Crime and corruption are extremely dangerous beats, CPJ research shows. Thirty-five percent of journalists killed worldwide since 1992 covered these two topics. The lines between political and criminal groups are blurred in many nations, raising the risk for reporters. From Mexico to Iraq, criminal groups are operating increasingly like armed political forces, and armed political groups are operating increasingly as for-profit, criminal bands. Journalists have been attacked while reporting on collusion between crime figures and government officials, and they have been targeted while pursuing crime or corruption stories during times of both peace and war.
Local reporters pay the highest price. Nearly nine out of ten journalists killed worldwide are journalists reporting on issues in their own community, according to CPJ research. Moreover, from Mexico to the Balkans, from Russia to the Philippines, the killers get away with it in nearly nine out of 10 murder cases. Self-censorship in many nations is common because of the extreme risks.
How to approach crime stories, including coverage of organized crime, depends almost entirely on local factors. The alarming number of journalists murdered while covering criminal activities in high-risk nations shows that there are no easy answers about what stories to cover, how to approach them safely, or whether it is safe to approach them at all.
Do as much research as possible before entering any criminal environment. One consortium of U.S.-based journalism schools and law enforcement colleges called Criminal Justice Journalists says that editors should give reporters two weeks to get up to speed before starting work on a crime beat. No doubt that’s good advice. But many journalists today—especially freelance reporters—must invest their own time to prepare for work on beats such as crime. Reporters should familiarize themselves with high-crime areas, entry and exit routes, and safe, accessible places to meet sources.
In the United States, many press groups recommend that journalists meet individual law enforcement personnel in advance of working on stories. Criminal Justice Journalists suggests that reporters new to the beat request briefings from law enforcement on their operating procedures. Such advice is applicable in other nations where corruption in law enforcement is not widespread. In nations where high levels of law enforcement corruption have been documented—such as Mexico and the Philippines—you must make a different calculation. There, journalists must be watchful for law enforcement collusion with criminal actors. You need to assess each potential source’s level of empathy or hostility.
Know the relevant laws concerning access to public and private property, trespassing, and invasion of privacy. (See Chapter 6 Civil Matters and Disturbances.) Be familiar with the specific conditions under which you can and cannot use video or audio recording equipment. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press regularly posts updates on U.S. laws; journalists working in other nations can turn to local press organizations, many of which actively monitor and publicize laws affecting the profession. (See Appendix E Journalism Organizations for a list of many such groups. The International Freedom of Expression Exchange maintains a comprehensive listing.) Some matters remain unsettled, such as whether U.S. journalists can report inside a privately owned, publicly accessible space such as a shopping mall. Be aware that authorities in the United States and other nations may legally limit access, the ability to record, or both, at some publicly advertised events such as political rallies or speeches. You should also note that authorities may lawfully restrict access to courthouses, jails, schools, airports, military facilities, federal buildings, civic centers, and stadiums.
Crime reporters with a vehicle may wish to keep an emergency bag that includes a change of clothes, foul-weather gear, a flashlight, and a first-aid kit. In covering any dangerous story, keep your mobile phone charged and with you. (Remember that mobile phones can be tracked by hostile subjects. See Chapter 3 Technology Security for techniques to mitigate surveillance.) At least one editor should always be aware of a crime reporter’s work, sources, and progress. Freelancers should keep an editor or another trusted colleague apprised of the same.
When you approach a potentially hostile subject, you should be accompanied or observed by a colleague. To reduce the possibility of being singled out for reprisal, you should communicate to all crime sources, especially hostile subjects, that you are not working alone and that your activities are being closely monitored by a news organization or colleague. Find and cultivate, if possible, a senior law enforcement officer to whom you or others could turn in case of emergency.
Safely covering crime and corruption requires thoughtful preparation and risk assessment. (See Chapter 2 Assessing and Responding to Risk.) Before embarking on any potentially dangerous story, thoroughly research news reports, public documents, and court records, in addition to speaking to colleagues experienced in the reporting area, and trustworthy and knowledgeable local sources.
Safety concerns are the responsibility of not only the journalist, but also the news outlet planning to publish or broadcast the reporting. Newsroom managers should consider specific security measures to protect facilities, journalists, and in some instances the families of journalists. Drawing up a written risk assessment is recommended. (See Chapter 1 Basic Preparedness and Appendix G Security Assessment Form.) When covering dangerous figures such as criminal or terrorist suspects, the assessment should be accompanied by a contingency plan in case the journalist or his or her sources become endangered.
