Protecting Stories

Session notes from the Investigative Practice Series

Chair: Sarah Giaziri
Director, Frontline Freelance Register

Laurent Richard

Founder, Forbidden Stories

Pavla Holcova
Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP)

May Jeong
The Intercept

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If the intention behind violence and persecution towards journalists and whistleblowers is to keep their stories from ever getting out, and send a warning to others who may be considering researching similar areas, how best to protect the ultimate prize of investigative journalism: important stories?
In this seminar, Investigative Practice determined the methods through which journalists and their supporters can overcome the fear and intimidation that often causes them to drop investigations, or to never begin them at all.

"It is flawed the way we think about journalistic ethics... we need to make sure our subjects make informed consent."

May Jeong

There’s a huge importance in forming a network around a story and the subsequent protection of the sources. Relationships with sources may change over the course of an investigation and there are many factors which affect this:

  • It’s worth taking your time to fully immerse yourself in the community on which you’re reporting.
  • Being based in a small community for a long time, everyone is likely to know you and your sources will be people close to you, so rather than calling a source for a quote once and then rarely speaking again, most of the stories you write in such a situation are continuations of an ongoing conversation you are having with the people around you.
  • In May Jeong’s case, her relationship with sources constitutes a large part of her social life.
  • The conventions surrounding journalistic ethical practices (‘on the record’, ‘off the record’, speaking on background) only work for those who already have power. It is integral to the safety of the source to fully explain the risks and implications of their testimony.

Jeong has first-hand experience of following a story into danger (e.g. hiding in an Afghan army helicopter) and navigating the risks of a dangerous story is rarely an exact science. Such risks are often difficult to quantify, so you have to go with your instinct and your impression of the people around you. Most often, your gut is the thing that will keep you safe, but it’s very important to have a reliable team or fixer, whose viewpoint you can trust.

In terms of more tangible precautions, Jeong recommends the International NGO Safety Organisation (INSO) to access security briefings every morning (the INSO is active in several countries and many other countries have equivalents). It is also advisable to seek expert opinions on certain stories, wherever you have a qualified contact, if you have been commissioned you should request a consultation with the outlet’s security experts. The Frontline Freelance Register also advocates for risk assessments in such cases and provides resources to help to complete these.

"If a journalist is dying for one story, this story is likely to be very relevant to the public interest."

Laurent Richard

Laurent Richard started out as an investigative reporter working in several regions where there was a situation of conflict or repression of the press. The tragedy of losing friends in the Charlie Hebdo attack prompted Richard to start the organisation Forbidden Stories (which evolved from similar projects such as the OCCRP’s Khadija Project and the Arizona Project), to help finish the difficult stories journalists started but could not finish due to threats, violence or murder. As the organisation was being set up, Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered so they started work straight away, setting up the Daphne Project with 18 news organisations as partners.

The organisation aims to:

  • Provide services to journalists to help protect their information and their stories.
  • Journalists most at risk tend to work alone and publish through social media, as their stories are too risky for a newsroom. Forbidden Stories is tailored to these cases, helping them with tools from the open-source environment that they may not have access to or know how to use effectively.
  • They propose using three main tools: Securedrop, Signal and PGP email.
  • Journalists are able to publicly state that they have shared their story and evidence with Forbidden Stories as a disincentive to threaten or target them, since the story will still be able to be told. This is always decided on a case-by-case basis though, on the basis of a prior risk assessment.

"A way of sending a message outside that you can’t kill the story because there are five other people working on it, and they have access to all the data."

Pavla Holcova

OCCRP protects journalists and their stories in a similar way by sharing the stories amongst a small network of people, including tech specialists who can ensure the security of the journalist’s laptop. They also use ‘OCCRP wiki’, a platform like google docs, enabling reporters to protect their stories online, whilst sending a message that the story cannot be killed through their silencing.

They try and sustain the journalist’s name in popular consciousness if they are imprisoned. Holcova gives the example of when the organisation signed off articles under the name Khadija Ismayilova while she was imprisoned. This produced enormous outside pressure, so that she was released from her seven and a half year sentence in a little over one year. However, it did have the effect of making her time inside more difficult as the government believed she must be publishing stories from her cell, and subjected her to room and strip searches.

Q If you receive a violent threat, are there tools to test its legitimacy?

A Holcova argues that journalists tend to underestimate threats. They think that if someone is openly threatening them it means they are unlikely to actually follow through, but this is often a mistake. It is important to take threats seriously and perform an evaluation of the seriousness according to what the story is, the context the journalist is working in and the likely sources of the threat or threats. It’s also important to take personal and online security precautions, to see if someone is following or tracking you and to mitigate the risks of that. The vast majority of murdered journalists are physically followed beforehand.

