BRUSSELS - If done carelessly, ties between journalism organisations and civil society can undermine the credibility of both. But there are ways in which the two parties can reinforce each other and strengthen democracy while retaining their independence. Our Money Trail project shows how.

Money Trail is a collaborative project between journalism and training organisations Journalismfund.eu and Finance Uncovered and civil society organisations Free Press Unlimited and Oxfam Novib. The idea behind the collaboration is to support and train journalists and activists in exposing illicit finance and tax abuse. Investigative journalists can apply with Journalismfund.eu for a Money Trail grant for that purpose. But doesn’t the association with civil society undermine those journalists’ credibility? Not necessarily. Money Trail project managers Paul Groenewegen (Oxfam) and Lisa Akinyi May (Journalismfund.eu) and Oxfam’s inequality campaign leader Stefan Verwer talked about that pitfall and how to avoid it. Here are four guidelines.

1)    A firewall is crucial

Credibility is a journalist’s greatest asset. As our managing director Ides Debruyne put it in a recent interview, the day Journalismfund.eu undermines a journalist’s credibility by giving them a grant, is the day we need to question our existence. That credibility is in direct relation to journalists’ independence, so it is imperative to safeguard that independence. How can you do that in the context of a collaboration with civil society organisations? By establishing a clear and robust firewall.

In the case of Money Trail, that firewall is us, Journalismfund.eu. Together with Finance Uncovered we cautiously watch over the journalistic independence of the journalists and their stories. What does that mean? That the grant applications we receive are assessed by an independent, anonymous international jury of senior journalists or experts that we have brought together. The other partners, Free Press Unlimited and Oxfam Novib, do not know who is in the jury, nor do they have any influence whatsoever on the allocation of grants or the topics that journalists want to look into. During their investigation, the journalists are asked to report to us; the other partners do not get insight into the projects prior to publication.

2)    A shared focus does not mean a shared fight

Investigative journalism and civil society organisations share a commitment to expose wrongdoings and injustice in society. In the case of Money Trail, their shared focus is exposing illicit financial flows and tax abuse. The global tax justice movement has made tremendous progress over the last decade, which is due in a large part to the efforts of journalists and activists. Major international journalistic investigations like the Panama Papers, LuxLeaks and West Africa Leaks have shown politicians and society at large just how big the potential impact of journalism is. Tax justice has become more of a mainstream affair. Illicit financial flows and taxation are hotter topics than ever before, even if the tax abuse and corruption being exposed are still only the tip of the iceberg.

That shared focus, however, does not mean that the objectives of journalism and civil society are necessarily the same. Both have their own separate dynamics and responsibilities, so in the end, they fight a different fight. It is the journalist’s task to investigate and expose fraud, corruption or other financial irregularities. Civil society organisations can support that but will take it a step further and use the results of those investigations to pressure policymakers. By offering support and collective trainings to both journalists and activists, Money Trail furthers a shared focus; the firewall makes sure that each group can fight its own fight and reach its own objectives.

3)    Journalistic output should not be the only anticipated goal

Because activists and journalists have different objectives, journalism organisations should realise that collaborations with civil society are about more than just funding investigations or generating stories. Society can benefit in so many more ways from such collaborations. The trainings that Money Trail offers, for example, teach journalists and activists how to analyse company accounts, give them insight in the various ways and sizes of corporate tax avoidance and evasion, tell them how to identify red flags and where to find crucial data.

The fact that European journalists have to work together with either African or Asian colleagues is essential to the project, too. By bringing together intercontinental teams of journalists, Money Trail wants to help forge transnational networks of journalists and activists who can learn from and inspire each other.

These new skills and networks might well have a more lasting impact on democracy, tax justice and the journalistic traditions in Europe, Africa and Asia than any one specific publication or investigation could have. They are therefore just as much a goal of the Money Trail project as the publication of investigative stories.

4)    Defining impact differently

Impact is important, not just for donors but also for organisations themselves. When working together as different organisations with different objectives, it is important to keep in mind that impact can take on various forms. The journalistic partners in Money Trail would define direct impact as the number of publications that come from the grants, and indirect impact as the development of new transnational networks of journalists. The civil society organisations working with us on Money Trail, however, will more than likely look at direct impact on a more political level. While Journalismfund.eu, Finance Uncovered and Free Press Unlimited’s efforts are focused more on the preparation and the investigations themselves, Oxfam’s interest is more on what comes next: political pressure based on what the journalists have come up with.

That different view of impact is a win-win. Journalists will be happy to see that something is being done with the investigations that they have put so much work into — sometimes over six months of research. Civil society organisations and activists can take some of the results of the journalistic investigations and build on those with their campaigns to urge policymakers to impose legislation to stop illicit financial flows. Here, again, the firewall plays its role: Oxfam only receives the articles upon publication. During their investigation, the journalists are asked to report to us about the progress of their project; the other partners do not get insight into the projects prior to publication. 


Money Trail was launched in May 2018 as a three-year project. It is now at its halfway point. Evaluation among the different partners is positive. Everyone agrees that, although we have to be wary, we sometimes get too constrained when thinking about journalism and activism in the same breath. Under well-established terms — journalistic independence, a clear line where the journalist’s investigation ends and the activist’s campaign begins — collaboration can lead to more outreach and bigger impact for both.

Read more about Money Trail at https://www.money-trail.org/


Author: Rafael Njotea

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