Laying the foundation

By Charles Lewis

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At my first international investigative reporting conference, held in Moscow in September 1992, I had an exciting epiphany that the best investigative journalism is necessarily collaborative and thus requires reporters and editors to work together. Five years later, I founded the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for the Panama Papers and numerous other awards. A few days ago the ICIJ was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for its success in building journalistic collaborations across countries and oceans to increase transparency and accountability in the world. 

My personal epiphany about the possibility of collaborative, across-border investigative reporting occurred in 1992, when I was invited to speak at an extraordinary international investigative journalism conference in Moscow — an historic event literally on the heels of the collapse of the Soviet Union and an attempted coup the preceding year. The journalist there whose global experience had the most com­pelling resonance for me was Phillip Knightley, the internationally renowned, London-based author and reporter who eloquently and indelibly stressed the paramount need for competitive, often para­noid, investigative reporters to help each other with information.

At this surreal assemblage, the Russian and Ukrainian journalists lamented the losses of their mur­dered colleagues, the Indian and British reporters recounted how they had been arrested for violating the Official Secrets Act, the South African reporter grippingly recalled seeing her sources gunned down in the street, a Colombian journalist told us how her sister had been murdered following her investiga­tive stories on the Medellin drug cartel. Meanwhile, straight-faced American journalists earnestly com­plained about the handling of their Freedom of Information Act requests. The different cultural mores and journalistic experiences were quite stunning, but the intense zeal for sunshine and truth was absolutely universal. I fully grasped that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore when late one night a shot fired through the window of a bar hit a few feet from my head, and no one found it noteworthy enough to even get up from their tables.

There had been some other international gatherings of this sort in the late 1980s, featuring such luminaries as I.F. Stone. But in this pre-Internet era, there was no formal — or even much of an infor­mal — mechanism for the kind of cooperation and collaboration that Phillip Knightley had described. What’s more, national membership service organizations, such as Investigative Reporters and Editors, were — and still largely remain — domestic-focused, and for competitive membership reasons cannot publish actual investigative reports. In other words, I realized there was a huge opportunity and public need to extend internationally the unusually collaborative, macro-subject approach to long-form inves­tigative reports internationally being practiced by the Center for Public Integrity, which I had founded in 1989 on the heels of an 11-year career at ABC News and CBS News. Of course, I had no idea exact­ly how to do it, nor could I exactly articulate to anyone what “it” was.

I wrote to the Center’s board of directors on Nov. 20, 1992, about the Moscow conference invitation and experience and, citing examples, said, “Editorially we are building relationships with investigative reporters around the world.” Also taken with the Sony Hi8 camcorder and other new video technologies, I had begun brainstorming with a former ABC News colleague, who had become CNN vice president in charge of the international network’s Special Assignment Unit, about a collab­orative relationship to do international investigative reporting using some of this new technology. That possibility later died when a philanthropic foundation flirting with awarding a multimillion-dollar grant to CNN changed its mind.

Separately, a new company called Telejour was creating Hi8 video alliances with on-the-ground radio and print reporters around the world. But the firm had little investigative reporting expertise and sensed that the Center and I, with growing ties overseas, might be able to help forge a video interna­tional investigative reporting network. Following extensive meetings with Telejour’s founder, I told my board in a status report: “We can then send someone into the Brazilian Amazon — or wherever — bring back striking, important stories and video, and through Telejour, send it out around the world.” The company, alas, was under-capitalized, and it ultimately disappeared, swallowed up by The New York Times Company.

By 1994, the Center for Public Integrity was known as a serious muckraking entity to all of the lead­ing investigative reporters in the United States and, increasingly, to their overseas counterparts. Journalists and others in a few European countries had urged the Center to open offices there and extend our unique style of investigation internationally. This was mind-opening and intriguing, but it also posed financial, bureaucratic and other challenges, including matters related to editorial quality control. I spoke about the Center and our work with journalists in France, Belarus and at an interna­tional corruption conference in Hungary that year, observing to my board of directors: “We have found that there are literally hundreds of enormously talented enterprise journalists with practically no outlet for serious writing.” That same year, the Center submitted its first international, foundation­ funding proposal for a multi-country investigation — an examination into U.S. and multilateral aid to Russia, Poland, Hungary, Kazakhstan and the Czech Republic. In the end it was unsuccessful, but I later told the board, “Undaunted, we are currently putting together another similarly ambitious venture on the international level.”

