AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2010

Playing Defense   

News organizations are plotting strategies to protect journalists threatened for their tough reporting in regions dominated by organized crime.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

Related reading:
   » Protecting Journalists

As soon as the blood had been wiped from his eyes and his shattered arm had been secured by a medical team, Dusan Miljus reached for a telephone. The hard-bitten investigative reporter had built a career producing exposés that drove crime bosses crazy. That evening, he delivered a simple message: "Mama, I am OK."

His 75-year-old mother had been stunned to see television news reports about bat-wielding thugs attacking her son in front of his apartment building earlier that evening. Hearing his voice was reassuring, but the warning was clear.

Miljus, a reporter for Jutarnji List, a leading daily in the Croatian capital of Zagreb, had delved into organized crime in a region of Europe where local mafia dons rule by terror. When he returned to work five months after the June 2008 beating, Miljus, 48, conducted his investigations into transnational criminal activity under 24-hour police protection.

In August 2009, he asked authorities to back off a little. It was hard to gain the trust of confidential sources with lawmen hanging around. "The police knew everything I was working on," he said over a cup of tea in the posh café of Zagreb's Palace Hotel.

Bodyguards were nowhere in sight during our March interview. But when he heads to an assignment or home for the day, a police car will follow close behind — and for good reason.

Just five months after Miljus was beaten, Ivo Pukanic, owner of the Zagreb-based weekly newsmagazine Nacional, and the publication's marketing manager were blown up by a car bomb outside their office. Nacional was known for exposing organized crime and corruption. The trial of six Serbian mobsters charged with the October 23, 2008, murders began earlier this year. Security guards were assigned to the prosecutor and judge. Local media reported that snipers were posted around the courthouse.

The ubiquitous police presence underscored a powerful message: Drill deep enough into the underworld and, regardless of who you are — judge, lawyer or journalist — it could be a death sentence. A handful of investigative watchdogs in the Balkans and former Soviet republics buck those odds to report on the ravages of organized crime in their backyards.

A brutal brand of transnational crime has saturated these former Communist strongholds, with tentacles spreading worldwide. Reporters have traced vice rackets in the United Kingdom to the Kosovar Albanian mafia, money laundering by Eastern European crime families to Cyprus and the tiny country Liechtenstein, and heroin from Afghan poppy fields transported through the Balkans to Bosnian diaspora communities in Germany and Scandinavia.

Following the money and paper trail often leads to Wild West terrain where homegrown godfathers are omnipotent.

Outside of personal gratification, there is little reward for the risky work these journalists do. Many earn meager salaries at bare-bones news operations, where staffers often supply their own equipment and pay their travel expenses.

If these dedicated journalists suddenly walked off the job, crime bosses throughout the region would be popping corks. However, David Kaplan, director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, with 100 media professionals in 50 nations, including the Balkans and Russia, would be crestfallen.

To Kaplan, the presence of local investigative reporters in the Balkans and former Soviet states is "absolutely essential" to stop the proliferation of organized crime. They know the turf, the culture and trustworthy sources better than anyone else.

"There are a handful of reporters in these countries who are willing to push the boundaries," says the former chief investigative correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. "They are doing God's work, often at great personal risk."

Last year, Kaplan studied which beats had been covered by the 742 journalists killed worldwide between 1992 and 2009, according to figures compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists. The deadliest category? It was a tie: 34 percent were killed covering war and 34 percent covering crime and corruption. Says Kaplan: "It did surprise me that crime reporters were dying as frequently as war correspondents."

Given the magnitude of the threat, it comes as no surprise that a movement is underway in the Balkans to provide a modicum of safety for reporters on the organized crime beat.

In a maze of offices on the second floor of a fading Austro-Hungarian building in downtown Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a blueprint is being created for members of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. The goal is to change a macho newsroom culture where editors pooh-pooh the dangers their journalists face to one where they take responsibility for implementing and enforcing safety policies.

The project was founded in 2007 by Drew Sullivan, a former investigative reporter for the Nashville Tennessean and advising editor to the group, and Paul Radu, field editor for OCCRP. Radu, cofounder of the Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism, exercised caution while working on exposés of the mob's control of professional soccer leagues and betting in Eastern Europe in 2008. Checking his car for bombs became routine. The project documented how soccer had become a deadly game, ruled over by crime syndicates.

Over the years, as Sullivan attended journalism conferences and workshops in the region, he made a habit of asking reporters, "What do you do for safety?"

"Really, no one was doing anything. We realized they were getting no support whatsoever," says Sullivan, who in 2004 formed the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo with funding from the United States Agency for International Development. It became an independent nonprofit organization in 2007 and was a founding member of OCCRP.

The expanded network includes members in Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Russia, Serbia and Ukraine, all hotbeds of organized crime. These investigative media centers began collaborating on projects, which took the heat off reporters operating on their own.

When Sullivan began searching for established safety training programs for journalists on the crime beat, he came up empty. He found plenty for correspondents covering wars. "But nobody tells you how to survive when a mobster is trying to kill you," he says.

