Breaking News without Breaking the Bank: Monetary Rewards for Media Organizations that Expose Corruption

Investigative journalists play a key role in exposing corruption. In many cases, as a direct result of media exposés, the government has been able to recover substantial sums. To take just a few examples: In 2011, the Los Angeles Times revealed that officials in a small California city improperly paid themselves exorbitant salaries, and the subsequent court cases ordered restitution awards nearing $20 million. In 2012, the New York Times exposed Walmart’s widespread bribery in Mexico, and the company ultimately agreed to pay $282 million to settle the resulting seven-year investigation into whether Walmart had violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). In 2017, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) shocked the world when its affiliated journalists broke the Panama Papers scandal, exposing extensive fraud and tax evasion by world leaders, drug traffickers, and celebrities alike. As a result of the ICIJ’s investigation, governments around the world have managed to claw back $1.28 billion from perpetrators thus far. A Malaysian-born British journalist’s investigations (prompted by a whistleblower who provided her with more than 200,000 documents) produced the first hard evidence of what became known as Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal, the world’s largest kleptocracy scheme to date, which has produced, among other things, a nearly $2.9 billion settlement for FCPA violations.

But despite the crucial role journalists play in uncovering corruption, investigative journalism is a risky investment for media outlets. For one thing, this sort of investigative journalism is time- and resource-intensive—much more so than straight reporting—and many investigations come to nothing. And when investigative journalism does uncover evidence of wrongdoing by powerful figures, publishing those stories can be legally and politically risky. So, even though media outlets can reap substantial rewards from successful investigations—in the form of clicks, subscriptions, and prestige—media outlets faced with declining revenues and an increasingly hostile environment may not invest nearly as much in investigations into corruption as would be socially optimal.

To mitigate this problem, I propose what may initially seem like a radical way to create stronger incentives for media outlets to invest in this kind of investigative journalism: When media outlets expose corruption or similar wrongdoing, and this exposure leading to monetary sanctions on the culpable entities or individuals, the media outlets responsible for the reporting ought to receive a percentage of the government’s recovery. Such a proposal is inspired by (though distinct from) the whistleblower reward programs that many governments have already adopted. (For example, in the United States, individuals who voluntarily provide the Securities and Exchange Commission with original information pertaining to securities law violations may receive between 10% and 30% of the total penalty collected if their information leads to a successful prosecution.) A similar “media rewards program” could substantially improve the effectiveness of independent investigative journalism in exposing and deterring corruption.

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Improving Brazil’s Whistleblower Regime

Because corruption is usually conducted in secret, without readily identifiable victims, effectively tackling corruption often requires evidence from insiders. Therefore, providing adequate protections and incentives to whistleblowers is crucial. Brazil, like many countries, does not have a strong tradition or culture of whistleblowing, making it all the more important that the legal system provides sufficient protections and incentives for insiders to provide material information about corrupt schemes. In the past few years, Brazil has made important progress in this area, but much remains to be done.

Two years ago, a specific statute introduced the practice of rewarding people who furnished information about criminal conduct. This legislation provided that Brazilian states could establish telephone hotlines for reporting unlawful activities, and also authorized all levels of government to establish rewards for whistleblowers who provide information that lead to the prevention, detection, and punishment of crimes and administrative offenses. That statute, while a good first step, was vague and incomplete. Near the end of last year, Brazil took another important step in the direction of modernizing its whistleblower laws with the enactment of the 2019 Anti-Crime Act. This Act requires that national, state, and local governments, as well as their agencies and companies, establish an ombudsman office to ensure that all people can report crimes against public administration (including corruption), administrative offenses, and any action or omission damaging to the public interest. The law further provides that whistleblowers cannot be held criminally or civilly liable for the report (as long as the information was not provided falsely and maliciously), that whistleblowers are entitled to the protection of their identities, and that whistleblowers are entitled to the same protections against retaliation as are witnesses and victims. Violation of the prohibitions on retaliation against whistleblowers can entitle the whistleblower to double damages and punitive damages. The new law also includes a clearer provision on financial rewards for whistleblowers, expressly providing that if a whistleblower who provides information leading to the recovery of proceeds from crimes against public administration, the corresponding government can grant to whistleblowers financial rewards of up to 5% of the recovered assets.

Despite this progress, though, the legal framework on whistleblowers in Brazil still suffers from a number of important deficiencies, and needs further improvements: