How to uncover corruption when it pervades all levels of government? Editor-in-chief Irina Petrushova tells about how to get the stories done, when intimidation, harassment and even administrative and criminal charges are brought against you.
METODE: Editor-in-chief and publisher of Economics. Finance. Markets and Assandi Times national weekly newspapers (published alternately due to constant persecution by the authorities).
The aim of any journalistic investigation, to our understanding, is not so much the investigation itself and informing about its results, but rather to attempt to solve the problem or eliminate the fact that is at the centre of the investigation.
Kazakhstan is a typical post-soviet state. This means that all power belongs to the presidential family and a group of its loyal officials. Most of the media belong to the presidential family or to oligarchs. Freedom of speech has been curtailed: officials may be criticized for their actions, but it is not allowed to write or say anything about the matters of the president, the matters of his relatives, or the matters of oligarchs close to the president. Topics like corruption in government structures, the use of privatisation revenue for selfish purposes, and concealing income from export of crude oil, gas, and non-ferrous metals are off-limits.
The difference between Kazakhstan and a number of other post-soviet countries: corruption is universal and pervades all levels of government. That is why the current situation has imposed certain limitations on the work of journalists.
Since we were not allowed to write about corruption at the very top, we launched an investigation into specific transactions undertaken by financial and industrial companies close to the presidential family (the “from the specific to the general” method).
The information we published was metered out in doses, i.e. the truth was not revealed completely. We presented it in disguised form as the result of a struggle between powerful factions, dissociating it from the president himself (the methods of “graduality” and “manoeuvring”). That helped avoid a lot of pressure upon the editorial board from the “heroes” of the investigations.
All the information we published relied on documentary sources. This could be secret governmental decrees, confidential privatisation agreements, official statistical data (which enabled us to successfully analyse the economics of export operations), as well as public speeches by government officials. Any confidential information we received from people in government would necessarily be corroborated by documentary evidence and analysed by economists and sociologists (the “documentation” and “authentication” methods).
One way to obtain needed information was by taking advantage of clan rivalry, i.e. officials and oligarchs eager to leak compromising details about their opponents would bring “scandalous” documents and materials to the editorial office. These were also carefully examined and analysed (the method of “keeping up with information”).
Thanks to our careful selection and checking of materials no one has ever demanded through the courts that we retract any information. Even though the “heroes” of our stories include prime ministers, deputy prime ministers, ministers, and heads of regional and city councils. We have been the first to disclose the mechanisms of how Belgian “Tractebel” was granted concessions on Kazakh gas pipelines, how aluminium ore has been exported by means of so-called tolling schemes, and how oil contract prices and oil export duties have been set too low. Currently we are continuing an investigation started by our American colleagues into US oil companies bribing the president and members of his family. In the United States and Europe this is what is known as Kazakhgate.
The following methods have been employed as additional insurance. In order to ensure maximum security for journalists, materials on corruption have been published under assumed names. Journalists have never referred to their sources of information in print, not even the open ones, so as to avoid any pressure on people who provided such information.
The things we have been confronted with in our work:
1. Printing houses refusing to print our newspaper.
2. Seizure of total number printed at sales outlets.
3. Intimidation of advertisers – tacit orders not to advertise.
4. Intimidation of distributors – tacit orders not to distribute the newspaper through the mail system, not to take it on board planes, not to accept it at state-owned sales outlets.
5. Intimidation of individual journalists, and of the editorial staff as a whole (surveillance, tapping of telephone conversations, burial wreaths, dead dogs at the editorial office windows, arson at the office).
6. Trumped up administrative and criminal charges against journalists.