A journalist holds a phone with a sticker commemorating the assassinated Slovakian journalist Jan Kuciak, as Slovak deputy Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini talks to the media after a meeting at the presidential palace in Bratislava on March 15, 2018. (REUTERS/David W. Cerny)
A journalist holds a phone with a sticker commemorating the assassinated Slovakian journalist Jan Kuciak, as Slovak deputy Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini talks to the media after a meeting at the presidential palace in Bratislava on March 15, 2018. (REUTERS/David W. Cerny)

After murders of Kuciak and Caruana Galizia, investigative journalists band together for justice

The assassinations of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta in October and of Ján Kuciak in Slovakia last month have elicited an outpouring of support from journalists determined to honor the memory of their colleagues by fighting back with the weapon they wield best: journalism.

Some journalists will keep the investigations into the crimes under scrutiny and call out failings. Others have vowed to complete the stories that both journalists were working on at the time of the killing. This probing of organized crime and political corruption could come at some risk to individual reporters, but here journalists have another weapon: solidarity.

Increasingly, reporters are working in packs rather than as lone wolves. The complexity of international crime and the sheer volume of electronic documents and files dumped by whistleblowers such as the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers have driven newsrooms and individual freelancers to set aside competition in favor of collaboration.

The result is more public interest journalism, more reporters chasing great stories–and more attacks on journalists. The intense global scrutiny produced by established news organizations like The New York Times, the Guardian, and Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung working together, not to mention an army of freelancers and small online outlets across Eastern Europe and Asia, has rattled governments and criminals and provoked pushback.

“We have people asking good questions and demanding answers and it’s giving off sparks,” said David Kaplan, executive director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN).

Even before the murders in Malta and Slovakia, journalists around the world knew that investigative reporting was a dangerous business. More than a third of the 821 journalists murdered over the past 26 years covered crime or corruption, research by the Committee to Protect Journalists shows. Compounding the problem is impunity. The killers and those ordering the murder of journalists are rarely brought to justice. In fact, 86 percent of murder cases show the killers have enjoyed complete impunity.

Short of losing their lives, journalists in many countries who anger the powerful face an array of risks ranging from imprisonment, physical attack, financial ruin through bogus lawsuits, or job loss to online attacks, reputational damage, and doxing.

“We are under assault almost everywhere and even in places where we thought we were relatively safe we’ve got our backs to the wall, places in the West, and even in the U.S.,” Kaplan said.

Some of the most vulnerable reporters are those covering financial crime, drugs cartels, and corruption.

“There are huge problems reporting on the nexus of organized crime and government,” according to Drew Sullivan, editor of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a collaborative investigative reporting platform. It published a draft of a story Kuciak was working on at the time of his murder–an investigation into the penetration of Slovakian business and politics by the feared Italian ‘Ndrangheta criminal group.

Sullivan said reporters who cover criminals are among the most vulnerable. “First, they are never warned,” he said of the reporters on this beat. “Politicians and businessmen threaten. Organized crime doesn’t,” he told CPJ. “We are soft targets. We’re easy to get to and hard to protect especially if you don’t know you have a problem.”

The necessity for investigative journalists to interact with their subjects puts them in danger, Sullivan said. “Corruption is a trillion dollar business and almost no one is punished for it. So a reporter is more a rarity than a common problem for criminals. They don’t always know how to deal with them and with billions at stake, the easy solution is to kill the reporter.”

Deadly countries for those covering crime and corruption over the past 20 years include Russia, Mexico, Honduras, Ukraine, and the Philippines.

So how are news organizations and individual journalists to keep working safely?

Firstly, reporters say, they need to take responsibility for their own safety, assess their risk, and get training before they start turning over rocks in the political and financial landscape around them.

“Some criminals kill–quickly and ruthlessly. Some never kill. Some will kill you when they see the benefits outweigh the risk. You never know who you are dealing with, which is why it’s critical to report the risk,” said the OCCRP’s Sullivan, who works with reporters in highly dangerous areas. “A firefighter wouldn’t enter a burning warehouse until they know what chemicals are there. In the same way, a journalist should never investigate someone until they know whether the person kills, in what circumstances they kill, and how they kill.”