The assessment should identify the most dangerous actors and most sensitive issues in the investigation and assess the risks that may arise. In any such investigation, the wrong question at the wrong time to the wrong source could put a journalist or his sources at risk. You may wish to begin your reporting by interviewing the sources in whom you have the most trust, gradually working toward those who may be more hostile. Be aware that your questions can give an indication as to the nature of your story. To protect yourself and your sources, limit how much you disclose about your investigation.
Toward the end of an investigation, a journalist and his or her editor may wish to draw up a separate risk assessment to help determine whether and how to approach a criminal suspect who may be a subject of the story. The assessment should include an evaluation of risk, a series of options to approach the individual, and an appraisal of the suspect’s possible reactions.
The assessment should include clear protocols to establish how and when you will communicate safely with your editor and perhaps other trusted colleagues. This could be done through a variety of methods—from email to telephone calls—and it may involve simple code that would communicate whether you believe you are safe or in danger. You and your editor should also discuss in advance under what circumstances you might be compelled to suspend or call off the investigation. A contingency plan should be developed in the event that you or your sources may be in danger.
Be mindful about how you record and store information. To protect the identities of sources in your written notebooks and electronic files, you may wish to use coding or pseudonyms that you will remember but that others will not easily decipher. This is especially important when dealing with informants who would be endangered if their identity were disclosed. Notebooks with sensitive material should always be secured; notes with innocuous material can be left accessible in case intruders search your belongings. Electronic files can be made more secure through the use of USB flash drives, strong password protection, and remote backups, among other measures. (See Chapter 3 Technology Security for a full description of securing electronic data.)
Whether and how to approach suspected criminal actors depends on several factors. Journalists should always consider the status of law enforcement agencies. In areas where law enforcement is weak or corrupt, journalists should expect far higher levels of risk and adjust their approach accordingly.
Be mindful of how you and your news outlet may be perceived among the community of individuals being covered. Journalists should “bend over backward” to show their impartiality and willingness to give every subject the chance to tell his or her story, Drew Sullivan, editor of the Sarajevo-based Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, told American Journalism Review, for an article in 2010. “Be relentless but friendly and open in your effort to talk to the people you hope to win as sources,” suggests Bill Wallace of the U.S.-based Criminal Justice Journalists in the group’s report “Covering Crime and Justice,” developed from 2003 through 2010.
In any criminal investigation, keep in mind that the greatest risk may not be reporting on criminal groups themselves, but on the web of official corruption that protects them. In many parts of the world, extreme caution is advised. Journalists investigating official corruption or any form of collusion with criminal actors may wish to develop a cover story to tell people, especially potentially hostile sources. The cover story should be credible and broad enough to encompass the actual investigation without giving away the specific matter under investigation.
The period shortly before a story runs is often a dangerous time. Journalists should be mindful of what they say, to whom, and when. Hostile and potentially violent subjects may take pre-emptive action if they learn that they are the target of an investigation. In 2007, U.S. journalist Chauncey Bailey was shot dead three blocks from his Oakland, California, office after the proprietor of a local business tied to criminal activity learned that the journalist was investigating the establishment’s finances.
One question is whether suspected criminal actors can be safely approached under any circumstances. Reporters and editors in nations where law enforcement is weak must make the realistic but ethically painful decision as to whether pursuing the story or naming alleged perpetrators is worth the risk at all. If a decision is made to approach potentially hostile subjects, editors should know in advance and the journalist should be either accompanied by or observed by a colleague. Journalists should communicate to hostile subjects that they are speaking not just to an individual but to the news organization planning to run the story.
Some subjects may be considered too dangerous to approach in person. In some cases, it is advisable to approach the subject’s lawyer rather than the individual directly. The subject or the person’s attorney should understand that the story is already planned and that you are seeking comment for ethical and legal reasons. In the absence of a defense attorney, you can assess whether it is practical or safe to communicate with the subject by phone, email, or other written correspondence.
But even that may be too dangerous. Communicate candidly with your editor about situations in which a subject may be too hostile to approach. Consider your safety and that of sources when considering the next step. The public record sometimes offers a means by which a hostile subject’s denial or viewpoint may be derived.
