Let's begin by looking at a typical Romanian media experience: A multinational gold mining company, Rosia Montana Gold Corporation, initially established by a controversial Romanian who has had drug convictions, tries for years to start a mining project in Romania that involves the use of cyanide. The company, which faces severe criticism from The Romanian Academy and groups such as Greenpeace, pursues an aggressive public relations campaign involving the Romanian media.
This company is an important advertiser in Romanian newspapers so very few articles critical of this company appear in the mainstream media. And the company organizes and pays for luxurious trips (they call them "research trips") for top managers of national and local media companies to places such as New Zealand. Upon their return, managers publicly claim they went there to research the way the parent company, Gabriel Resources, works in other countries.
Put aside the fact that managers haven't done field research in years and the actual reporters in the newsrooms that they oversee view this as reason for self-censorship. Nobody would touch a company that pays the boss to take such luxury trips.
When a few colleagues and I saw things such as this happening, as they often do in Romania, we realized that for investigative journalism to develop it had to do so outside the local media industry. It would be up to us to create a media environment in which investigative journalists could work so in 2001 I collaborated with three colleagues to establish the Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism
(RCIJ) as a nongovernmental organization (NGO). Two years later, with the center in place, we left our newspaper jobs at Evenimentul Zilei ("The Event of the Day") and began to publish our stories on our own website.
We didn't need a newsroom; we worked as freelancers, often out of our homes. We involved a group of freelance photographers and traveled the country to identify young journalists who wanted to work as we were doing. Our network expanded both in Romania and as a result of our travels around the Balkans and other Eastern European countries. On these trips we started to build an informal regional network of journalists to do cross-border investigative projects. Soon our center became a founding member of the Global Investigative Journalism Network.
What We Do
Our center's focus is primarily on publishing investigative reports about organized crime (local and international), media, human rights abuses, networks of power, the environment, resources, energy and sports. We also do undercover stories. Our location in Europe allows us to be involved with a number of cross-border investigations and to publish our work in the European Union, the Balkans, and the Black Sea region.
Where we can publish our stories is something we think about a lot. Since they are often published without any financial compensation coming to us, we have to find ways to pay for our investigative work. Our stories are published in Romania and Moldova in print and on digital media. As we work on topics that involve other nations and people, we are able to get these articles into publications in other countries. Or we just publish them online, which increasingly has more and more impact.
To bring recognition and credibility to our network, we submit our investigations to regional and international journalism contests. As individuals or members of a reporting team, we have received awards from Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) and the Overseas Press Club, along with the Kurt Schork and Global Shining Light awards, to mention a few. Two of us also have been given journalism fellowships at Harvard and Stanford universities. Such opportunities for international networking and affiliation are vital tools in helping us become better journalists and preparing us to be contributing members of IRE and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Another role we play is as teachers. Having witnessed the lack of professional training in Romania, we now pass along to others the knowledge we have gained through the years. For example, we teach investigative reporting techniques at Bucharest University and in regional workshops. Given the pressures we know journalists endure from politicians and a corrupt judiciary, from businesspeople and their own bosses, we also decided to get involved in media advocacy of freedom of expression and ethics. We keep an eye on media legislation, threats made to journalists, and abusive treatment of them by media organizations. Identifying the best local and international watchdog organizations to work with was an important step.
As a nonprofit NGO, the center provides tools and resources for investigative journalists and develops supportive mechanisms. We serve as a resource center for journalists by providing links to various online databases that we have created, such as one that displays information about media ownership in Romania. To retain our editorial independence, our digital platform carries no advertisements nor do we take money from the Romanian government, local companies, or businesspeople.
Now that Romania is part of the E.U. and considered a functional democracy, funding from some mainstay donors—such as Scoop, Open Society Foundations, and USAID—is shrinking or has ended.
It's been challenging—and fun—to reinvent the media system so investigative journalism can find a safe home, and doing our work in this way does give us a lot of freedom. It also forces us to be innovative in how we gather information, how we package, publish and distribute our stories, and how we avoid the typical pressures and finance the work we do. We face an ongoing struggle in finding the right people to work with and in making sure that our network is not misused. It is a learning process.
What is not fun is living in a continuous crisis at the intersection of little money and an abundance of topics in need of investigating. The trends in media assistance tell us that international donors are not keen to finance such a center as a long-term project. But having said that, our activities during the last nine years have managed to create a backbone for investigative-related journalism initiatives that stretch across the entire region. This achievement is what certifies the RCIJ brand.
Stefan Candea, a 2011 Nieman Fellow, is a freelance journalist and co-founder of the Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism in Bucharest, Romania. He teaches investigative journalism at Bucharest University, and he is a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and a correspondent for Reporters sans Frontieres in Romania.