The panel discussion on investigations to save democracy at GIJC23 with (left-to-right) Vinod K. Jose, David K Johnston, Lina Attalah, and Sheila Coronel. Image: Wolf France for GIJN
Can investigative journalism actually save democracies?
The consensus answer from experts is yes — and that the effort to do so is more important than ever, with democracy globally at its lowest point this century as “elected autocrats” forge alliances with oligarchs, far-right gangs, corrupt funders, and disinformation networks.
As one attendee noted to Sheila Coronel — who moderated a panel on “Investigations to Save Democracy” at the 13th Global Investigative Journalism Conference (#GIJC23) in Sweden — collaborating newsrooms effectively saved South Africa’s democracy in 2018 by exposing a vast “state capture” corruption scheme with their #GuptaLeaks series, which won a Global Shining Light Award in 2019.
Coronel herself helped to give the Philippines a fighting chance at preserving democratic accountability and human rights by co-founding the highly impactful nonprofit Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in 1989.
Meanwhile, many independent newsrooms working in backsliding democracies risk imprisonment or assault today simply to give their societies a chance at democracy in the future — like the nonprofit investigative newsrooms in Serbia, who told GIJN that all they can hope to achieve in their increasingly authoritarian nation is to document evidence of rights abuses for future institutions to judge.
In general, investigative journalists preserve the health of democracies through a fundamental watchdog role that goes far beyond horse-race political reporting, by shining a light on judicial independence, rule-breaking, marginalized groups, and the hidden forces behind elections.
But experts on the conference panel suggested that reporters should look deeper still — at what they called “termites” quietly eroding the foundations of democratic systems.
The panel featured three editors who have battled autocracy for many years: Lina Attalah, co-founder and chief editor of Egypt’s independent Mada Masr newsroom, Vinod K. Jose, former executive editor of India’s leading longform news magazine, The Caravan, and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Cay Johnston, who has written three books on the former US President Donald Trump and the erosion of democratic institutions in the US.
Attalah said it’s important for journalists in authoritarian nations to investigate cases of political corruption and abuses of power, even when they know there is no hope of impact thanks to the subject’s connections or the weakness of institutions.
“Being proactive and documenting evidence is very important — that’s been a key role for investigative journalism in Egypt,” she said, adding that persistent digging builds a historical record and could lead to future accountability. “Put the facts to the conscience of the people.”
Some of the world’s largest democracies are threatened by populist politics and either minority rule or its opposite: extreme majoritarian rule, in which the rights of minority groups are crushed by nationalist ruling parties.
“How do you ensure minority rule? By making it harder for majority supporters to register to vote or easier to disregard their ballots. By appointing people to unsexy but strategically important administrative positions. By controlling the way political districts are designed,” Johnston explained.
“They’re often not sexy stories, but investigative reporters need to pay attention to every one of these moves.
“We need to be looking for — and putting in context — the political termites who are eating away at the political system” Johnston added. “Because, in our homes, we don’t think about termites until there’s some physical damage — a wall collapses or something goes wrong. And we should be looking for local termites, and those that involve foreign governments, and putting them into larger context.”
He added: “For instance, American news media did just a terrible job of reporting on Russian interference in the 2016 elections, where there was absolutely clear proof that the Russians were deeply involved.”
He said ‘termites’ could also include laws that masquerade as common sense or uncontroversial provisions, but which have either unwitting or deliberate anti-democratic outcomes.
“Don’t ever write about a law you haven’t read,” Johnston insisted. “Do not listen to the people who say ‘This is what this law does.’ Go find law professors and say, ‘What does this language mean? What are the lawmakers doing here?’ And you’ll often find laws that claim to benefit democracy do the exact opposite.”
For Jose, quiet damage done to the political system in India — whose claim to democracy is in increasing peril — can be traced to the consistent influence and strategic background moves of a far-right Hindu nationalist organization founded in 1925 and dedicated to preventing pluralist rights. In 2019, India passed a law that allows citizenship for migrants of various undocumented religious minorities, but excludes Muslims.
He said another unnoticed cancer was the influence of a prominent ideological advisor to the Russian Kremlin who also advised far-right groups in India in the 1990s on how to suppress dissent and minority rights.
Jose said yet another factor eroding democracy was the normalization of extreme actions and rhetoric by elected governments, based on the fact that other governments have gotten away with similar behavior.
“Just in the last few days, we see a huge diplomatic tussle where the Canadian prime minister has said that Indian agencies were behind the killing of a Sikh activist — a Canadian citizen — inside Canada, which India denied,” said Jose. “If true, the audacity of this operation and breach of sovereignty is certainly stunning, but I don’t think anything remotely like this would have happened 10, 15 years ago. It speaks to the kind of confidence that these elected autocratic leaders get from watching each other do bad things, and survive.”