The challenge now is how to implement the OCCRP policy without driving reporters crazy and raising the level of paranoia in the newsroom.

Ideally, in Sullivan's view, safety should be treated as the responsibility of the news organization. Editors routinely should go into meetings and ask: What is the safety issue here? What do we need to be worried about? What kind of safety procedures should we implement?

OCCRP safety guidelines address the practical: Check cars for bombs, keep newsroom doors locked, vary routes to and from home, report any inkling of surveillance (see "Protecting Journalists," below right). There also are tips on the virtues of accurate and balanced reporting as potential lifesavers.

Journalists are advised to "bend over backwards" to prove they are impartial and fair and to give even the worst person a chance to tell his or her side of the story. An important tip: Stay away from wives, children and girlfriends of crime figures unless they are involved in the criminality.

Sullivan likes to quip: "Unsafe journalism is like unsafe sex. Either one can get you killed."

The drill already is in place at the Sarajevo center. News managers have safety meetings on each story. Security procedures are ramped up, depending on what they find. They use armed guards or get reporters out of town quickly if the situation warrants it. Potentially dangerous meetings with sources are monitored by another reporter or editor at the scene or electronically. Reporters are trained to look for people following them.

"The most dangerous sign for us is someone doing surveillance on a reporter," Sullivan says. "It might be the only warning we ever get."

One section in the safety policy is reminiscent of American journalists' commitment to complete the work of Don Bolles, who was killed by a car bomb in June 1976 while investigating organized crime activities for the Arizona Republic (see "Recalling the Arizona Project," August/September 2008), or the determination of San Francisco Bay Area journalists to follow up on the reporting of slain Oakland journalist Chauncey Bailey (see "The Oakland Project," August/September 2008). In that tradition, OCCRP reporters are committed to aggressively complete the work of a fallen colleague.

In the United States, news organizations that for years had gone it alone are increasingly cooperating on reporting efforts. In Eastern Europe, cross-border collaboration has led to some stunning reporting successes.

In a 2008 handbook for the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C., Radu told of an investigation into a gold mining operation in the Transylvania region of Romania that led to a web of corruption on five continents. He described how a document uncovered in Bulgaria led reporters to an exposé on the Irish Republican Army's money laundering through purchases of real estate on the shores of the Black Sea.

In the spring 2009 IRE Journal, Radu, a Knight Fellow at Stanford University this year, wrote a piece titled "A Deadly Game" about organized crime and political corruption's reach into Eastern European soccer clubs. The project (www.reportingproject.net) was produced by 10 reporters and editors in six countries working under the umbrella of the OCCRP. Reporters began a simultaneous look at the soccer business in their homelands, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia and Ukraine.

In the article, Radu explained the collaborative process: "Reporters scanned national registries of commerce to gather the ownership data of the most important football clubs in the region. The information was then shared and posted in country-specific folders through Microsoft Office Groove, which is a software platform that enables secure collaboration through the Internet and creation of virtual newsrooms." That, he said, allowed journalists to check company records posted on Groove to find cross-ownership of clubs and track related regional business interests of football club owners.

Radu sees such cooperative efforts as one way to counter the risk inherent in this hazardous work. "It's a collaborative effort and not the work of a lone journalist who can be targeted," he wrote in an e-mail interview.

Mirsad Brki´c, a reporter with the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo, was gathering information about the thriving underground market in cigarette smuggling in neighboring Montenegro and other parts of the Balkans when he received an unnerving message. The caller warned that the journalist and his family would be killed if he didn't back off. Brki´c recorded the message; it was analyzed by police sources and deemed to be a serious threat.

Editors put the story on hold for a month. Brki´c quietly continued his work but did not call or travel to Montenegro. Other center reporters picked up the slack. Since publication of the resulting story in 2007, the collaborative, cross-border project has become a model of what can be accomplished even under such dangerous conditions.

Despite the push for better safety tactics, fear still haunts journalists who put their lives on the line. The June 2008 attack "definitely changed my life," says Croatia's Dusan Miljus, who talked about what it was like to be stalked by killers.

For him, the first month after the attack was the worst. Police in his neighborhood were assigned to provide protection. When he wanted to buy groceries at a shop 150 yards away, he had to make a call, then wait and be escorted. "I felt like I was in jail," the reporter recalls.

Miljus has vivid memories of the beating. He recalls stepping out of his car when two assailants wearing motorcycle helmets suddenly appeared and smashed him in the head with baseball bats. Instinctively, Miljus tried to ward off the blows. Then, he slipped into "a deep tunnel; everything was black. I felt blood in my eyes, on my face."

A neighbor, whom Miljus describes as a tough, brawny veteran of Croatia's war for independence in the 1990s, yelled for the men to stop, grabbed a tire iron and chased the attackers away.

"Organized crime was sending a clear message: 'I am not secure in my life.' Now if I see someone staring at me, I say to myself, 'Why? Who is it? What do they want?' I try to forget and live normally, but I have this in my memory," he says.

