Friday, March 9, 2012
Interview with Diana Jean Schemo, Executive Editor of 100 Reporters
We’ve had the pleasure to speak with Diana Jean Schemo, Executive Editor of 100 Reporters.
100 Reporters is a revolutionary news organisation. Established in 2011, 100 Reporters bring together a network of corruption experts from around the world, with the mission of using the power of the pen to hold government and business accountable. “Our goal is to embrace technology’s potential to build new forms of journalism around a towering, intractable global issue. We’re planning to train citizens–the first victims of graft and cronyism–to expose the corruption around them, and to bring these citizens into the reporting of stories wherever possible.” (100r.org)
Planning for 100Reporters actually preceded the events kicked off by the Arab Spring in January 2011, but as it turned out, that explosion of yearning for transparency in government exactly matched our conviction. We see corruption as a kind of mould or rot at the very foundation of a state, one that contaminates the relationship of citizens to their government, deprives nations of any return on their (often immense) natural resources, and dooms even the best-intentioned development efforts. Worst of all, it mocks the best instincts in a people.
Our goal from the start was to bring to bear some of the world’s finest reporters to expose corruption and cover government accountability and transparency. We also hoped to raise the bar on citizen-driven journalism through a robust collaboration between citizen watchdogs and professional journalists.
We started with an effort at crowdsourcing. Prior to our launch in late October 2011, we ran a debut feature called KleptoWatch, built around the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly in mid-September. For the feature, we asked readers to keep their eyes open and their cellphones charged, and to contribute photos and other evidence of visiting diplomats and other government officials living large while inNew Yorkat the expense of taxpayers back home. We gathered pictures and information about officials eschewing their country’s diplomatic missions, where they could have stayed free of charge, for fancy hotels. (The president ofRwanda, e.g., stayed in the presidential suite at the super-posh Mandarin Oriental hotel at $16,000 a night—a sum the average Rwandan must work 15 years to earn.) We got pictures ofMorocco’s delegation tooling around town in a Bentley—a car with a base sticker price topping $200,000.
Since then, we have worked hand-in-hand with citizen reporters and professional reporters in the developing world, whose first language is not English, to nail down stories according to professional standards and to shape the stories into highly readable prose. These stories appear on our site, and are distributed through the Investigative News Network and Thomson Reuters to a select group of Reuters subscribers.
For the first time in history, oceans of data are freely available that could bring real accountability to public life. Citizens can find information on the illicit outflow of resources, on development projects that are paid for but never materialize, on tax havens and on the outsized influence of campaign donations on government policy.
It is a tragic irony that the same technology that is making this information available has also threatened the viability of traditional news organizations to report on its significance and make sense of it for readers. That is where organizations like ours, that welcome citizen input through crowdsourcing and other mechanisms and that rely on a network of accomplished correspondents throughout the world, can play a crucial role.
We have taken precautions to protect our site. We’ve just recently faced a sustained attack that ran for 12 hours, according to our Web master, but did not succeed in bringing us down. (Cold comfort: We’re told the attack is good in a way, sign of a rising profile. Guess there’s a certain logic to that.)
We also benefit from generous pro bono legal services from Arnold & Porter, a top law firm inWashington,D.C., whose partners have embraced our mission and are prepared to defend our right to print the truth.
From well before our launch, we realized that people who were determined to challenge corruption would risk dire repercussions in much of the world. We built Whistleblower Alley to offer them some measure of protection. Whistleblower Alley is a secure portal that uses a variety of methods, including continuous encryption and double lock sets (similar to the two keys needed to open a safety deposit box) to protect sources. Provided the sending computer is not compromised at its source, messages sent to us will enjoy a high degree of protection—something that few mainstream news outlets currently offer. (Seehttp://www.cjr.org/the_news_frontier/tell_me_a_secret.php) People have used the portal to pass on tips to us, and they may also use it to send documents.
The most effective challenge to corruption is coming from quarters long considered no threat at all: the masses of Egyptians, Tunisians, Bahrainis and other ordinary citizens throughout the Arab world, for example, who rose up in part as a response to corruption and a culture of impunity; the crowds that turned out in Russia’s cities sub-zero weather to call out Vladimir Putin and a culture of opacity.
Blinding anger may go far, but arming people with facts is the most crucial element for constructively facing down corruption. Lacking that, nations end up trading one brand of kleptocrats and fraudsters for another. Knowledge–of how crooked leaders use proxies to set up shadow companies, how they funnel illicit bribes offshore and what their larceny costs their countrymen—may represent the only hope for preventing an endless repetition of the same sorry cycle.
In the United States and Europe, we see the same phenomenon. Regulatory agencies that have long looked the other way when it came to bribery overseas are now prosecuting such cases with vigor. In theUnited Statesalone, the Justice Department is investigating some 80 potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Through Dodd-Frank and a similar initiative in Europe, we may well see the beginnings of transparency extend to oil companies and other industries that extract natural resources—long a haven for bribery on a scale unimaginable to most citizens.
Perhaps this is what the French call “une deformation professionnel,” but the urgent priority to me lies in giving people the news they need to become effective advocates for improving government. This has become ever more critical in this unprecedented moment in history, in which we are seeing the first real global mobilization for public accountability
a. At the top of anyone’s list, I’d imagine, must stand WikiLeaks. Wherever one stands on the merits of unauthorized leaks, the impact of WikiLeaks is undeniable. The site has single-handedly broken government’s relative monopoly on the release of information. Whistleblowers have traditionally been cultivated in one-on-one relationships between reporter and source, developed over time. WikiLeaks turned that relationship on its head, and took whistleblowing wholesale.
b. Rospil—the Russian-language site of Alexei Navalny, who publishes public tenders that appear suspicious, and invites a stable of WikiExperts to weigh in on the terms. Through this, for example, he discovered that a particular road’s cost was so exorbitant it could have been paved four inches thick with Louis Vuitton handbags.
c. Investigative Dashboard, a project of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. The dashboard is a site that allows journalists and citizens to research corporate records around the world.
d. Video Volunteers, a nonprofit working inGoa,India. The organization gives poor people flip video camera, trains them in video techniques, and then turns them loose on villages. Their reports highlight a side ofIndiaand issues of grass roots corruption seldom explored mainstream news outlets;
e. Sahara Reporters, which has become a hub for citizen reports on corruption and other issues in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous state and one deeply plagued by corruption.