Obtaining official documents is an important aspect of investigative reporting. In addition to providing the substantive benefits of citing official documents, the practice can lessen one’s reliance on comments from local sources who could themselves be at risk of retribution from criminal or corrupt figures.
Reporters and editors need to be versed in the public-information laws that apply in each nation. The U.S.-based Citizen Media Law Project provides an array of suggestions and tools for accessing information from municipal, regional, and national authorities in the United States. The website Right2INFO.org compiles documents and publications on access-to-information laws worldwide. Although online access to government data remains patchy worldwide, some progress has been made. The Kenyan government, for example, launched a database of public information in 2011. In some parts of the world, including much of Africa, the right to government information is enshrined in the law, but practical procedures to obtain specific records are nonexistent or unclear. Journalists should confer with local experts and colleagues in advance of seeking information in such nations. A number of local press organizations worldwide monitor access-to-information laws and the practical procedures to obtain information. (See Appendix E Journalism Organizations for a list of many such groups. The International Freedom of Expression Exchange maintains a comprehensive listing.)
Because obtaining documents through official means is difficult in some nations, many journalists still rely on sources to access government data. A journalist must take precautions, however, to avoid revealing the identity of a source who provided sensitive documents. A reporter, for example, could visit several agencies with access to a document in question in order to enlarge the possible pool of sources and make it more difficult for authorities or other actors to identify the actual source.
The use of documentation may also shift risk onto the journalist. Be aware that governments and criminal actors have taken legal or extralegal action in reprisal for the disclosure of sensitive material. Nearly half of all journalists imprisoned worldwide are jailed on antistate charges that include revealing information that governments consider to be state secrets. Criminal actors, sometimes in collusion with state authorities, have used coercion in many nations to compel journalists to reveal the sources of incriminating documents.
Journalists are finding alternative ways to publish dangerous stories. In Central Asia and other parts of the world, many have published risky stories under pseudonyms. News outlets in Latin America have run stories with generic bylines, such as the “Justice and Peace Unit” label used by the Colombian newspaper El Espectador.
News organizations can also work together on dangerous topics, sharing information and publishing a story simultaneously without individual bylines. Egos, organizational rivalries, and political, ethnic, or religious identities must be set aside to pursue such collaboration. But the approach has proved effective in diffusing the risk against any individual journalist while enabling reporters to cover hazardous topics.
Journalists in Colombia began working collaboratively after a series of attacks on publishers and editors of outlets that reported critically on drug traffickers. The most notable attack was the 1986 assassination of Guillermo Cano, El Espectador publisher and editor-in-chief, a crime attributed to the Medellín cartel leader Pablo Escobar. As CPJ board member María Teresa Ronderos recounted in a 2010 CPJ report, El Espectador joined with its main competitor, El Tiempo, and other media outlets in the following months to investigate and publish stories about drug trafficking’s many tentacles in society.
Years later, in 2004, a coalition of Colombian print outlets began working together on dangerous assignments such as infiltration by illegal paramilitary groups in the nation’s lottery. This and other investigative stories were published simultaneously in 19 Colombian magazines and newspapers. The newsweekly Semana led another collaborative effort, the Manizales Project, designed to investigate murders and threats against journalists. While violence against Colombian journalists has not stopped, CPJ research shows, it has occurred less frequently and at a lower level.
Collaborating across borders is another way to confront organized crime. Groups such as the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, with members in 50 nations, have produced news-breaking reports on topics such as tobacco smuggling and black-market ocean fishing. The Belgrade-based Center for Investigative Reporting-Serbia and the Sarajevo-based Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project together uncovered offshore holdings of Serbian billionaire Miroslav Mišković.
Journalists should be watchful for signs that they are under surveillance, notes the Sarajevo-based Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. (See Chapter 9 Sustained Risks for further advice on surveillance.) Some private security firms have added surveillance detection to the hostile-environment training they offer journalists. (See Appendix B Security Training for a list of firms.) Knowing that one is under surveillance can give reporters and editors time to consider options. That includes whether or not to continue working on the story, to put other reporters on the story, to involve other news organizations, to rely on and report the matter to law enforcement authorities, and to relocate journalists and their families. Journalists should be aware of the possible reactions to stress that they and their families may face in covering organized crime and corruption. (See Chapter 10 Stress Reactions.)