public forum in Colombo on Sri Lanka’s newly operational RTI law. 15 February 2017 (Photo courtesy Lanka News Web)

Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) law became operational on 3 February 2017. Marking the culmination of an advocacy effort sustained by social activists and journalists for over 20 years, the new law enables citizens to ask for, and be assured of information held in all government entities (as well as some private and non-profit entities).

The law being new, there still are apprehensions, misconceptions as well as skepticism on whether such transparency could work in a semi-feudal society like Sri Lanka’s.

On 15 February 2017, I served as main speaker at a public forum in Colombo on Sri Lanka’s newly operational RTI law and its wider socio-cultural and political implications. The event, organized by the National Media Forum (NMF), was attended by a large number of journalists, social activists, lawyers, government officials and other citizens.

L to R - Nalaka Gunawardene, Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, Priyantha Wedamulla and Narada Bakmeewewa

L to R – Nalaka Gunawardene, Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, Priyantha Wedamulla and Narada Bakmeewewa  (Photo courtesy Lanka News Web)

In my presentation, I said the right to ask questions from rulers is very new, and there is no historical precedent for it in Sri Lanka. Subjects had no rights whatsoever and could not ask any questions from the absolute monarchs of Lanka who ruled the island for 20 centuries. The Portuguese, Dutch and British did not grant that right in their colony of Ceylon, and neither did any of our own governments elected since independence in 1948.

Citizens are typically intimidated by politicians and officials, and unless we overcome this wide-spread subservience, we cannot derive benefits from RTI, I argued. The new law gives an unprecedented right to all 21 million Lankans – of all walks of life and of all ages – but to exercise it well we need a political vision, tenacity and imagination.

Nurturing these qualities is the big challenge on the DEMAND side of RTI in Sri Lanka, now that the government has done an appreciable amount of work on the SUPPLY side – by keeping its 2015 election pledge and giving us both the fundamental right to information (through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution) and the law that operationalises it (Right to Information Act No 12 of 2016).

I quoted Dr Rajesh Tandon, founder and head of the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), a voluntary organisation providing support to grassroots initiatives in India on the Indian experience of RTI. Since the RTI law was introduced in 2005, India has seen a marked improvement in governance, dissemination of information and involvement of civil society in the governance process, he says.

At the same time, he points out that some challenges remain at the implementation level. Certain states in India have been more active in creating a culture of information sharing and open government. As Indians found out, it isn’t easy to shake off centuries of misplaced state secrecy and mistrust in the public. “Old rules and procedures continue to co-exist as new laws and methods are invented. Official Secrecy Act and Right to Information Act co-exist, just as written precedent and e-governance co-exist.” (Watch my full interview with Rajesh Tandon here: https://vimeo.com/118544161).

Sunil Handunnetti, JVP (opposition) Member of Parliament, speaks during RTI Forum in Colombo, 15 Feb 2017

Sunil Handunnetti, JVP (opposition) Member of Parliament, speaks during RTI Forum in Colombo, 15 Feb 2017

I also summarized India’s RTI lessons shared with me recently by Shekhar Singh, Founder of India’s National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) and a former member of the State Council for RTI, New Delhi. Chief among them:

  • Be well aware of political realities and complexities when promoting RTI
  • Don’t get into ‘Us and Them’ style confrontation with govt (reality always more nuanced)
  • Work with progressive elements (MPs, officials, advisors) within govt who share RTI ideals
  • South Asian politicians know they can pass many laws and then ignore them: only sustained citizen pressure will make them implement RTI fully
  • Document how RTI has led to social justice and social development in other South Asian countries, and the positive uses of RTI in Sri Lanka from now onward; Share these widely with officials, politicians and civil society activists to inspire them.
  • RTI cuts across all sectors (education, health, child rights, labour rights, environment, etc.): NGOs, trade unions and other elements of civil society need to see value of RTI-generated info for their own work and the greater good
  • Civil society should not isolate RTI as a separate movement. Integrate RTI into all public interest work in all sectors.
  • Insist that ALL layers, arms and branches of govt obey the RTI law fully (and use appeal process when any public authority is not cooperating)

Here is one news report on the event, by Lanka News Web (in Sinhala)

Here is the video of my full speech (in Sinhala):

Part of audience at public forum on Sri Lanka's RTI Law, held in Colombo, 15 Feb 2017

Part of audience at public forum on Sri Lanka’s RTI Law, held in Colombo, 15 Feb 2017

Communicating Research on Global Change: How to engage policy-makers?

