A journalist in Zimbabwe, researching a story with ties to Sweden, needed to contact an investigative reporter in that Scandinavian country, though he knew no one there. In Montreal, a French-speaking reporter, working on an article about corporate sleuths, was seeking help from a U.S. colleague versed in “competitive intelligence.” An American correspondent, meanwhile, wanted to know about international databases that might have material for an investigative piece.
The ties that bind these journalists are in cyberspace. Each posted notes on different journalism listservs—electronic mailing lists geared to specific groups—in hopes that someone reading their message could help.
Journalists have generally not been the quickest to grasp the full range of opportunities offered by the new information age. And with United States dominance in cyberspace technology, it is not surprising that international journalists lag behind their American counterparts. But increasingly, the Internet (E-mail, listservs, Web sites) is becoming a means by which journalists around the world network and collaborate and, with relatively little effort, increase their knowledge base (skepticism about the accuracy of Internet content notwithstanding).
As I write, for example, a freedom-of-information listserv posting has just arrived. On this particular day it reveals a little-known part of the Food and Drug Administration’s Web site that identifies troublesome manufacturers. A different posting advises that Nigerian journalists are fighting a proposed section of the draft constitution that will inhibit freedom of expression. Yet another announces the availability of an English-language edition of the Hungarian journal Replika. Each time, their postings provide an invaluable potpourri of helpful hints and useful information for journalists.
Beyond offering specialized discussion, listservs direct their members to Web sites packed with information about subjects they are trying to learn more about, such as the Asian studies virtual library site constructed by Australia’s National University in Canberra, or to sites such as ProfNet, which boasts of being “the shortest distance between a journalist and a source.” (On it, one can post questions and someone with expertise in that area is likely to respond to them.) And there are ever-growing numbers of Web sites dedicated to special reporting needs, such as science or human rights. Even some of the world’s more obscure newspapers, in Bhutan or Vanuatu, now have on-line editions.
The accessibility and breadth of such simple-to-use border-spanning technology have also given birth to new working alliances that were previously impossible. For example, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has formed as a network of leading investigative reporters to work on cross-border investigative projects. ICIJ is a project of the Center for Public Integrity, which is a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., that is well-known for its detailed investigations of corruption and money in politics. ICIJ was launched in late 1997 at a time when the steady spread of Internet use and the dissolution of Cold War barriers had reduced considerably the limitations of doing major investigative projects outside the confines of national borders.
ICIJ conducts most of its business via E-mail and through its Web site. Members from 31 countries met for the first time last November at a three-day conference sponsored by the Nieman Foundation. (Nieman Curator Bill Kovach is Chairman of ICIJ’s Advisory Committee and a member of the Center’s Advisory Board.) The gathering focused on old-fashioned brainstorming for future projects, as well as on learning more about sophisticated technology to aid their efforts. Patrick Ball, an electronic security specialist from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, explained how journalists could use E-mail encryption software to keep their cyberspace correspondence private and secure. This software can be downloaded free of charge from an Internet site. Human rights groups around the world, which have a vital need to protect information and sources, are already using the E-mail encryption.
Knowing about various national laws is essential, however. A half-dozen or so countries, including Israel, Russia and China, have strong domestic controls on the use of cryptography and penalties for violating them. (France announced in January that it was dropping its long-held restrictions.) United States law, for example, prohibits the export of the kind of strong cryptography that is used in this country, even though the same level of encryption is already available overseas.
Other high-tech options available to journalists worldwide include satellite imagery. Christopher Simpson, the Director of American University’s Project on Satellite Imagery and the News Media in Washington, D.C. [See Simpson’s accompanying article], explained how relatively high-resolution satellite imagery can be downloaded from the Internet and used to assist in reporting. Investigations in which such imagery could be useful include analyzing the impact of mass deforestation in Central America and its role in the flooding and landslides that accompanied Hurricane Mitch, or tracking mass refugee movements or confirming military claims of battlefield successes.
Although most international journalists still work at the low end of the high-tech spectrum, there are a few stunning examples of how adventuresome reporters have made the new technology work for them. In late 1996, Yugoslav authorities shut down the state-owned transmitter of the country’s popular independent radio station B92, which was reporting on street protests that followed the annulment of municipal elections won by the opposition. B92, which had several of the same Web sites on servers in the United States and the Netherlands, moved its broadcasts onto the Internet. Using regular phone lines, B92 posted written news accounts of the protests along with sound clips on its Web site. The BBC then picked up the audio from the site and rebroadcast it to Yugoslavia. Shutting down B92 at that point would have required the government to disable the country’s phone grid.
“The number of Internet users in Serbia is not that big, but the number of radio users is,” explained Dragan Cicic, a former B92 reporter and ICIJ member. “As soon as it became clear that there was no sense in shutting off the [B92] transmitter, the government repaired it.”
The Internet’s ability to circumvent government censorship has not gone unnoticed or unchallenged. In China, a 30-year-old computer engineer was sentenced in January to two years in jail for alleged subversion for providing 30,000 Chinese E-mail addresses to an on-line publication run by Chinese dissidents in the United States. Similar prosecutions have been reported in Bahrain, Malaysia and Turkey.
Human Rights Watch estimates that Internet access providers in half a dozen countries use filtering technologies and voluntary measures “to make prior censorship of on-line communications a reality.” This happens because in these countries the Internet service providers are either state-owned or required to have licenses issued by the state and, as such, might be required to use such filters. In its 1999 report about freedom of expression on the Internet, Human Rights Watch warned, “The trend is towards extending these technologies more broadly, with global implications for free expression.” Britain, for example, has urged European countries to adopt an E-mail interception system that would allow unconditional government access to E-mails on the grounds that it is necessary to fight cross-border crime, the HRW report said.
Totally blocking Internet access in a given country is like trying to attack a moving target. And Internet use is growing exponentially. The current boom areas are Asia-Pacific and Latin America, said Jagdish Parikh, an on-line research associate for Human Rights Watch. Trailing behind are the Middle East and Africa, where in most nations telephone lines are scarce and costly, and dial-up access charges are prohibitively high, reportedly averaging $10 an hour. Parikh estimates that people in only a few countries are still unable to connect with the Internet.
Other factors guarantee, too, that international journalists will rely on the Internet more in the future to connect with colleagues and vast resources of information. Journalism groups, such as Investigative Reporters & Editors, offer computer-assisted reporting seminars in an increasing number of countries. And work is continuing on perfecting translation software, now only about 85 percent reliable.
The hope is that someday soon such software will help to break down linguistic barriers the way that the Internet is breaching geographic ones.
Maud S. Beelman is Director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (www.icij.org) and a former foreign correspondent for The Associated Press. ICIJ staffers Zoë Davidson and Linda Yun contributed to this report.