Investigative journalism and the fight against institutional corruption


The media is commonly referred to as the Fourth Estate, acting as a bipartisan observer that reports on the functioning of the democratic process to the public. Within this framework, investigative journalism plays a crucial role in uncovering the truth, promoting transparency and accountability, and contributing towards the fight against corruption. It uses objective and professional journalism to reveal injustices and compel action to make those responsible accountable.

In 2016, the Panama Papers were released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The papers exposed the complex methods certain companies and individuals used to conceal beneficial ownership of companies. The extensive investigation was a collaborative effort involving 370 journalists in 76 countries working in 25 languages. They exposed 143 politicians – including 12 national leaders – and their families and close associates from around the world who used offshore tax havens to avoid paying taxes and conceal their wealth via secretive offshore companies. Malaysians were also among the list of rich and powerful people exposed.

Investigative journalists conduct detailed investigations into matters of public interest such as fraud, corruption, abuse of power, and misuse of public funds. Such work is particularly valuable in uncovering corruption practiced on a large scale using elaborate schemes, usually with state sanction and involving public funds – what is commonly referred to as institutional corruption. The Panama Papers are an example of how investigative journalism on an international scale exposed cross-border financial and economic crimes.

Today in Malaysia, corruption seems to be an open secret, not just a fact of life but, sadly, more a way of life. Far too often we see reports and allegations of corruption on a large scale and over a prolonged period of time. What is expected is that these reports will trigger investigations by the authorities.

Under the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) Anti-Bribery Convention, between 1999 and 2017 six bribery schemes resulted in sanctions after they were reported in the media. This year alone, more than RM2.5bil was seized and frozen by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in ongoing corruption cases.

For investigative journalism to be effective, journalists must understand the basic rules of corruption investigations and the common methods used to perpetrate corrupt acts. They must be able to uncover how unethical politicians and public officials misuse public funds, collude with the private sector, hide their actions, and live beyond their means.

Among the main areas prone to corruption is the procurement process. Abuse can occur in many forms during the process, including conflicts of interest, abuse of power, embezzlement, fraud, and collusion. Based on complaints received by the MACC between 2013 and 2018, procurement fraud topped the list of sectors prone to corruption at 42.8%.

One major element that can determine the effectiveness of investigative journalism is the level of media freedom and ability of journalists to perform their work without fear. According to a December 2017 report in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, media freedom around the world fell to its lowest level in a decade, with journalists being threatened by government censorship and organised crime.

Malaysia showed significant improvement in freedom of the press, leaping 22 spots to 101st place in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index compiled annually by the non-profit group Reporters Without Borders. In the index released in April 2020, Malaysia also outranked other countries in Asean: Indonesia at 119th place, the Philippines at 136th, Myanmar at 139th, Thailand at 140th, Cambodia at 144th, Brunei at 152nd, Singapore at 158th, Laos at 172nd, and Vietnam at 175th.

In its profile of Malaysia for the index, Reporters Without Borders described the country’s press freedom as receiving a “breath of fresh air” after the defeat of Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s ruling Barisan Nasional coalition in the May 2018 general elections. For this year’s World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2020, which carried the theme "Journalism Without Fear or Favour", the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia highlighted “the significance of respecting and protecting the right to freedom of opinion and expression”.

In this regard, we have seen encouraging examples of investigative journalism practiced in Malaysia. In 2015, the media reported the grisly discovery of mass graves and human trafficking camps involving foreign refugees at Wang Kelian, Perlis, near Malaysia’s northern border. The stories resulted in the government setting up a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) to probe the deaths. Unfortunately, till today, the results of this RCI remain unpublished and the perpetrators of the vile crimes have still not been prosecuted.

In December 2020, an expose on an alleged syndicate colluding with enforcement agencies to pass off nonhalal meat as halal raised the public’s ire. The allegation that this scheme has been operating with impunity for 40 years makes it even more shocking. One hopes this case will be investigated and acted upon decisively by the authorities.

These examples show that investigative journalism is being practised in Malaysia, which is encouraging in the continued fight against corruption. As an institution promoting checks and balances, the media plays an important role in fighting corruption. Investigative journalists must possess high integrity, be knowledgeable, have good investigative techniques and write objectively.

Journalists should be granted protection from being sued for defamation or prosecuted for publishing classified information. A number of baseless legal actions were launched to intimidate journalists, which took time to resolve and involved significant legal and psychological costs.

In return, journalists must remain objective and unbiased and perform their work based on facts supported by evidence. Good investigative reports clearly show the evidence and ensure sources corroborate allegations, thus triggering law enforcement agencies to take action.

They should also have good sources and know how to manage information on corruption. One of the most important elements of confidentiality is that it builds and develops trust. Investigative journalists rely on sources and whistleblowers and protection of whistleblowers based on the right to freedom of expression must be provided.

To improve journalists’ skill in conducting investigative reporting, they should form a local association and also undergo specific training. In some countries investigative journalists are taking their efforts to a new level by working with data scientists to target high-profile fraudsters. Investigative journalists should also learn to take advantage of digital technology and data analytical tools to uncover information and build their case.

Malaysia needs to produce good investigative journalists who are brave, sincere and can unveil the truth about a particular subject, person or event based on the underlying principles of journalism and bring these matters to the public’s attention. They will also be able to assist the MACC in exposing corruption and advancing accountability and transparency.

What needs to happen immediately is the promotion of an environment in which the media can work freely and effectively to expose corrupt practices and serve the public interest. Investigative journalism is and will always remain an important tool in helping to uncover information that people in power would like to keep secret to the public’s detriment and identify and stop the spread of systemic corruption in Malaysia.


Institute of Crime and Criminology, HELP University

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