Miljus' colleagues ask why he doesn't change beats and write about sports or tourism, two popular topics in Croatia. "If I did that, what kind of message would it be for other journalists, especially ones covering organized crime?" asks the reporter, who knows at least three other Croatian journalists under police protection due to their work.

For journalists like Miljus, there is an emotional price to pay. The impact of "extreme and prolonged threats of reprisal for investigative reporting is corrosive and debilitating," says Frank Ochberg, a founder of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. When the targeting of family members is involved, the fear and demoralization are even more severe.

"The first instinct is often to face the danger and carry on, taking prudent precautionary measures. But risk to children, spouses and parents limits one's personal courage," says the psychiatrist, who has counseled journalists who have been targeted by criminals. Sullivan recalls that Mirsad Brki´c was a "nervous wreck" when he thought mobsters might harm those close to him.

Indifferent news managers can make matters worse, Ochberg says. He explains that the "strain of continuing threat, or arduous adjustment to privation, or callous indifference to one's meaning and morality, create depression and anxiety. Depression means feeling hopeless, helpless and worthless. It is worse than grief. It requires treatment."

Russian psychologist Olga Kravtsova hasn't seen much training for physical safety or treatment for psychological trauma in a country where journalists have been targeted for their work. In November 2008, Kravtsova participated in a workshop for Russian reporters and others working in violence-prone areas of the Caucasus. A special session dealt with how to detect and manage surveillance and how to take precautions against abductions.

The Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta has been hit especially hard by assassinations, including the murder of reporter Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot in her apartment building October 7, 2006 (see "Iron Curtain Redux," February/March 2007). She had gained international recognition for her investigative reports into human rights abuses by the Russian military in Chechnya.

According to Nina Ognianova, the Committee to Protect Journalists' Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, Novaya Gazeta's editor wanted to close down the newspaper after Politkovskaya's assassination, but the journalists refused. "It was the reporters who insisted on carrying on their killed colleague's work despite the dangers," Ognianova wrote in an e-mail interview.

Now the newspaper has a policy that reporters share exclusive, sensitive information with as many of their colleagues as possible as soon as they obtain it, to eliminate the value of killing one journalist to prevent the story from running, Ognianova says. In the aftermath of the July killing in Chechnya of Novaya Gazeta correspondent Natalya Estemirova, editors canceled all trips to the region because they could not guarantee the safety of staffers.

Nineteen journalists have been killed in Russia since 2000 in retaliation for their work, making it one of the world's most hostile environments for the news media. So far, there has only been one conviction for the killings, according to CPJ.

And that's a big problem, says Rodney Pinder, director of the London-based International News Safety Institute, which tracks violence against journalists. Pinder points to the lack of arrests and prosecutions as a driving force behind the persistent danger the press faces in some regions. He fears the attacks and murders will increase if judicial authorities continue to look away.

Safeguards taken for granted in the West, such as honest police and prosecutors and accessible public records, are a rarity in some nations. "The countries you're looking at don't have that," Pinder says. "Journalists continue to get threatened and killed because the state doesn't appear to care."

Ognianova voices a similar assessment. She believes until justice systems are reformed and governments aggressively move to solve attacks against journalists, "Even the best safety training provided by the best of professionals in the field will not prevent future attacks on the press from happening."

Kaplan of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists credits frontline workers like Sullivan and Radu with pioneering changes for organized crime reporters.

"They absolutely are making a difference. That's why an expat like Drew has stayed in the region for so long. He can see a direct link between the stories they're doing and the impact they have," says Kaplan, who serves on the OCCRP advisory board. The Sarajevo center and OCCRP have participated in projects with his consortium, which is part of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C.

Nonprofits like those run by Sullivan and Radu are spreading throughout the region. "Most of them are doing terrific work," says Kaplan. "The movement is gaining strength, and investigative skills are improving."

Outsiders have recognized the quality of the work. OCCRP was one of seven finalists for the 2010 Daniel Pearl Award from the International Consortium for a series of stories on the illegal document trade in Europe.

In 2007, the Sarajevo center was honored for the best investigative news story done by a small Web site by the Online News Association for a series on food safety, including trans-border cattle smuggling. In 2009, the Sarajevo center was part of a team led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that won an Overseas Press Club award and an IRE Tom Renner Award for work on tobacco smuggling.

Back in Sarajevo on a bone-chilling March afternoon, Sullivan sat quietly in the corner of a conference room listening to one of his prize reporters talk about the investigations he had worked on. Gathering information on cross-border cattle smuggling earned Mirsad Brki´c a punch in the face when he poked too deeply into enemy territory. The tobacco story earned him death threats.

Asked why he continues to place himself in danger, Brki´c, who has been at the center for six years, used a coal mining metaphor: "The miner goes to work conscious of the fact he might not make it out of the pit, but he has to do his job. We have to let the public know the bad things that are happening regardless of the danger. That is our job."

The reporter glanced at his watch and began gathering his belongings to head to an assignment. When asked what he was rushing off to cover, Brki´c shook his head and replied, "No, no, that's security. I cannot tell you what I'm doing. Sorry." He shook hands and headed out the door.