2016 was a year in which the importance of accurate information was made painfully clear. OCCRP and its members in countries where the truth has long been under attack have been aware of that foundational maxim for a long time. But now, voters in apparently secure Western democracies like the United Kingdom, France and the United States have begun to see what damage can be done to institutions and society itself when truth and lies co-mingle.
The age of trust is over. When information is no longer mediated by history’s gatekeepers — whether religious leaders, government regulators, education institutions or media watchdogs — there is a need to rethink the entire infrastructure of information from top to bottom.
We need to get comfortable with the idea that in a globalized world, readers will rightly be wary of truth claims, especially from those in power. In many ways, this mistrust is an indicator of more informed audiences, as well as more confused messages.
But we also need to recognize that if data is the oil of the digital age — the world’s most valuable commodity — we must ensure that information acts in the public interest as well as that of private companies and governments. Information inequality, left to itself, will tear down institutions, undermine democracies and leave citizens in the dark, at the mercy of vested interests we can’t even be sure exist.
The key lesson we have learned from autocratic and oppressive governments in Eastern Europe, post-Soviet states, Venezuela, Turkey, the Philippines and many other places is this: they will always attack trusted sources of information, especially the media, as soon as they can. A tenacious, inquiring media, with investigative capacity, is the most effective non-governmental institution available to humanity for maintaining accountability and forcing public transparency. The work continues to build a global media that truly aspires to those core values — transparency, accountability and collaborative sharing for the public good. OCCRP believes in those values and will continue to work with all like-minded partners to pursue them.
As we move forward, we aim towards two significant global goals. The first is the establishment of a data commons: a massive repository of verified facts, mostly publicly available, that will form the basis of investigative work not just for media organizations but also NGOs, lawyers, and concerned citizens. The second is the creation of a trust for investigative reporting that will help to secure the long term sustainability of non-profit public interest media.
Each goal feeds off the other. The data commons is vital to kick-start the golden age of muckraking by using available technology to power much more efficient investigations. We have the right team to achieve this, combining investigative know-how with the best technical expertise, and drawing in knowledge and support from the wider free knowledge and internet freedom communities.
The trust is equally vital because it will take the risk out of investing in media for public good. For philanthropists and new funders looking to enter the media space, it will help to pool resources, enabling credit for stories to be shared. For media organizations scrabbling for funding, it will create a new, reliable source of money, curated and controlled primarily by journalists who understand the pressures facing the industry.
None of this will stop us continuing with our fundamental mission: high quality, detailed investigative reporting to expose transnational organized crime and corruption. On the contrary, these goals are what are required in the long term to continue the revolution that OCCRP and its partners represents, finally reinventing journalism and helping to reform the information economy for the 21st century.
Tom King is Head of Partnerships at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. This article is part of the organization’s latest annual report.