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Corruption is a crime that goes unnoticed, and often it’s only through the efforts of investigative journalists that such crimes are exposed.

Because it’s important for journalists to hone their skills and learn from their peers, Wits University last week hosted the latest edition of Power Reporting 2015 – the African Investigative Journalism Conference. Wits’ journalism programme is a member of the Global Investigative Journalism Network. The annual event brought together journalists from across Africa and well-known speakers from around the world, and Corruption Watch was there too.

The three-day conference aims to inspire and equip journalists with innovative knowledge, tools and ideas that will help with their work. “We also hope this conference will give you a new network and maybe even opportunities to collaborate,” said conference programmer Elles van Gelder.

Opening the conference, Prof Anton Harber – director of the Journalism and Media Studies Programme at Wits – said the most popular areas of interest chosen by the delegates were new models and corruption. “We need to keep in mind that corruption includes the private sector and not just the public,” he said.

Harber encouraged all delegates to learn from each other and share knowledge in common areas of interest.

Learning from the best

Jonathan Calvert, editor of UK Sunday Times’s Insight, was the keynote speaker on the first day. Calvert and his team have been at the forefront of exposing corruption at the world football governing body Fifa, which led to the downfall of senior officials, including the body’s president Sepp Blatter, currently under suspension.

“Undercover journalism can be controversial but sometimes in the public interest, you have to do it,” said Calvert. He described Fifa as a gentlemen’s club with no rules, while using examples of Insight’s work in the Fifa investigation to highlight different methods of finding information and exposing corruption. These techniques range from going undercover to get close to the key Fifa executives, to simply talking to ordinary employees of the organisation.

Calvert encouraged journalists to not be afraid to just call organisations they are investigating and talk to people. “You’ll be surprised at how much people know and how much they are willing tell you sometimes,” he said.

South African journalists Sam Sole, Ray Hartley, Stefaans Brümmer and Thanduxolo Jika made up the panel that discussed corruption within South African football. The panel was facilitated by Rob Rose, deputy editor at Financial Mail. After the US justice department indicted Fifa, it claimed that South Africa paid a substantial bribe to secure the 2010 Football World Cup. The panellists talked about their investigations into these claims and their findings, which point strongly to bribes having been paid to secure the global showpiece.

Cheryl Thompson, an investigative reporter for The Washington Post and associate professor of journalism at George Washington University, gave a number of sessions on topics such as The ABCs of a hard-hitting investigation and How to tell a story. Thompson used her own work to share ideas on how to track down the major players in a story and how to conduct confrontational interviews. She showed an interview that she conducted with an inmate who, until they met, would not reveal where he got a gun he used to kill a police officer. The interview won an Emmy award.

Other interesting sessions included Digital security: how to protect the data on your computer by Mexican investigative reporter Jorge Luis Sierra, as well as tech expert Greg Kempe’s session on How to build your own data set when nothing is available, and journalist Raymond Joseph’s session on Twitter for investigative reporters, which showed reporters how to use social media to collect, store and reuse information.

Follow the money

John Christensen, director of the Tax Justice Network and author of The Greatest Invention: Tax and the Campaign for a Just Society hosted sessions with topics such as How companies evade paying tax and Corruption and the role of bankers, accountants and lawyers. The sessions looked at uncovering illicit finance, financial secrecy, tax avoidance and asset recovery.

Christensen, a trained forensic investigator and economist, said financial investigations were not easy. “The people who know what’s going on don’t talk, and whistleblowers are very hard to come by indeed because they are targeted.” He said banks contributed to corruption as they sold secrecy to money launderers and tax evaders, using laws to market secrecy. “These are not victimless crimes – we are the victims,” he said.

An investigative reporter for the New York Times and author of Selling Apartheid, Ron Nixon took delegates through a few sessions, including one on the role of global spin masters. Nixon showed delegates how such companies spin the news and white-wash the image of corrupt politicians, and establish fake organisations to support corporations.

Staying with the money theme, Edouard Perrin, from Premières Lignes Télévision, gave the keynote talk on the third day, looking at How the world’s biggest brands avoid paying tax. Initially tasked with looking into tax havens and finding out where wealthy individuals hide their money, Perrin has exposed some of the world’s biggest brands for tax avoidance, using access to secret tax agreements.

Journalist David Crawford, based at German investigative newsroom CORRECT!V, took delegates into the corrupt lives of some of the world’s leaders. He revealed how dirty money from the US computer company Hewlett-Packard helped Russia’s dictator leader Vladimir Putin secure his power and how Putin, as a young spy in Dresden, set the stage for his unrivalled career.

Crawford encouraged journalists to be active in their work. “Go out there and find the information, find the story. Our work is active in nature, don’t be passive and wait for people to come to you.”

Asking the hard questions and revealing the truth

Bheki Makhubu, editor-in-chief of The Nation in Swaziland, delivered the fourth Carlos Cardoso Memorial Lecture, which highlighted the importance of freedom of expression for journalists. Carlos Cardoso was a Mozambican journalist who was murdered in 2000 following his investigation into corruption in the privatisation of Mozambique’s biggest bank. Previous speakers include Angolan journalist Rafael Marques de Morais (2014), Gwen Lister, founding editor of The Namibian (2013), and former IEC chairperson Pansy Tlakula (2012).

Makhubu said he never met Cardoso, but he did hear about his killing in 2000 and, like many in the media, was concerned. “Even though I couldn’t say Swaziland had come anywhere near such levels of violence against journalists, one came to fully comprehend the extent of the dangers in being a journalist in Africa,” he said.

Makhubu has had numerous run-ins with the law in his country because of the stories he has published. He was jailed in March 2014 on charges of contempt of court, following the publication of articles criticising the judicial system of Swaziland.

Reflecting on Cardoso’s life, he said: “Carlos Cardoso went to prison, fought for freedom of expression in his country and paid the ultimate price for what I consider the most basic human right next to life, liberty and dignity. I have no doubt in my mind that had he been alive today he would have been among the many journalists around world who championed my cause when I too went to prison in March last year.”

Makhubu believes the media has a duty to inform people of the truth, and encouraged journalists to continue doing that. “Am I afraid to write what I believe to be right? No, I am not. In fact, I now hold the view and believe very strongly that truth is the real liberator against tyranny.”