In November 2020 the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC) released “Unsafe for Scrutiny,” a report about the threats faced by journalists investigating the financial misconduct that lets ‘dirty money’ flow through the world’s most powerful banks. As Spencer Woodman detailed in an article for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the report reveals that global elites have been abusing their intimidating legal and financial powers by targeting reporters with defamation lawsuits, “cease and desist” letters, social media smear campaigns, trolling, verbal harassment, and even occasionally physical violence. Yet, as Woodman underscored, the report concluded that legal threats “are chief among the types of harassment facing journalists conducting financial investigations.” The harassment faced by investigative journalists looking into financial crimes has a chilling effect on reporting about corruption and, ultimately, infringes the public’s right to know about the money laundering, bribery, theft of public funds, and other illicit acts carried out (or facilitated) by wealthy banks, government officials, and corporate leaders.
Sponsored in part by the Justice for Journalists Foundation, the FPC’s study was based on a survey of investigative reporters from all around the world, many of whom had worked on cross-border financial crime investigations such as the multi-year investigations into the financial records leaked in the Panama Papers or the FinCEN Files. Responses from 63 investigative journalists working in 41 countries indicated that a vast majority had faced threats and harassment during their investigations into financial crimes. Susan Coughtrie, project director at the Foreign Policy Centre, told Woodman that the large-scale transnational investigations conducted by these reporters exposed “explosive insights into how political and business elites, as well as organised crime groups, all over the world get away with financial crime and corruption.”
The report found that wealthy individuals and corporations involved in financial corruption often resort to legal action against underfunded investigative journalists as a tactic to thwart their research into corruption. These frivolous suits, known as “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” or SLAPPs, are said to “create a similar chilling effect on media freedom to more overt violence or attack,” according to the FPC’s study. More than 70 percent of respondents to the FPC survey reported being subjected to threats of legal action against them. The report also noted that these legal threats are often communicated in secret, in letters from lawyers marked “private and confidential” intended to intimidate journalists into shielding the action from public view. One journalist working full-time in Africa who responded to the survey explained that “[t]hreats of legal action, especially in the UK[,] where court processes themselves are often prohibitively expensive, has forced me to be increasingly vigilant in terms of sustaining the facts and claims in a story.”
According to Woodman, the United Kingdom, with its plaintiff-friendly defamation laws, “was, by far, the most frequent country of origin for legal threats, FPC found.” Unlike Canada, Australia, and certain US states, the United Kingdom has not passed anti-SLAPP legislation, making its courts an attractive venue for elites seeking to use the law to bully journalists into silence.
In a May 8, 2021 column in the Guardian that mentioned the FPC report, Nick Cohen discussed how the United Kingdom’s costly court system has turned it into “the censorship capital of the democratic world.” As evidence, he pointed to the case of a former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, Catherine Belton. In April 2020, Belton published Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West, a book that traces how Vladimir Putin and his inner circle consolidated their grip on political power in Moscow and looted much of the country’s wealth in the process. As Cohen explained, in response, a host of Putin’s super-wealthy associates are now bombarding Belton with one lawsuit after another. According to Cohen, “Rosneft, the Kremlin-dominated oil producer (market capitalisation circa $75bn) whose chief executive, president and chairman, Igor Sechin, began his rise to power as Vladimir Putin’s secretary in the 1990s, has lodged an action for libel.” Belton is likewise being sued by Roman Abramovich, the billionaire owner of Chelsea Football Club, for what he claims are “false and defamatory” statements in the book. The owner of Russia’s largest private bank, Mikhail Fridman, and at least two other Russian oligarchs are also bringing libel suits against Belton over Putin’s People.
The Foreign Policy Centre report additionally found that the intimidation and harassment faced by investigative journalists like Belton often goes well beyond lawsuits or legal threats. As Woodman explained in his article on the study, “60% of respondents working in sub-Saharan Africa [. . .] and 50% of respondents from North Africa and the Middle East region reported threats of physical attack.” Moreover, the report revealed that a significant number of financial corruption reporters have experienced on- and off-line surveillance, hacking of their social media accounts, questioning by authorities, denial of journalistic credentials, and blacklisting.
Tragically, powerful individuals being investigated for corruption have sometimes turned to murder to prevent further probing into their illicit acts. The fatal October 16, 2017 car bombing of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a journalist who reported on the Panama Papers and corruption in Malta, struck fear into the hearts of many journalists working to expose rampant financial misconduct. In February 2018, Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak, who was investigating tax fraud and embezzlement among Slovak businessmen, was shot to death in a village not far from Bratislava, a city in which he’d recently investigated suspicious real estate transactions. According to FPC’s report, an additional thirty reporters from Brazil, Russia, India, Ukraine, Mexico, and other countries who were researching financial corruption have been murdered since 2017.
While a number of larger corporate news outlets such as the BBC, BuzzFeed, Reuters, and the Wall Street Journal have publicized the findings of investigative journalists digging into wrongdoing by the world’s most powerful banks and wealthy individuals, virtually no corporate media attention has been given to the threats faced by journalists doing the digging. In addition to Woodman’s ICIJ article and Cohen’s column, the “Unsafe for Scrutiny” report was the focus of a November 2, 2020 article in the Guardian and a brief November 6, 2020 report on Voice of America. OpenDemocracy, the UK-based independent, nonprofit news site, also published a short commentary on the report. To date, however, no major commercial newspaper or broadcast outlet in the United States has so much as mentioned the FPC’s report.
Threats to journalists are not only detrimental to individual reporters, they also undermine freedom of the press and jeopardize the health of democratic polities that rely on that freedom to keep corruption from spreading like wildfire. This story deserves far more attention than it has received.
Spencer Woodman, “Threats, Violence, Trolling, and Frivolous Lawsuits Used to Silence Journalists Investigating Financial Crimes, Survey Finds,” International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, November 2, 2020.
Michael W. Hudson, Dean Starkman, Simon Bowers et al., “Global Banks Defy U.S. Crackdowns by Serving Oligarchs, Criminals and Terrorists,” International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, September 20, 2020, updated December 22, 2020.
Nick Cohen, “Are Our Courts a Playground for Bullies? Just Ask Catherine Belton,” The Guardian, May 8, 2021.
Student Researcher: Zach McNanna (North Central College)
Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)
Illustration by Anson Stevens-Bollen.