Public corruption doesn’t happen in public. It needs dark places to flourish. That’s why the press can play a decisive role in fighting sleaze–just by shining light on it. So the announcement this week by the Chicago Tribune that it’s going all out to fight graft is welcome news. After all, one former Illinois governor, George Ryan, is doing time for corruption and another former governor, the freshly impeached Rod Blagojevich, faces a trial for trying to sell a U.S Senate seat.
In some countries, journalists on the corruption beat are putting their lives on the line. On Monday, a Chinese blogger who writes about corruption was stabbed in the stomach at a Beijing book store after giving a reading there. Xu Lai, who blogs under the pseudonym Qian Liexian, was apparently dragged into the store’s bathroom by two men who stabbed him and fled. Xu Lai should recover from his injuries; whether he’ll go on writing about corruption in China isn’t known. Even if he does, however, other bloggers and journalists there are likely to think twice before they post stories about crooked government officials.
Corruption in Russia is a deadly topic for journalists. Investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya was shot in a lift in her apartment building two years ago. She’d been threatened many times about her coverage of Chechnya and public corruption throughout the Russian government. Her murder, still unsolved, appeared to be a contract killing. She was 48 and a mother of two and often spoke of the risks of her job. In 2004, the editor of Forbes’ Russian edition, Paul Klebnikov, was shot and killed in Moscow. And in 1995, a leading Russian journalist, Vladislav Listyev, was also shot dead in Moscow.
Kenya had a high-profile murder in January. Francis Nyaruri, who wrote about police corruption under the name of Mong’are Mokua, was beheaded and dumped in a forest. He was the second journalist killed in Kenya in the past year and had been threatened just before his disappearance.
It would be hard to find a country that’s been more dangerous for journalists than the Philippines. In 2007, five were murdered and two others wounded. A radio host / reporter from Davao City, Ferdinand Lintuan, was killed on Christmas Eve 2007 after hosting his local radio show. He was shot by two men riding a motorcycle. Lintuan often accused local politicians of corrupt dealings, particularly involving the military.
So the Chicago Tribune’s “campaign against the Illinois culture of political sleaze” is good news. Not only because it’ll shine some light on the dark places where corruption grows. But also because it’s a reminder of our free press in America that, at least for now, can still raise its voice without fear of violence.