What is to be done? With a few strategies, this gap can be bridged...

What is to be done? With a few strategies, this gap can be bridged…

How to ‘Bell’ the policy ‘cats’? I posed – and tried to answer – this question in October 2013 when addressing a group of Asian research leaders gathered in Bangkok, Thailand.

It’s a question without easy or simple answers. Policy makers come in different forms and types, and gaining their attention depends on many variables — such as a country’s political system, governance processes, level of bureaucracy and also timing.

I revisited this question this week when speaking to a group of young (early to mid-career) researchers from across South Asia who want to study many facets of global change. They were brought together at a regional workshop held in in Paro, Bhutan, by the Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research (APN) and the National Environment Commission of the Royal Government of Bhutan.

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at APN South Asian Proposal Development Training Workshop in Paro, Bhutan, 14-16 Dec 2016. Photo Xiaojun Deng, APN

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at APN South Asian Proposal Development Training Workshop in Paro, Bhutan, 14-16 Dec 2016. Photo Xiaojun Deng, APN

Titled as the ‘Proposal Development Training Workshop (PDTW)’ and held from 14 to 16 December 2016, PDTW aimed “to raise awareness of APN among early career scientists and practitioners, and to increase the capacity to develop competitive proposals for submission to APN”.

The workshop involved two dozen researchers and half a dozen mentors. I was the sole mentor covering the important aspect of communicating research.

I urged researchers to try and better understand the imperfect, often unpredictable conditions in which South Asia’s policy makers operate.

Researchers and activists who would like to influence various public policies. Everyone is looking for strategies and engagement methods. The policy cycle cannot run according to text book ideals when governments have to regularly cope with economic uncertainties, political upheavals and social unrest, etc.

Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research (APN): Proposal Development Training Workshop 2016 — in Paro, Bhutan. Photo by Xiaojun Deng, APN

Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research (APN): Proposal Development Training Workshop 2016 — in Paro, Bhutan. Photo by Xiaojun Deng, APN

Imagine what keeps your policy makers awake at night, I suggested. Are they worried about balance of payment, disaster responses or a Parliamentary majority? How can research findings, while being evidence based, help solve problems of economic development and governance?

I also suggested that researchers should map out the information behaviour of their policy makers: where do they get info to act on? Is there a way research findings can be channeled to policy makers through some of these sources – such as the media, professional bodies and international development partners?

I suggested two approaches to communicating research outcomes to policy makers: directly, using own publications and/or social media; and indirectly by working with and through the media.

Finally, I shared some key findings of a global study in 2012 by SciDev.Net (where I was an honorary trustee for nearly a decade) which looked at the different contextual settings within which policy makers, the private sector, NGOs, media organisations and the research community operate to better understand how to mainstream more science and technology evidence for development and poverty reduction purposes.

Going beyond “Poor Journalism” that ignores the poor

Sri Lankan Media Fellows on Poverty and Development with their mentors and CEPA coordinators at orientation workshop in Colombo, 24 Sep 2016

Sri Lankan Media Fellows on Poverty and Development with their mentors and CEPA coordinators at orientation workshop in Colombo, 24 Sep 2016

“For me as an editor, there is a compelling case for engaging with poverty. Increasing education and literacy is related to increasing the size of my readership. Our main audiences are indeed drawn from the middle classes, business and policymakers. But these groups cannot live in isolation. The welfare of the many is in the interests of the people who read the Daily Star.”

So says Mahfuz Anam, Editor and Publisher of The Daily Star newspaper in Bangladesh. I quoted him in my presentation to the orientation workshop for Media Fellows on Poverty and Development, held in Colombo on 24 September 2016.

Alas, many media gatekeepers in Sri Lanka and across South Asia don’t share Anam’s broad view. I can still remember talking to a Singaporean manager of one of Sri Lanka’s first private TV stations in the late 1990s. He was interested in international development related TV content, he told me, “but not depressing and miserable stuff about poverty – our viewers don’t want that!”

Most media, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, have narrowly defined poverty negatively. Those media that occasionally allows some coverage of poverty mostly skim a few selected issues, doing fleeting reporting on obvious topics like street children, beggars or poverty reduction assistance from the government. The complexity of poverty and under-development is hardly investigated or captured in the media.

Even when an exceptional journalist ventures into exploring these issues in some depth and detail, their media products also often inadvertently contain society’s widespread stereotyping on poverty and inequality. For example:

  • Black and white images are used when colour is easily available (as if the poor live in B&W).
  • Focus is mostly or entirely on the rural poor (never mind many poor people now live in cities and towns).

The Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), a non-profit think tank has launched the Media Fellowship Programme on Poverty and Development to inspire and support better media coverage of these issues. The programme is co-funded by UNESCO and CEPA.

Under this, 20 competitively selected journalists – drawn from print, broadcast and web media outlets in Sinhala, Tamil and English languages – are to be given a better understanding of the many dimensions of poverty.

These Media Fellows will have the opportunity to research and produce a story of their choice in depth and detail, but on the understanding that their media outlet will carry their story. Along the way, they will benefit from face-to-face interactions with senior journalists and development researchers, and also receive a grant to cover their field visit costs.

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at orientation workshop for Media Fellows on Poverty and Development at CEPA, 24 Sep 2016

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at orientation workshop for Media Fellows on Poverty and Development at CEPA, 24 Sep 2016

I am part of the five member expert panel guiding these Media Fellows. Others on the panel are senior journalist and political commentator Kusal Perera; Chief Editor of Daily Express newspaper Hana Ibrahim; Chief Editor of Echelon biz magazine Shamindra Kulamannage; and Consultant Editor of Sudar Oli newspaper, Arun Arokianathan.

At the orientation workshop, Shamindra Kulamannage and I both made presentations on media coverage of poverty. Mine was a broad-sweep exploration of the topic, with many examples and insights from having been in media and development spheres for over 25 years.

Here is my PPT:

More photos from the orientation workshop:

 

 

Details of CEPA Media Fellowship Programme on Poverty and Development

List of 20 Media Fellows on Poverty and Development

[Op-ed] Investigative Journalists uncover Asia, one story at a time

Op-ed written for Sri Lanka’s Weekend Express newspaper, 23 September 2016

Investigative Journalists uncover Asia, one story at a time

By Nalaka Gunawardene

Second Asian Investigative Journalism Conference: Kathmandu, Nepal, 23-25 September 2016

Second Asian Investigative Journalism Conference: Kathmandu, Nepal, 23-25 September 2016

The second Asian Investigative Journalism Conference in opens in Kathmandu, Nepal, on September 23.

Themed as ‘Uncovering Asia’ it is organized jointly by the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), Centre for Investigative Journalism in Nepal, and the German foundation Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (2016.uncoveringasia.org).

Founded in 2003, GIJN is the world’s leading international association of investigative reporters’ and their organizations. Its membership includes more than 100 non-profits and NGOs in 45 countries. They are committed to expanding and supporting quality investigative journalism worldwide. This is done through sponsoring global and regional conferences, including the every-two-year Global Investigative Journalism Conference. GIJN also does training, links journalists together worldwide, and promotes best practices in investigative and data journalism.

For three days in Kathmandu, reporters from across Asia and beyond – including several from Sri Lanka – will swap stories, cheer each other, and take stock of their particular craft.

It is true that all good journalism should be investigative as well as reflective. Journalism urges its practitioners to follow the money and power — two factors that often lead to excesses and abuses.

At the same time, investigative journalism (IJ) is actually a specialized genre of the profession of journalism. It is where reporters deeply investigate a single topic of public interest — such as serious crimes, political corruption, or corporate wrongdoing. In recent years, probing environmental crimes, human smuggling, and sporting match fixing have joined IJ’s traditional topics.

Investigative journalists may spend months or years researching and preparing a report (or documentary). They would consult eye witnesses, subject experts and lawyers to get their story exactly right. In some cases, they would also have to withstand extreme pressures exerted by the party being probed.

