Investigating Corruption: “Your Job Is to Give Them a Hard Time”

Sarawak Report editor Clare Brown sharing investigative tips with journalists conference attendees.

The key to investigating corruption is following the money, muckrakers at the Uncovering Asia 2016 conference in Nepal agreed, but how do you find the truth?

People can be “pretty good liars,” said Drew Sullivan, editor and co-founder of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), but “money is hard to hide.”

GIJN collected tips from experienced investigative journalists at the conference on following the financial trail:

Track Spending

The former governor of Indonesia’s Banten province, Ratu Atut Chosiyah, was suspended from office after media exposed her corrupt practices. How did they get the story? By tracking her credit card spending. Wahyu Dhyatmika, managing editor of Tempo, and Sullivan, advised muckrakers to look into the following:

  • shopping records from credit card companies
  • public records about officials’ assets declaration
  • audit reports on public projects
  • companies’ ownership data
  • companies that get tenders or grants
  • how is money being spent
  • what is being built
  • who people are doing business with
  • the company’s board of directors
  • mortgage data (in the U.S. journalists can find this information through Uniform Commercial Code filings)

Collect Records and Create Databases

Take advantage of available records and use them to create a database. Karol Ilagan, senior content producer of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, says their practice now is to collect all forms of documents and digitize them. PCIJ once spent up to 6 hours a day at a government office for 3 months to collect public records. These eventually helped break the story of former president Joseph Estrada’s corruption, which led to his impeachment.

Data can be uploaded  to OCCRP’s Investigative Dashboard and visualized to help find connections between entities. “Instead of collecting data just for a specific story, collect large amounts of data that can be relevant to any story, such as company registration records, land records, and regulatory filings in industries you are interested in,” Sullivan said.

Develop a Good Reputation

Keep asking questions so that people know who to find if they have stories that might interest you. “If you make yourself visible enough, [sources] will know how to contact you,” Dhyatmika said.

Understand the System of Bribery and Corruption

“Figure out the system, how people make money and how people are bribed,” Sullivan said. Understand how businesses are supposed to work and how it works in the real world – and in between those two are the stories, he added.

Dealing with Legal Threats

The best defense is good and accurate information. To protect yourself from a run-in with the law, Ilagan suggests to:

  • have multiple sources
  • adopt the discipline of verification
  • go to the field and see the situation for yourself
  • seek expert and legal advice to understand complicated issues

Looking for Sources

Find people with access to information or documents; who have a motive to tell stories or expose scandals; and who have “quality” information, not hearsay. Good sources might include:

  • failed business partners
  • dissatisfied workers
  • NGOs/civil society organizations
  • opposition parties
  • law enforcement agencies

Also, don’t forget to protect your sources. “Sometimes journalists get sloppy with the way we contact our sources,” Dhyatmika said. “We need to take precautions to protect our sources from the beginning of our communication with them, including how we contact them and when and where to meet them,” she added.

Remember Your Audience

A journalist’s duty is to represent the public and to hold people in power accountable, the panelists stressed. “If things aren’t right, ask why, keep probing, nail the lies. Look at everyone involved in the case,” said Clare Brown, editor at Sarawak Report.

“Which accountants were approving these accounts? Why were reputable companies doing these (questionable) million dollar deals?” Brown said journalists should not be deferential to those in power. “Your job is to give them a hard time,” she insisted.

See 25 extra tips for everyday digging from Bruno Ingemann, editor-in-chief of Jysk Fynske Medier and board member of Investigative Reporting Denmark (IRD) and Nils Mulvad of IRD and co-founder of GIJN.


imag8715-copyEunice Au is GIJN’s program assistant. She was previously a journalist in Malaysia for eight years and has written on a range of topics, including politics, crime, environment, terrorism, and entertainment. From 2011 to 2015, she worked for the New Straits Times. Her last position before joining GIJN was as Malaysia correspondent for Singapore’s The Straits Times.

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