Keeping watchdogs safe1: Good reporting is the first line of defense

The story was told in the signature literary style of  El Faro, an independent online-only news site published in El Salvador. It was on the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang,  which has left a trail of murder and mayhem in Central America, Mexico and the U.S.  It began like this:

El Muchacho received a call on his cell phone Friday morning. It came from the jail in Ciudad Barrios, to explain the new instructions from the Mara Salvatrucha: they would have to “calm down.” In the gang’s language, that amounted to saying that until further notice, there should be no killings and no new extortions.

We had arranged to meet El Muchacho at a shopping center. He’s in his 30s, and very slender. He’s the palabrero (leader) of a clica (cell) of the MS-13 gang. Orders received from the jail cannot be questioned, so he got his cell members together and gave them the message. “We’re on vacation,” he jokes, laughing as he says it.

The report went on to reveal a secret deal in which local gangs would pull back on killings in exchange for concessions from the government, including more lenient treatment for gang members currently in jail. The revelations shook El Salvador, a country reeling from gang violence as it emerged in the last few years as the new pathway for narcotics to enter the U.S.


To do that story, El Faro reporters spoke with gang members and prison and intelligence officials. But they did not just repeat what they had been told. Unnamed sources did not suffice. They also gathered evidence that some sort of exchange had indeed taken place. For example, 30 ranking gang members who had been incarcerated for more than a decade were suddenly transferred from a maximum-security prison to jails where they are given more privileges, such as receiving visitors and being allowed physical contact with family members. In addition, the homicide rate was mysteriously on a steep decline, from 10 murders a day to two, sometimes four.

That report – with its multiple sourcing, corroboration of facts and the full play it gave the government side – shows why El Faro remains successful and credible. It’s probably also one reason it’s managed to survive  the violence and gang warfare in El Salvador.

Elsewhere in the world, others have not been so fortunate. Crime – and its close associate, corruption – are the most dangerous beats for reporters. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 35 percent of the over 900 journalists killed worldwide since 1992 were reporting on crime and corruption. Most of the fatalities were not, as is commonly assumed, war correspondents, but local journalists reporting on issues in their own communities. [Full disclosure: I am a member of the CPJ board.]

The truth – rarely acknowledged openly by press freedom defenders – is that some of the journalists attacked or killed have not been paragons of integrity or models of responsible reporting. In the Philippines, the country I know best, some of those on the casualty list were paid hacks or radio commentators who buy air time to broadcast scurrilous and often defamatory attacks.

This does not mean that the murders were justified. It only means that responsible reporting is the first defense. As El Faro has shown, one way to stay alive is to report well.

Yesterday, the Committee to Protect Journalists released an updated version of its excellent Journalist Security Guide. The guide has a separate chapter on covering crime and corruption. If the first line of defense is good reporting, the second line is being prepared.

CPJ’s tips for basic preparedness  include doing as much research as possible before actually reporting and familiarizing oneself with laws governing access to public and private property, trespassing, and invasion of privacy.

In pursuing potentially dangerous investigations, reporters should first do a risk assessment by researching recent news reports, talking to knowledgeable local sources and contacting journalists familiar with the area.

The guide includes common-sense advice like keeping an emergency bag ready and ensuring one’s mobile phone is charged. In approaching hostile or dangerous sources, it advises that reporters not go alone; they should at least be observed by a colleague.They should also be careful to project impartiality and a willingness to take the extra mile to tell all sides of a story. It also helps if reporters let their sources know that they are not working alone and that a colleague or a news organization is keeping track of them. If it is helpful, reporters should  tell law-enforcement agencies what they are up to.

The guide warns that the risks may not come directly from  the sources themselves:

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 guide has another chapter on information security, which instructs journalists on how to protect their telephone communications (mobile, satellite, Skype) as well their data and information on their sources. It advises using codes or pseudonyms for informants who do not want their identities disclosed. Sensitive electronic files can be stored in flash drives or the cloud. Really sensitive messages should be kept completely offline.

P.S. I’ve updated the Resources section of this blog to include material on journalist security. Some helpful guides include The Small World News’ Guide to Safely Using Sat Phones and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Surveillance Self Defense.  And here’s a helpful post on mobile-phone security that lists apps for encrypting cellphones.  It says smartphones are not secure at all; neither are  the dumb phones, but with the latter, you can easily change SIM cards and throw the phones away. Spying on Journalists is Easy provides some tips as well. (ADDITION: Just off the press, Mobile Security Survival Guide for Journalists.)

Warning: No security measure is 100-percent bulletproof.

More on journalist safety in the next post.

2 Comments on “Keeping watchdogs safe1: Good reporting is the first line of defense”

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