This process is illustrated in the Academy award winning Hollywood movie ‘Spotlight’ (2015). It is based on The Boston Globe‘s investigative coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The movie reconstructs how a small team systematically amassed and analyzed evidence for months before going public.

Spotlight: investigative journalism at work

Spotlight: investigative journalism at work

Nosing Not Easy

Investigative journalism is not for the faint-hearted. But it epitomizes, perhaps more than anything else, the public interest value of an independent media.

The many challenges investigative journalists face was a key topic at the recent International Media Conference of the Hawaii-based East-West Center, held in New Delhi, India, from 8 to 11 September 2016.

In mature democracies, freedom of expression and media freedoms are constitutionally guaranteed and respected in practice (well, most of the time). That creates an enabling environment for whistle-blowers and journalists to probe various stories in the public interest.

Many Asian investigative journalists don’t have that luxury. They persist amidst uncaring (or repressive) governments, intimidating wielders of authority, unpredictable judicial mechanisms and unsupportive publishers. They often risk their jobs, and sometimes life and limb, in going after investigative stories.

Yet, as participants and speakers in Delhi confirmed, and those converging in Kathmandu this week will no doubt demonstrate, investigative journalism prevails. It even thrives when indefatigable journalists are backed by exceptionally courageous publishers.

Delhi conference panel: investigative journalists share experiences on how they probed Panama Papers

Delhi conference panel: investigative journalists share experiences on how they probed Panama Papers

Cross-border Probing

 As capital and information flows have become globalized, so has investigative journalism. Today, illicit money, narcotics, exotic animals and illegal immigrants crisscross political borders all the time. Journalists following such stories simply have to step beyond their own territories to get the bigger picture.

Here, international networking helps like-nosed journalists. The Delhi conference showcased the Panama Papers experience as reaffirming the value of cross-border collaboration.

Panama Papers involved a giant “leak” of more than 11.5 million financial and legal records exposing an intricate system that enables crime, corruption and wrongdoing, all hidden behind secretive offshore companies.

This biggest act of whistle blowing in history contained information on some 214,488 offshore entities. The documents had all been created by Panamanian law firm and corporate service provider Mossack-Fonseca since the 1970s.

A German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, originally received the leaked data. Because of its massive volume, it turned to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a Washington-anchored but globally distributed network of journalists from over 60 countries who collaborate in probing cross-border crimes, corruption and the accountability of power.

Coordinated by ICIJ, journalists from 107 media organizations in 80 countries analyzed the Panama Papers. They were sworn to secrecy and worked on a collective embargo. Within that framework, each one was free to pursue local angles on their own.

After more than one year of analysis and verifications, the news stories were first published on 3 April 2016 simultaneously in participating newspapers worldwide. At the same time, ICIJ also released on its website 150 documents themselves (the rest being released progressively).

Registering offshore business entities per se is not illegal in some countries. Yet, reporters sifting through the records found that some offshore companies have been used for illegal purposes like fraud, tax evasion and stashing away money looted by dictators and their cronies.

Strange Silence

 In Delhi, reporters from India, Indonesia and Malaysia described how they went after Panama leaks information connected to their countries. For example, Ritu Sarin, Executive Editor (News and Investigation) of the Indian Express said she and two dozen colleagues worked for eight months before publishing a series of exposes linking some politicians and celebrities to offshore companies.

Listening to them, I once again wondered why ICIJ’s sole contact in Sri Lanka (and his respected newspaper) never carried a single word about Panama Leaks. That, despite nearly two dozen Lankan names coming to light.

Some of our other mainstream media splashed the Lankan names associated with Panama Papers (often mixing it up with earlier Offshore Leaks), but there has been little follow-up. In this vacuum, it was left to civic media platforms like Groundviews.org and data-savvy bloggers like Yudhanjaya Wijeratne (http://icaruswept.com) to do some intelligent probing. Their efforts are salutary but inadequate.

Now, Panama Leaks have just been followed up by Bahamas Leaks on September 22. The data is available online, for any nosy professional or citizen journalist to follow up. How many will go after it?

Given Sri Lanka’s alarming journalism deficit, investigative reporting can no longer be left to those trained in the craft and their outlets.

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene blogs at http://nalakagunawardene.com, and is on Twitter as @NalakaG.