Supporting investigative journalism
Why support investigative journalism?
Because it deserves support and because it needs support.
In the legislative division of labour it is the duty of investigation and authority bodies to reveal corruption and fraud activities. On many occasions, however, it was investigative journalism that shed light on large-scale corruption cases. This may have numerous reasons. An informant might rather give information anonymously to a journalist he/she trusts; an issue might be easier to investigate through the means of investigative journalism, or it is also not implausible to assume that authorities might be under political control or affected by political stakeholders whose interest would dictate not to reveal such cases. The sphere of politics, public administration and authority is under public supervision, an inevitable part of which is investigative journalism.
The case is the same with the European Union. Corruption cases expanding beyond state borders are easy to lose track of among national authorities that function within borders. The anti-fraud office of the Union, OLAF, is often criticized for its limited scope of effect as well as for lacking reassuring political neutrality. OLAF functions as one of the Directorate Generals of the European Union. It is problematic firstly because it is within the scope of OLAF to investigate corruption cases that are related to the European Commission and secondly because even if an investigation authority does not belong to a political body whose members relate to the political sphere in their country of origin in a thousand ways, it is still not a good idea for such an authority to conduct investigations only in member states and on corruption and fraud cases exclusively related to jeopardizing the resources of the European Union. The best place for OLAF would be under the scope of the long-planned establishment of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. The communication of the Commission on setting up the European Public Prosecutor’s Office was negotiated and approved by the European Parliament; however, the case is now stalled by the Council because of the oppression coming from certain member states, amongst them the Hungarian government, in defence of their sovereignty, which can be interpreted as the objection of the idea of an investigation authority over which they have no political control.
Numerous precedents from the recent past underscore the effectiveness of investigative journalism in revealing corruption cases. For example, in Luxembourg, investigative journalists revealed how the government contributed to helping multinational companies in evading taxes at the expenses of other member states. (See, for example: http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/nov/05/-sp-luxembourg-tax-files-tax-avoidance-industrial-scale). One of the greatest scandals of the previous parliamentary term was also revealed by investigative journalists: a group of journalists disguised as lobbyists convinced several members of the European Parliament to table previously prepared amendments, among them ones that undermined consumer protection, in exchange for money. (http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/insight/article582604.ece).
Investigative journalism, however, is the most expensive, time- and resource-consuming genre of journalism. The reorganization that took effect on the media market in the last 1.5-2 decades does not benefit this genre. In 2012, upon the initiation of the European Parliament and among others, of my fellow Green colleague, Bart Staes, a comprehensive study was made concerning the situation of investigative journalism in the Member States of the European Union. The essay “Deterrence of fraud with EU funds through investigative journalism” clearly underlines the value of investigative journalism in revealing and preventing corruption in addition to giving a detailed and factual analysis on the ever more difficult situation of the genre in the newly reformed structure of the media market. (http://www.europarl.europa.eu/document/activities/cont/201210/20121002ATT52809/20121002ATT52809EN.pdf). In 2013, the High level group on media freedom and pluralism, set up by the Commission, also concluded that above market resources, the financing of investigative journalism needed other sources of financial support as well. (http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/media_taskforce/doc/pluralism/hlg/hlg_final_report.pdf).
Is it possible to bring a political decision on financing journalists, who occasionally investigate politicians and political institutions, from public money?
Financing investigative journalism from public resources might seem contradictory at first. What if supported journalists develop a sense of loyalty and commitment towards the political actors who made the decision on supporting them? Can they preserve their independence and integrity if one of the sources financing investigative journalism will be public money?
These are justified questions, but they can be answered. In short we could say that the distance between the decision-makers or institutions allocating financial resources and journalists and editors should be preserved. This could be achieved by establishing an intermediate player between the two sides, and instead of journalist, this intermediate actor would be the body responsible to keep contact with the relevant political institution. Financial support should be arranged within the framework of open grants with laying down the condition that winners should be selected by the intermediate actor or a jury set up by the intermediate actor, whereby the content of grants – i.e. the subject of investigations suggested by applying journalists – shall remain undisclosed for the political and administrative bodies.
There are several valid examples to show for such solutions. (One of the main supporters of Journalismfund.eu, a website created to give financial support for investigative journalists, is the Flemish government: http://www.journalismfund.eu/funding-0).
