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Corruption - part 3: What is the Media's Role?

There is an old saying that, 'Sunshine is the best disinfectant.' But shedding light in the dark corners of business and government can be dangerous work. Yet that's what investigative journalists do to keep the public informed. Paul Miller has a look at the role that the media plays in exposing corruption and the risks that reporters take.

Olympic Game officials have suspended, and may expel, top Bulgarian committee member Ivan Slavkov for involvement in a bribery scheme.

The scheme to sell votes to choose a country to host the 2012 Games was exposed by a reporter after a yearlong investigation that used a hidden camera. Mr. Slavkov calls the set-up unfair.

But at Washington's Center for Public Integrity, managing editor Bill Allison says investigative journalists play a key role in lifting the veil of secrecy that shields criminals.

To uncover corruption journalists pursue information. For example, information about officials elected to serve the public interest. Mr. Allison provided this recent example: "There was a senator from New Jersey, his name was Robert Torricelli, he was a well-thought of Democratic senator, he was running against an almost unknown Republican candidate with almost no political experience at all.”

Mr. Allison continued, “In theory he should have been running away with his reelection effort in 2002, but he had taken a Rolex watch from a campaign contributor who had also given him diamond earrings to give to his girlfriend. An enterprising investigative reporter was able to get some of the documents in the case and put this story out."

Senator Torricelli said when he dropped out of the race, "I apologize for everyone that has fought so hard, believed in me and all the causes I valued."

A new trend in investigative reporting involves cross-border investigations. Recently journalists joined forces to dig into the tax records of multinational companies. Some disturbing patterns emerged in a number of industries, including tobacco.

Mr. Allison provided this example: "We looked at how tobacco companies around the world were getting past excise taxes and in some cases working with organized crime to get cigarettes past tax authorities and onto the streets at a much cheaper price."

Some reporters are also comparing notes on the push to privatize water in poor nations. Human rights activists and others allege that World Bank support for privatization is pressuring policy makers in ways that may be unethical. "The World Bank 'wants us to do this if they are going to give us loans' -- that creates a powerful incentive to go ahead and privatize your water systems," explained Mr. Allison of the Center for Public Integrity

In this case, the World Bank's Daniel Kaufmann says he doubts reporters will find a smoking gun. “We do not find any evidence that privatization, per se, increases corruption."

The investigation however, continues.

Often, the higher the monetary stakes, the tougher the hunt for the truth and the bigger the risk that journalists take when they publish what they find.

In 2000, journalist Carlos Cardosa of Mozambique was gunned down in his car.

The reporter's widow says her husband turned up evidence of bank fraud in Mozambique linked to organized crime and associates of government officials. "He was not afraid. He was not afraid of denouncing things that he saw were wrong in Mozambique society."

From nation to nation around the world, journalists face varying degrees of difficulty investigating corruption.

In the U.S., access to some official information is guaranteed. But reporters still face frustrating delays getting documents they seek.

"Around the world it's a much more dangerous situation," added Mr. Allison, who says that disclosing acts of corruption is a central duty of the media. It is charged with keeping the public informed, even when revelations displease individuals who are caught in the glare of the light.