Even in the best of conditions, investigative reporting is hard — digging up what people do not want exposed, sifting through hidden records, confronting the powerful. It is doubly difficult in closed societies without guarantees of press freedom. Two recent examples in Russia and China show just how hard and risky it can be.
Ivan Golunov’s work for the online news organization Meduza displays an unusual knack for unearthing the Moscow city government’s lavish spending. He reported that the purchase price for one of Moscow’s most noticeable holiday decorations in 2017, lighted, wine-glass-shaped garlands, was overpriced by a factor of five. He exposed how a Moscow deputy mayor purchased nine penthouses in elite Moscow housing complexes for his family. He raised questions about the $46.3 million cost of renovating a city fountain. He also delved into the shady dealings of the funeral industry in Russia.
Last Thursday, while he was on his way to meet other journalists, police detained Golunov and charged him with intent to distribute illegal drugs.Such drug charges are a common way for the Russian police to set up people they want to punish. Golunov denied the charges, and tests did not show his fingerprints on any of the alleged contraband. Dozens protested the arrest, and three major newspapers published nearly identical front pages declaring in large type: “We are Ivan Golunov.” The very existence of Golunov’s probing journalism in President Vladimir Putin’s system of soft authoritarianism in Russia shows how pockets of independence persist amid overall state domination. The protests show that many of Golunov’s colleagues remain willing to stand up for freedom despite the risks. On Tuesday, their protests were rewarded with an extraordinary turnabout: The government dropped all charges and announced that police officers who made the arrest would be investigated.
In China, investigative journalist Liu Wanyong was also a fearless prober, writing for the China Youth Daily, a paper run by the Communist Party but with a reputation for pushing censorship boundaries. Liu told Jane Perlez of The New York Times recently that he has quit journalism because the regime of President Xi Jinping has all but muzzled the hard-hitting stories he used to produce. “At least 100 ‘juicy’ stories were killed at the Youth Daily in the past two years,” the Times article said. Instead of probing revelations, he said, the party wanted “positive-energy stories” that would make people feel good. For example, the facts behind a huge explosion at a chemical factory were never explained, Liu said. “The question of who is responsible is one of the first things people want to know in a calamity like that,” he added. “But if you read our news, do you find this out? No.” So Liu has gone to work in business. Meanwhile, Xi has insisted that China’s news media must have “the party as their family name.” China has also begun blocking access to The Washington Post and the Guardian within the country.
Journalism brings revelation, accountability and truth to a society. No wonder despots hate it so.
— The Washington Post