For Richard, the key is teamwork. His experience, having been arrested in Azerbaijan, was that his safety was increased by being aware that it was likely to happen and having already connected with the French embassy and his editor in Paris. He had previously backed up his information with someone he could trust and had constructed a Communications Plan in which he figured out what tools he was going to use to continue communications with sources. This meant that the reaction time was quick and he was out before charges could be pressed. Anticipation is hugely important, especially as the first few hours after arrest are key, so that you can access outside help from organisations or embassies before the situation is formalised and charges are brought.

It can be difficult when freelancing without the support of a news organisation behind you, but it is sometimes possible to consult people from other news outlets (Jeong often contacts The Intercept in this regard). Ultimately though, the most important thing is to follow your gut: ‘what do your instincts say and with the people you respect, what do their instincts say?’

Sarah Giaziri offers up organisations that work in this area and produce resources that can help to evaluate the legitimacy of threats. For instance, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have local partners and experts in many countries as well as a central assistance desk which can help with such an evaluation. CPJ also have an emergency response programme which can connect you to a security consultant with which you can have these kinds of discussions and access expert advice. The Rory Peck Trust and Internews also provide tools and resources on how to report and assess threats. Much of this is focused on conflict journalism, but there are training programmes that focused more on security for investigative journalists as well. However, pre-emptive training is usually more effective than support after the fact, so journalists should try to spend time preparing beforehand as far as possible.

Q What do you do about a real physical threat?

A After an evaluation of the risk, if it looks like a real threat then OCCRP will get a reporter out of the country, leaving without their technical equipment, to ensure they are not being tracked.

Organisations such as RSF and CPJ also have some funding available to provide journalists under threat with safe housing. This can cover a few nights in a hotel in situations of immediate threat, during more sustained threat situations they can provide help in accessing fellowships for a few weeks or months. They are often overwhelmed though, so to ensure that your request for help is recognised as urgent when it reaches their desk, it is recommended to be in contact with the organisations representative in your country before the situation becomes critical.

There is also a wider network of organisations with access to emergency funds for these purposes, who collaborate on allocating this money, including Free Press Unlimited. Again though, it is key to be in touch with representatives from these organisations and report regularly on your situation so that they can prioritise your request when required.

Q When protecting a story, do we value the reporter, the story itself, or we do think purely in terms of its impact?

A “No story is worth dying for” is an oft-repeated maxim, but actually the incentive structure for a working reporter is the opposite. The worth of a story is essentially a philosophical question eg. do you believe in the greater good or do you believe in individual autonomy? This is a decision people need to make on an individual level. But it is definitely true that the way the industry is currently structured will always reward reporters more for taking immense risks.

Holcova believes that if a reporter is in danger they should always be prioritised and another way should be found to finish the story. For instance, a solution can be that another journalist working in a different country is enlisted to continue the work and publish remotely but still keep the impact within the country of concern.

Q How do you deal with the psychological impacts of long-term surveillance?

A The solution is finding a balance. There are so many pressures that come with the job: lawsuits, social media threats and the expectations of individuals around the story, and it is important to draw certain lines for the sake of yourself. Holcova gives a personal example of deciding not to live under police protection after the murder of a colleague because it was too much of a psychological strain. This will always depend on the individual capacity and coping mechanisms of each reporter though.

There are organisations that offer psychological support to journalists, such as the Dart Center. They have an international team who provide psychological support to journalists dealing with traumatic events. It is important to recognise trauma and deal with it appropriately, not just because of the mental health implications, but also due to the risk of making poor decisions when working under the impact of trauma. There are many self-care processes that you can put in place and the Dart Center provides resources and tools to help with these.

It’s worth remembering that you need to be in the right place to talk to a psychologist; it’s not always helpful to speak to a psychologist straight away. The Dart Center runs online sessions for psychological care in several languages, although there are limits to the benefit of such support when accessed online. The Center does also have a network of psychologists in many countries so they do have the capacity to provide face-to-face support as well.

One other element which adds to the pressure of working under surveillance is the responsibility that journalists have for the protection of their sources. These people are more at risk from the surveillance, as they are usually taking more direct risks in speaking to journalists and they are also much less likely to have access to tools, resources and support for ensuring secure communications and avoiding the risks of being surveilled. The main way to help mitigate this pressure is again preparation and familiarising yourself with the tools and techniques so that you can do as much as you can to help your sources.

There are also psychological threats that come not from surveillance but from the difficult issues with regards to the media’s role in the growth of groups that rely on violence and terrorism. This is a paradox of the journalism industry; by reporting something you are affording it a certain level of credibility. It can sometimes feel like we are merely inoculating the public to superlative statements through constantly upping the ante in the ways in which we report certain events. There is a risk that journalists, especially conflict journalists, end up feeling complicit in increasing cycles of violence. This is a different, more philosophical problem which puts journalists under pressure, and while there does not seem to be an easy solution, it is an issue which requires more thought and consideration.

This discussion was part of the Investigative Practice series at the Logan Symposium, Oct 2018