On the morning of Sept. 19, local time, when temperatures in Seoul soared to nearly 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), it was a chilly 15 degrees (59 degrees Fahrenheit) in Gothenburg, Sweden. In the on-and-off rain, more than 2,000 investigative journalists from 130 countries gathered in the second largest city of Sweden.
Participants lined up in front of the security checkpoint at the entrance to the Swedish Exhibition and Congress Centre to get their bags and belongings inspected. The host, Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), staff also checked the attendees’ name badges and access bracelets as they entered and left the building. It was to protect the safety of journalists attending the conference, including a Russian journalist who had received death threats, and to prevent the risk of terrorism.
According to Reporters Without Borders, 540 journalists are currently in detention in different parts of the world. Twenty-one journalists have been murdered this year alone. Regardless of their nationality, journalists – the watchdogs of power and corruption – face threats and repression.
David Kaplan, Executive Director of GIJN, the world's largest organization of investigative journalists, expressed concern about the crisis in independent media at the plenary session on Sept. 20.
"Particularly with creeping autocracy and the backlash against civil society and democracy, independent media is the first thing that these guys go after and we’re in trouble," Kaplan said in his opening remarks.
With urgency, he shared the news that GIJN's only South Korean member, KCIJ-Newstapa, had been raided by the prosecutors.
▲GIJN Executive Director David Kaplan criticizes the raid on GIJN member Newstapa at the plenary session of the GIJC 2023 on Sept. 20, local time.
Kaplan put up footage of 20 prosecutors and investigators raiding the office of KCIJ-Newstapa to the large screen behind him.
"Our non-profit member Newstapa, which does the best investigative journalism in South Korea. South Korea is a democracy with a proven civil society. This is a place like Sweden and the U.S., where this should not happen," he said.
The day of the prosecutors’ raid, Sept. 14, was the same day when Newstapa was scheduled to publish a series of stories exposing the prosecutors’ budget misuse and hold a press conference about this.
The series on the prosecutor’s office budget, including their special activities expenses, was one of the topics to present in front of fellow investigative journalists from across the globe, as a prime example of collecting information by Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) policies. Newstapa obtained the budget and expense records for the first time in the nation’s history through the FOIA requests and administrative litigation of more than three years.
At the FOIA/RTI Investigations session, Newstapa reporter Lee Myung-ju showed a photo, where Newstapa reporters and civil society activists were carrying blue boxes from the Supreme Prosecutors' Office. The boxes contained the prosecutor's budget data that was disclosed to Newstapa for the first time in history, after it won years of administrative litigation.
The journalists from around the world gasped as they heard how Newstapa obtained the documents. As Lee described the photo that “the reporters and civil society activists were like the Avengers," the audience laughed in agreement.
▲On Sept. 22, Newstapa reporter Lee Myung-ju presented Newstapa's coverage of the prosecutor's budget verification at the FOIA/RTI Investigations session of GIJC 2023.
Newstapa also met and interviewed prominent investigative journalists to hear how they viewed the South Korean prosecutors’ raid into Newstapa newsroom and the ongoing trend of press repression. The journalists together said it’s something that shouldn't be happening and that undermines press freedom.
“(Prosecutors’ inspection on Newstapa) are different ways of threatening press freedom," Emilia Diaz-Struck, the new Executive Director of GIJN, said at an interview with Newstapa. "Newstapa has done a tremendous amount of work in doing accountability journalism, watchdog journalism for South Korea.”
“It’s always worrying to see when colleagues in South Korea and other countries receive these kinds of challenges and threats,” she added. “It’s a message that you’re sending to those who are practicing the craft.”
▲Emilia Diaz-Struck, the new Executive Director of GIJN, speaks with a Newstapa reporter at the GIJC 2023 on Sept. 21.
"Because when I look back at why Newstapa was created in the first place, it was this need for an independent media outlet that would do powerful investigative reporting in South Korea," Radu said.
Concerns that the Yoon administration’s repression against the media could roll back the democracy, which South Koreans have built over decades, were also raised.
Mark Lee Hunter, a founding member of GIJN, noted that South Koreans have set an example for the rest of the world by creating a successful democracy despite threats to their survival.
"If this is what your president is saying, he doesn't understand how important that is," Hunter said.
"South Korea emerged from a dictatorship like countries in the post Soviet Union. Obviously the role that many brave South Korean people played in making that happen,” Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, Executive Director the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ), said at an interview. “So this moment is actually very important to see which way is the country going.”
Investigative journalists from around the world who have collaborated with Newstapa have pledged to continue to support its South Korean partner.
“There’s another wave of pressure on Newstapa for its great work, so this is not right,” Radu of OCCRP said. “This is something where the international community of investigative reporters will come together and will be with Newstapa against any type of threat that they will be faced with.”
Makoto Watanabe, Editor-In-Chief of Tansa, a non-profit investigative journalism outlet in Japan, was a reporter for the Asahi Shimbun when Newstapa was launched a decade ago. “They stood up to fight against the power and launched a new media,” Watanabe recalled. Moreover, citizens of South Korea supported Newstapa.”