Farm subsidies in Europe is a natural topic for journalists. Investigative reporters know what comes from following the money. Since close to half of the European Union’s total budget goes toward subsidizing agriculture, trying to obtain information about these payments seemed like a good direction to head in—holding the potential that we’d find important stories waiting to be told.
“The Challenge of Cross-Border Reporting in Europe”
– Brigitte AlfterWhen Farmsubsidy.org was formed in 2005, its goal was to get access to information on who gets what in farm subsidies from the E.U. and why. Already, in Denmark, I had managed to get this data, and in the United Kingdom, Jack Thurston had won some legal battles that provided him with access to these figures. As the two of us corresponded about our efforts, we decided to take this project to the larger stage of the entire E.U.. Danish journalist Brigitte Alfter had already requested this E.U. data in 2004 so she joined forces with Jack and me in co-founding Farmsubsidy.org.
Our investigative network included people from various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) along with journalists. After we started to file legal challenges to get access to this data in the Netherlands, Poland, France and Germany, the E.U. Commission and the European Council decided that all member states would be required to publish on their websites information about who receives farm subsidies and how much they receive.
This British daily employed sarcasm in writing its headline about some of the recipients of European farm subsidies.
Our victory appeared total—and seemed to happen rather quickly. In 2009 we realized there were some problems on the websites with data missing for payments in 2008. By the next year, when all of the data on farm subsidies were to be published on the websites, things seemed to be working well. By May of 2010, we were able to engage in a successful data harvest festival in Brussels. Working as a team, we extracted the data from each country’s website, created a database to provide a structure for them, and then reporters in different countries could search for the information they needed for their stories.
Resources for Investigative ReportersBut our good fortune lasted only briefly. In November 2010—just as the E.U. was negotiating the next seven-year plan for subsidies—the European Court of Justice ruled that it is a violation of human rights to publish the farm subsidy information to the extent now required of E.U. member states. So the commission has asked all member states to shut down their websites while it prepares a new regulation. We are hopeful that we can influence this process by getting the commission to recommend that all member states include in their budget figures an explanation of why the applicants are receiving funds. We believe this will be in accordance with the court’s ruling.
This would also be a pragmatic solution to challenges we face with transparency in a number of related areas. If the court’s decision is used by others to shut down the publication of all kinds of information about private individuals, then it is likely that inappropriate expenditures will continue to occur. For example, when we received the farm subsidies information we learned of funds going to support family members of a high-ranking government official in Bulgaria who was responsible for his country’s distribution of the farm subsidy money. With so much of the E.U. budget devoted to subsidies, there remains a high possibility of fraud and misuse of these funds. Only transparency regarding how these public funds are allocated will enable us to uncover problems.
Now we are just about back where we started—fighting to get information on who gets what amount of this public money and why. Knowing how good it felt to succeed in opening up these records to public view—and realizing the value of the stories the data revealed—is what keeps us pushing to gain access to this data again. One thing working in our favor is that we have now established this network of journalists who are cooperating and coordinating across borders. It was the farm subsidies story that brought us together—and now it’s keeping us moving ahead.
Stretching Beyond Europe
During the past decade I have also been very involved with the development of global efforts to build networks of investigative journalists. In 2000, as a reporter at Jyllands-Posten (“The Jutland Post”), the largest Danish daily newspaper, I worked to build a nationwide network of journalists who were focused on using computer-assisted reporting (CAR). At that time, I was also the chairman of the Danish International Center for Analytical Reporting (DICAR).
At a conference that year I met Brant Houston, who was then the executive director of the U.S.-based Investigative Reporters and Editors. At dinner we talked about creating an international network of investigative reporters, and before long I found myself plunging into the task of helping to organize and launch such an initiative. I invited the Danish Association for Investigative Journalism (Foreningen for Undersøgende Journalistik) to join us, and soon the three of us were planning our first conference, which took place in April 2001. More than 300 journalists from 40 countries attended and heard from 80 speakers and instructors and participated in dozens of panel discussions and hands-on training sessions, including lessons in CAR.
Two years later, a second global conference took place. And by then, we had settled on our name: the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN). We have continued to meet every two years or so in such places as Amsterdam, Toronto, Lillehammer and Geneva. We will gather in October in Kiev for a conference that is being organized by Scoop, a support organization I was involved in creating that provides grants and legal advice to reporters in 13 countries in the Balkans and Eastern Europe.
Through these experiences in supporting global networks of investigative journalists, I’ve learned some valuable lessons, which include:
- Giving grant money to media organizations is not the best approach. There are some places where this has worked, but it is best to support the journalists directly with money and legal advice.
- It is essential to bring the right people together from different countries, and this means doing the background work necessary to know who is capable of taking on these kinds of challenging assignments.
- Freedom of information rules and regulations inevitably vary from country to country. The common ground is in how journalists negotiate for data by using the same set of skills as in their reporting, but also learning how to be precise in the language they use to make requests as they apply for access to data.
What’s been a common experience in forming these networks and organizations is that we always face a lack of money and resources. If we expect those issues to be resolved before we move forward, little will be accomplished. But there are also the risks that come in moving too fast and without having the right people onboard. This can result in other kinds of problems. So my advice is to move ahead in a well-considered direction—being realistic about what can be accomplished at the start, and then, over time, expand. When the GIJN meets in Ukraine this fall, I expect that there will be about 500 investigative journalists from more than 60 countries—gathering to learn from one another and figure out how to work together.
Nils Mulvad is an editor at Kaas & Mulvad and an associate professor at the Danish School of Media and Journalism. He was the chairman and then the CEO of DICAR from 1999 to 2006. In 2006 he was named European journalist of the year by the European Voice newspaper and he was a co-winner of an Investigative Reporters and Editors’ Freedom of Information Award.