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Free Press Essential Tool to Expose Corruption

No country is immune from corruption. The United States has had its share of corporate and political corruption scandals in recent years. In most cases, an aggressive free press played a critical role in bringing the wrongdoing to the public's attention.

His name is Duke Cunningham. He was once an influential member of Congress, but no more.

Cunningham, a Republican from California and a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, pleaded guilty last year to bribery charges and resigned from Congress.

Prosecutors said Cunningham arranged for a defense company to get government contracts in exchange for millions of dollars in cash, valuable antiques and other gifts.

"The truth is, I broke the law, concealed my conduct and disgraced my office," said Cunningham. "I know that I will forfeit my freedom, my reputation, my worldly possessions, most importantly, the trust of my friends and family."

Like many previous congressional corruption scandals, the Cunningham case came to light through the efforts of an aggressive free press.

Cunningham's contacts with the defense contractor were documented by the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Copley News Service.

Wendell Rawls heads the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based group committed to investigative journalism in the public interest.

"The best thing that you can do is have investigative reporters who continue to alert the people," he said. "You have to shine lights in the corners and expose those who are trying to cut corners and those who are trying to skirt the law and you have to make government accountable at every level."

Reporters around the world have vigorously pursued corruption stories, often at the risk of being killed or going to jail. In Kenya, scandals exposed by the news media challenged the government's anti-corruption pledges. South Africa's deputy president Jacob Zuma was forced from office after evidence gathered by the news media led to his financial adviser being convicted of fraud. And in Brazil, journalists uncovered a cash-for-votes scheme in congress that forced the resignation of several ruling party officials.

Free press advocates say journalists have a crucial role to play in a democratic system that relies on checks and balances among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

"Well, the press is like a fourth branch of government and what it does is that it watches the other three and makes sure that they are not doing things that they should not do, and it exposes those things and shares them with the people so that the public can decide if they think something is wrong," explained Tom Rosenstiel, who directs the Project for Excellence In Journalism in Washington. "There is a famous analogy that the press is like a spotlight that shines light in dark places."

The Duke Cunningham case is the latest in a series of congressional scandals in recent years, though the scale of his bribery scheme was much larger than most.

Free press advocates point out that journalists also play a key role in detecting political corruption, such as the Watergate scandal of the 1970s that forced President Richard Nixon from office.

"So the press is an essential part of a free government, a democratic government," added Tom Rosenstiel. "You cannot really have democracy without a free press. There is a very famous set of quotes from Thomas Jefferson that says, 'If I had to choose between democratic government without a free press or just a free press, I would just choose the press.'"

For their work on the Duke Cunningham story, the San Diego-Union Tribune and Copley News Service were awarded the Pulitizer Prize, widely considered the top honor in American journalism.