Here at CIR’s Global Digest, it’s been heartening to see what amounts to a boom in nonprofit journalistic enterprises around the world. We’ll be having a look at some of their work over the coming months. They often offer insights into issues of global consequence that never make it into American media.
Case in point: a seminal collaborative investigation by the Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR), founded in South Africa in 2003, into the continent’s soccer establishment. When one of Cameroon’s leading journalists was brutally beaten last winter while investigating his country’s official soccer federation, FAIR responded with a call to journalists across the continent to cooperate in investigating their own sports authorities. The result, Killing Soccer in Africa, provides a panoramic and scathing look at corruption in the soccer federations of eight different African countries.
In Cameroon, they follow leads suggesting that a major athletic shoe manufacturer had made payments into the personal bank account of the vice president of the country’s football association, and that government auditors had recommended prosecutions for corruption of four top officials in the same association. In Kenya, they assert that soccer officials had gone on “an all-expenses paid trip to the United States, leaving the national soccer team … without means to go play a match in neighboring Uganda.” In the Ivory Coast, a $2 million donation by the national oil company to the country’s soccer federation never made it to the local football clubs for whom it was intended.
The journalistic team doesn’t stop with their own national soccer authorities. They investigate the interrelationships between corrupt national officials and those affiliated with the international soccer federation, FIFA, which they claim has moved to block law enforcement investigations of soccer corruption. In Nigeria, for example, the journalists’ claim that a proposed government audit of the national team’s $6 million budget was met with a threat to expel the country from FIFA’s governing council. The report is an eye-opening read for anyone looking for an African back-story to the world’s most popular sport.
FAIR’s team investigation has special resonance here at CIR. FAIR calls their investigation Africa’s first “Arizona Project” — a reference to the U.S. case back in 1976, in which a journalist for the Arizona Republic, Don Bolles, was killed in the course of investigating connections between organized crime and financial and political leaders in that state. A team of journalists from around the country were called together by the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) to investigate Bolles’ murder and continue his investigation.
The team involved thirty-eight reporters, whose findings were published in twenty different media outlets. Two of those reporters, Dan Noyes and Lowell Bergman, would go on the next year, along with Rolling Stone reporter David Weir, to found the Center for Investigative Reporting. (Bergman left CIR to work at 60 Minutes, and is now a correspondent with PBS Frontline; Noyes now serves on CIR’s Board of Directors).
Thirty-one years later, CIR organized its own “Arizona Project” — this time a collaborative investigation, involving reporters from a consortium of local newspapers, radio, television, web sites and universities, into the murder of Chauncey Bailey, an Oakland-based journalist shot in broad daylight in the midst of his probe into corruption and violence at what had been a pillar of the city’s African American community, Your Black Muslim Bakery.
The Cameroonian journalist who launched the inquiry that led to FAIR’s soccer investigation has, according to the group’s director, Evelyn Groenink, chosen to remain anonymous after being nearly killed by his assailants. Like others who have faced such consequences, the Africa Arizona Project’s commitment to continuing and expanding upon his work sends a powerful message, as FAIR puts it: “… you can stop a journalist, but you can’t kill the story.”
Onto some entirely different terrain: the rainforests, or more precisely, former rainforests, of Brazil. The Belgian magazine MO, a monthly, offers a devastating probe into the claims by a global timber company that it practices sustainable forestry in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. The magazine is published in Flemish, but offers an English-language version.
The reporters, Leopold Broers and An-Katrien Lecluyse, tour the timber plantation of a Swedish-Finnish-Brazilian joint venture called Veracel, and investigate its certification by the Forest Stewardship Council, which offers guidelines promoting less destructive logging practices. They methodically dismantle the companies’ claims that it is preserving the “forest” by planting vast monocultures of eucalyptus trees. They reveal that the company has used excessive quantities of powerful herbicides and pesticides—and unintentionally destroyed “large amounts of indigenous trees.” They interview a public prosecutor in the city, Eunapolis, which borders the project, who says that the company has been investigated for “money laundering, tax evasion, corruption and environmental crimes”—which include overuse of the chemical herbicides and diversion of local water supplies from local farmers to the eucalyptus plantation. State court documents indicate that in 2008 the company was fined more than $10 million (20 million Real, or 8 million euros) for illegal deforestation of the Atlantic Forest, a finding that the company is currently appealing.
The question of whether eucalyptus plantations may be considered “sustainable” is a controversial topic at the highest ranks of conservation circles—starting at the United Nations, which continues to certify such plantations as greenhouse gas offsets for their carbon sink potential, as I wrote about last February in Harpers. Veracel’s Atlantic Forest plantation produces pulp for paper towels, toilet paper and glossy magazines. The authors quote the public prosecutor, Joao Alves da Silva: “The consumer buying cellulose from Veracel has to realize that he is buying an illegal product and that the sustainability label doesn’t reflect reality.”
The authors received funding for their investigation from the Fonds Pascal de Kroos in Brussels, which has helped pioneer nonprofit support to long-term investigative projects in Europe.