Shoe Leather And Paywalls: A News Website Shakes French Politics, And Turns A Profit

Mediapart uses old-school reporting to get major scoops, including a probe that just forced France's Budget Minister to resign. But you have to pay to read. A news model for the future?

Mediapart founder Edwy Plenel
Mediapart founder Edwy Plenel
Catherine Dubouloz

PARIS – You couldn’t dream of a better gift. For its fifth birthday, Mediapart and Edwy Plenel – its mustachioed founder and editor – saw a major minister in the French government resign and charged with tax fraud and a former President of the Republic probed in connection with taking advantage of an elderly political donor.

Mediapart is the investigative website that broke the original story that alleged that former-President Nicolas Sarkozy received cash-stuffed envelopes from ailing L’Oréal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt in 2010. Then late last year, it also broke the story that then-Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac had secret Swiss bank accounts.

The website was the target of many critics, but its recent scoops have largely put a lid on those questioning the journalistic ethics of the website, accusing Mediapart of “vigilante” methods.

A huge blow to the right, a huge blow to the left, Mediapart cannot be accused of political bias. A sign posted on the walls of the website’s offices in Paris says, “Freedom of press is not a privilege of journalists, but a right of the people,” and indeed, the site presents itself as a “democracy watchdog.”

The Cahuzac and Bettencourt scandals are a perfect example of what Mediapart is here to do: track down the politicians who abuse their power, hide their money in offshore accounts, have conflict of interests, obtain dubious political funding. It has a nose for the corrupt and the making of closed-door deals between “oligarchs,” as Plenel likes to call them.

Plenel, a longtime reporter and editor for Le Monde, is hardly new to the investigative game. In the 1980s, he was the one who revealed the Rainbow Warrior scandal, when the French government sent spies to New Zealand to sink a Greenpeace boat protesting French nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

Unlike the Anglo-Saxon press, investigative journalism has rarely been a central part of the press in France – “except during the 1980s and 90s,” explains sociologist and media specialist Jean-Marie Charon. During that period, many newspapers and magazines “gave investigative pieces a central role,” he says. At the time, there were many political scandals involving corruption and illegal financing.

A “newspaper without paper”

“In those years, the public had a high opinion of investigative journalism, but this is not the case any more," says Charon. "The public doesn’t like to see newspapers pursuing and hunting political figures. There is a belief that this kind of journalism contributed to the rise of populist parties, who campaign on the ‘everyone is corrupt’ platform.”

For Plenel, if France doesn’t like investigative journalism, it is because it is a “low-intensity democracy” that has a hard time “respecting the forces of opposition.” In that respect, Mediapart considers itself as “a small fish fighting the big sharks in a polluted sea.” Their goal, “is to clean up the sea,” says Plenel.

Photo: Raphael Labbé

Despite the public’s mistrust of investigative journalism, the “pure player” website founded in March 2008 is a great success. The audience of the "newspaper without paper,” to quote its founder, hasn’t stopped growing. Today the website has around 65,000 paying subscribers.

Mediapart is successful, but the situation is fragile,” says Plenel. He says it would be more comfortable with around 100,000 paying subscribers. Like its satiric cousin, French weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaine, Mediapart has no advertising and depends fully on its sales – an online subscription costs 9 euros a month. The website reached break-even at the end of 2010. It made a profit of 700,000 euros in 2012, with a turnover of about 6 million euros.

Mediapart has 45 employees, including 31 journalists. “Their salaries are slightly higher than the rest of the profession,” says Plenel proudly, speaking from his office located at the back of the newsroom, behind some big white bookshelves. “Mediapart is a lab where the 21st century press is being invented – we want to show that the Internet does not necessarily endanger the profession, that high-quality journalism can exist on the Internet.”

In other words that the digital world is not only a synonym for superficiality, immediacy and short formats.

How does such a small editorial team pull off so many incredible scoops? “When we were building the team, it was a priority to hire journalists who were able to investigate in a rigorous and a fierce way,” explains Francois Bonnet, the editorial director and co-founder of Mediapart.

The editorial team is organized in sub-sections – investigation, politics, economy, international, culture and opinion–, but when they are working on big investigations, multiple journalists can be mobilized on the same subject, using different sources and articles.

“At one point, 18 people were working on the Bettencourt scandal,” says Bonnet. “We discuss the investigation together, share our information and confront points of view.”

Mediapart is unique. “To my knowledge, there is no equivalent abroad,” says Charon. Spanish journalists inspired themselves from Mediapart to create InfoLibre, a website with the same philosophy. The two sites have become partners. Will this encourage French newspapers to prioritize investigative news, or will Mediapart remain a lone wolf? “Given the present situation of the press,” says Charon, “the second hypothesis seems more likely.”

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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