Besides individuals looking after themselves, reporters are now seeing the benefits of working together. As part of a newsgathering consortium, reporters can shield one another. In a repressive country, merely asking a question of a high official can expose a local reporter to danger. To get the comment that the reporter needs to round out their story, they can turn to a foreign journalist to seek out a comment.

If a government comes after a journalist or news organization, members of the consortium will double down on the reporting that may have gotten the local reporter into trouble.

“When journalists stand together it’s a very powerful force,” said Marina Walker Guevara, an award-winning investigative reporter and deputy director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a network of more than 200 reporters and 100 media organizations in 70 countries who collaborate on stories. “When we were all separated and competing and trying to scoop one another it is the perfect environment for those who didn’t want this kind of journalism.”

If a journalist is imprisoned, colleagues can not only rally international support and condemnation, but also continue his or her work.

“The Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova credited the increased scrutiny of the first family of Azerbaijan by her colleagues as the real reason she was released,” said Sullivan. Walker Guevara agrees: “When Khadija was in prison a network of journalists reported the hell out of Azerbaijan. That may have helped get her out.” In an interview with the Guardian after her release, Ismayilova said, “There were a greater number of investigations published both in the international media and the national press. Therefore, they didn’t succeed” in staving off investigations by jailing her.

The challenge now for all international journalist consortiums and press freedom defenders is how to get justice in the Caruana Galizia and Kuciak murders. After all, the crimes took place in countries which are part of the European Union; the bloc is supposed to uphold freedom of expression, the rule of law, and access to information–all structures that the media needs in order to carry out its watchdog function.

A problem in journalist murders is that the governments and groups that the slain reporter was probing are sometimes the very people with control of or influence over the police, prosecutors, and judges that are meant to deliver justice.

Investigations run into sand or yield only the small fry. Those who order the assassination simply don’t get caught. It’s been a pattern in Russia, for example, for the past two decades.

Reporters in the new investigative networks, however, seem determined to break this cycle. Many of them say they are dissatisfied with the lack of progress to date in the Malta and Slovakia killings.

Maltese authorities have made several arrests since October and have put three suspects on trial for carrying out Caruana Galizia’s killing, but the investigation has so far failed to dig into her extensive critical reporting to identify and prosecute those who might have ordered her assassination.

Members of the European Parliament looking into the murder expressed serious concern about the rule of law in Malta, according to news reports. And MPs from the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly have called for an independent rapporteur to follow the police investigation.

Despite authorities’ stated commitment that justice will be delivered, more than 20 defamation lawsuits against Caruana Galizia are continuing through the courts since her death, with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his chief of staff, Keith Schembri, among the plaintiffs. Press freedom groups including CPJ have demanded a more effective investigation.

In Slovakia, authorities detained several people for questioning after Kuciak and his girlfriend Martina Kušnířova were found shot to death near Bratislava, but they were later released. The murders have nevertheless provoked political upheaval and street protests in the country and triggered the resignations of the interior minister and prime minister.

Journalists and press freedom advocates have rallied support for thorough investigations in both cases and lobbied EU officials and lawmakers. They are also determined to keep digging.

“We should engage in massive investigations of anyone a reporter was working on when they die,” said Sullivan of OCCRP. “We are part of a group doing that with Daphne [Caruana Galizia] and we have already published the last story of Ján Kuciak. We will continue reporting on all of these dangerous people. Only this will stop people for cavalierly killing journalists.”

That may in fact be the best or indeed only tool reporters can use. Pressuring governments and international bodies to work for justice and build the institutions that promote the rule of law is slow and arduous work.

In the meantime the media needs to harness the forces behind the surge in investigative journalism to protect its own, journalist say.

“That is the optimistic message and also the warning to those who are killing journalists,” Walker Guevara said. “They need to understand how investigative journalism has changed and that in the 80s, in the 70s, you could bring somebody down and completely kill an investigation. These days if you touch a journalist the effect that you are going to have is a whole bunch of even more powerful global reporting on the very story that you were trying to kill.”