“We have found that there are literally hundreds of enormously talented enterprise journalists with practically no outlet for serious writing.”

In November 1995, I notified the board that a foundation appeared willing to give the Center a “feasibility” grant to investigate the efficacy and wisdom of opening an International Centre for Public Integrity in Paris, to investigate such issues as bank and other transnational economic crimes, environ­mental malfeasance, arms sales, child labor and so on. “Could a small 2-3 person subsidiary be opened in Paris, which could power up as needed, depending upon funding and editorial interest, allowing for a tough, credible, civil society entity to begin replicating the U.S. model, networking with hundreds of journalists abroad as a resource?” I asked. But once again, the funding fell through.

In 1996, I began talks with another vice president at CNN, this time suggesting a contractual con­sulting relationship for the Center that would help the global cable network do substantive investiga­tive stories about truly international issues, such as disappearing rain forests or economic crime. She was excited about the concept, but our talks collapsed because of the resources required for what I was proposing.

That year I also identified major donor interest in the overarching concept of organizing a “com­puter database/password-only bulletin board system incorporating the best investigative journalists in the world,” as I wrote to the board on Oct. 15. Three months later, in a follow-up message to the board, I reported: “In my travels abroad, and hours of conversation with Advisory Board member Bill Kovach, various Nieman Fellows and other journalists, I have become convinced that the Center can play a critically important convener or facilitator role to investigative journalists around the world, at practically no major expense. After literally years of fermentation, I believe we are finally positioned properly to take a significant step forward, into the international realm.”

In that same status report, the name of this new project was first announced as “The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.” By the summer of 1997, the Winston Foundation, based in Washington, DC., and the London-based Rausing Trust had given grants for this new idea. By September, Maud Beelman, a respected veteran foreign correspondent for The Associated Press and recent Patterson Fellow fresh from the wars in the former Yugoslavia, was hired as the first ICIJ direc­tor. At her desk at the Center, she set out to systematically identify the world’s premier investigative journalists, and began to painstakingly construct the unprecedented, invitation-only consortium.

From the start, Maud (and in due time her staff) faced all kinds of mind-numbing adversities, not the least of which was fostering unprecedented levels of multi-continental collaboration by disparate individuals and the naturally competitive news organizations that employed them. This historic exper­iment in investigative reporting would require enormous grit and perseverance, patience, intellectual creativity and open-minded willingness to explore, flexibility and adaptability to real-life exigencies, entrepreneurial vision and risk-taking, and full, shameless recognition that false starts and other mis­takes are an inevitable, vital part of the learning process.

Given the ambitious nature of the proposed projects, the mere act of publication would have to occur in stubborn defiance to stark, seemingly insurmountable, logistical impediments, such as com­municating, reporting, writing and editing across different languages and cultures, variable on-the­-ground editorial and ethical practices and widely divergent access to information, press freedom and libel-liability standards. Moreover, there was the realization that ICIJ would inevitably be forced to courageously, unflinchingly, confront the very real libel litigation threats prior to or following publica­tion.

And finally, blazing this amazing new trail in journalism throughout the world would not only demand substantial funding, but it would also aggressively and innovatively require utilizing the Internet as well as encryption and other dynamic, new cyberspace technologies.

Despite such monumental obstacles, in 1998 we produced the first report, the final copy approved by Center for Public Integrity editors and vetted by its lawyers, the contracted writers protected legal­ly and financially by the Center as the publisher. And that same year produced another pair of firsts: Maud and her staff organized the inaugural meeting of ICIJ, during which veteran muckraker Nate Thayer was awarded the first ICIJ Award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting, made possible by the John and Florence Newman Foundation.

That entire weekend at Harvard University was an unforgettable, seminal moment that gave me goose bumps, representing a momentous milestone after six long years of exploration and stubborn determination not to be deterred. The model worked, the concept and the fundamentals were in place, and an astonishing assemblage of talent was on board in Washington, D.C., and around the world.

The rest, as they say, is history.