For hard-hitting news in repressive environments, try the business pages

byJessica Weiss
Sep 1, 2014 in Specialized Topics

In Zimbabwe, where the government of Robert Mugabe has essentially shut down the media space, one news outlet is doing well: The Source, the country’s first business news service. And in China, where political reporting is strictly controlled, the daily business publication Caixin is publishing top-notch reporting, both online and in print.

Around the world, journalists reporting in environments that are typically unfriendly to their work may still be able to publish investigative, hard-hitting news stories through the business pages. A new Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) briefing paper, “Business Journalism Thrives—Even Under Repressive Regimes,” makes the case that reporting on markets and businesses “can provide coverage of issues that otherwise might not see the light of day in these environments.”

“Our strength is that economic news is kind of viewed as less threatening,” The Source’s top editor Nelson Banya, a former Reuters correspondent, told CIMA. The Source has reporters across Zimbabwe and often feeds its stories to mainstream outlets.

According to Freedom House, press freedom around the globe has fallen to its lowest level in more than a decade. In its most recent annual report, Freedom of the Press 2014, Freedom House reported that only 14 percent of the world's population lives in countries with free media. In the rest of the world, journalists can be censored, put in prison, or worse for publishing the truth.

But the business pages often tell a different story. “Enterprising journalists are exposing mismanagement and unearthing shady business deals—and even at times exposing official corruption—that otherwise might never see the light of day,” writes Don Podesta, CIMA manager and editor and the report’s author.

According to Podesta, “the expansion of economic and business journalism is not a substitute for truly free and independent media.” But it is a sign that the demand for trustworthy information is strong and growing.

That demand comes from governments, who need accurate, up-to-date information on business activity, as well as businesses themselves, who need information about market conditions and competitors, the report says.

In China, “the business press has improved markedly in the last five years,” says Joyce Barnathan, the president of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), which runs a global master’s degree program in business journalism at Tsinghua University in Beijing. She says areas of investigative journalism are thriving in China. “Business reporters ask tough questions now.”

Chinese authorities “understand they need more economically literate reporters who can write about the economy," Jane Sasseen, a trainer in the Tsinghua University program, told CIMA. "There’s a lot more freedom and flexibility around that.”

Other countries experiencing similar phenomena include Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Russia, Cambodia, Malaysia and several countries across Latin America, according to CIMA.

But although the current environment is friendly to business news in Zimbabwe, The Source’s Banya is aware the situation could change at any moment. “Economic conditions are worsening,” he says. “If things go badly, the government can lash out… For now, we enjoy peace, but I wouldn’t bet on that continuing forever.”

Jessica Weiss is a Bogotá-based freelancer.

Image courtesy of Flickr user John Ragai under a creative commons license.