[Editor’s note: Last week, the Global Investigative Journalism Network, in cooperation with the Norwegian Foundation for Investigative Journalism, brought nearly 900 journalists from around the world to join the Global Investigative Journalism conference. The conference aims to facilitate networking and give journalists the skills they need to carry out their work. On the sidelines of the event in the Norwegian city of Lillehammer, GJIN Executive Director David E. Kaplan spoke to VOA Khmer about the challenges of reporting in Asia.]
What are your concerns regarding journalism in Asian countries, such as Myanmar, Malaysia, the Philippines and Cambodia? Are journalists in these countries free to work on sensitive issues? And what kind of support do they need?
We see in the Asian region the same kind of pressures that are at work around the world. After a flowering of democracy and democratic practices and spreading of the free press when the cold war ended there’s a lot of push back now, and governments are doing more surveilling. They’re doing more censoring, they're doing more crackdowns on the media.
This will have to change eventually, because if the governments want to participate in the global economy, they eventually have to open up. The free flow of information is essential to have good economic development even countries like China are understanding. That’s why the Chinese are in two minds about how they deal with media. There’s a lot of investigative reporting in China and the reason is the Chinese officials understand that they need it. They don’t want it to go too far, so they crack down from time to time, but I don’t think a watchdog news media is going away in China. In fact it’s getting stronger.
We’re seeing this same situation play out across Asia including in the Asian countries. We have so many differences. We have a really free press in the Philippines, but it’s quite dangerous for journalists outside Manila. We have martial law in Thailand. We have countries that are somewhere in the middle like Malaysia and Cambodia, where journalists are constantly testing the limit of what they can do.
But this is what we know: to compete in the global market place, increasingly officials understand that they need a watchdog news media; they need an investigative press in order to report on fraudulent businesses, to have an honest stock market, to have honest professions like doctors, lawyers, you have to have a news media that has a watchdog function.
Once you understand that lesson as much as the world has, then you have to figure out how develop an investigative press. The good news there is that we have group like GIJN and SEAPA, [the Southeast Asian Press Alliance], Philippines Center for Investigative Journalism and other organizations that support investigative journalism. These are growing and spreading worldwide. We have twice as many groups as we had just five years ago. We held our first Asian investigative journalism conference last year and we had hoped for 150 people. We got more than three hundred from 30 countries and the response was really exciting. Journalists are learning that they are not alone. They have support internationally, and that, like the stories, they can go overseas, and work with journalists all over the world in order to follow money and people and companies and governments. You can’t contain a story any more.
I was recently in Kuala Lumpur at the international anti-corruption conference. You know the prime minister there [Najib Razak] has a little problem, where the media exposed that he had US$700 million flow through his personal bank account. What I said was: In the digital age you can’t hide that sort of thing. He thinks that it would just go away. It won’t go away on the Internet. It won’t go away on social media. It won’t go away on the worldwide web. Things are really changed, and like corporations, like the police, journalists are finally learning that we need to cooperate globally. All stories are global today.
Do you think that governments understand the role of journalists, especially investigative journalists?
Well, they try to stop the coverage and they can’t. And even if the government-controlled press won’t report on it, the independent media report on it, and the media outside Malaysia is reporting on [the scandal there], and everybody in Malaysia can get access to news outside Malaysia because of the Internet, so you can’t cut yourself of from the rest of the world anymore unless you’re North Korea. And even North Korea will eventually change. So I think historically, the force is that when we are honest.
Dictatorships don’t do well economically, democracies do. I am hopeful that way. It’s going to be two steps forward, one step back. History doesn’t go in a straight line. So that you know we’ll make some advances then there will be repression and crackdowns by governments. There will be violence and intimidation. You know conditions are pretty tough out there, but we are a pretty tough profession, and the fact is that our number is growing, and we are getting better tools, we’re better trained, and we are in more places doing more reporting than ever before, so I am pretty optimistic.
I think there is a whole new generation of journalists that are digitally savvy who understand how to use the media. We need to help train them in investigative tools and techniques. We have a lot of success doing that, so I am optimistic. Look, it’s not going to work in every place but I think if countries mature as the middle classes grow, as affluence increases, people want to know what’s really going on. And the way you do that is with an independent watchdog news media.
What do you think journalist from countries in Asia should be doing in terms of reporting cross-border issues?
It’s a long list. Consumer health and safety is big. You know, where are your toys and medicine coming from? Are the products you buy in the supermarket safe? If you are importing beef or pork or chicken from other places, what’s the source? Who is doing the quality assurance on it? If you’re getting medicine from countries like India and China, how do you know it’s not counterfeit? Who checks that? Where is the record? And if you can’t get it from your country, had the company that imported also done business next door in Thailand or the Philippines. You know sometimes we can’t go through the front door because companies or government won’t give us the record, but we can go through a side door in the countries next door where they can get access. That’s another reason why integration of cross-border journalism is so important.