2009: The European Parliament proposes the introduction of a grant support system for investigative journalists
In 2009, upon the proposal of Anne E. Jensen, a Danish MEP from the Liberals, Helga Trüpel, a German MEP from the Greens-EFA and Ivo Belet, a Belgian MEP from the European People’s Party, the European Parliament decided to initiate a support program for cross-border investigative journalism and investigative journalism affecting the Union as a whole, with a budget of 1.5 million Euros per year. This item made it to the budgetary plan of the European Union for the following year. What the Parliament had in mind was an intermediate and independent body that would be responsible for the evaluation of grant applications.
In 2010, the first call for grant proposals was issued; however, the Commission soon withdrew the call because it did not see how the requirements on the use of public resources laid down in the Financial Regulation could be met, once the support moneys were managed by an entirely independent body. The withdrawn grant-call was followed by a procurement to conduct a feasibility study, given that the ongoing amendment of the Financial Regulation provided an opportunity to realize support system according to the original plans.
However, to this day, nothing has been realized from the grant system.
2014: The budget-line for supporting investigative journalism and which stayed untouched in the budgetary plan up until 2010, is ruled out of the 2015 budgetary plan of the European Union.
At the beginning of my mandate, together with some of my colleagues, we realized that the instrument for financial support, which had previously been the part of the budgetary plan for four years, was taken out from the 2015 budgetary plan. Back then, we did not see the exact purpose behind this. Together with my colleague in the fraction and one of the initiators of the project, Helga Trüpel, and with the member of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left, Dennis de Jong, we issued an amendment proposal on reintroducing the budget-line; however, the amendment did not go through. We were already too late upon finding out about these developments to have the Commission give its opinion on the feasibility of our proposal on the budgetary plan; therefore, it could not be introduced among the compromise amendments supported by all groups. It was at this point that together with my team and colleagues we decided to find out what had happened with the parliamentary proposal in the previous four years, why and how it sank without any result.
The Commission’s effort to cut off the parliamentary initiative by means of administrative obstruction
After few months’ of investigation the picture that had been outlining before our eyes, became surreal. In order to realize the decision of the Parliament, the Commission first initiated a “pilot project” in 2010, which failed at an early stage due to difficulties mentioned above in connection with financial regulations. Following this and an eventless 2011, a preparatory measure replaced the sleeping pilot project in 2012. This meant that the Commission assigned 250 thousand Euros to a consultancy firm (one of the long-trusted partners of the Commission) to write a feasibility study on the Parliament’s initiative. This study had probably been made in 2013, which we assume, because the Commission started referring to it in October, 2013, although to this day, nothing has been published. In 2013, when communicating its opinion on the 2014 budgetary plan, the Commission wrote that it would not be able to carry on with the preparatory measures because of the chaos they expected in 2014 in connection with the assignment of the new Commissioners, not to mention that according to the unpublished, mysterious feasibility study the project would have been too expensive. It came almost automatically that the budget-line then was left out from the budgetary plan of 2015: if a preparatory measure have been running for three years, it cannot go further. The question lingers, however, whether this applies to projects originally initiated by the Parliament, which did not run even for a minute, let alone three years. The details of the case are described in a comprehensive English article written by one of my colleagues: http://english.atlatszo.hu/2014/11/12/parliament-proposed-grant-scheme-for-investigative-journalism-lost-in-the-maze-of-commission-administration/
The publicity of the feasibility study
As the article written by my colleague explains, in October I was going to try to gain access to the feasibility study from the Director General of DG COMM, Gregory Paulger, who is responsible for the project (at first, it was not him who we contacted, but it seemed that his colleagues found it better to hand our childishly simple questions over to their boss, which clearly indicates that cutting off the project is a matter of carrying out a political order rather than being a technical issue). Our correspondence is described in great detail by my colleague.
The Commission is bound by law to publish the study and it is absurd, no matter what, that we are unable to gain access to a study the Commission had been referring to for over one and a half years, when it comes to them having to explain why they are not acting in order to realize a project initiated by the European Parliament. In October, 2014 all the response I received from the Director General was that he would send a link whenever the study was published. Three months have passed since then, but I have not received anything.
In 2016 we will try again
Despite not being able to reintroduce the budget-line of the program to the 2015 budgetary plan, we are not giving up on our aim to carry out the project. Either on the basis of the feasibility study, if it is published until then, or without it, we are going to find a way to initiate the introduction of the program during the preparation of the 2016 budgetary plan. I will share all the developments on this website.
Photo source: advancingthestory.com
This post is also available in: Hungarian