Risky Business

Paul Radu about how information activists manage the risks and make ethical judgements.

Investigators grapple every day with serious ethical questions. How far should you go to get valuable information? Is it ever okay to lie? Should you risk your own safety, or someone else’s, to investigate crime and corruption? In this chapter we explore how information activists manage the risks and make ethical judgements.

As an investigative reporter you take many risks. How far do you think one should bend one’s ethics in order to expose wrongdoings?

One of the hardest on-going discussions we have is indeed about ethics. Ethics are not easily defined across cultures, which matters when you’re reporting across borders. We have observed this, and we’ve also learned a lot about it from criminals. Criminals believe they are observing their own ethical rules. They believe that their behaviour is ethical; for example, if they keep their word. They justify their actions via some higher interest or other. In the case of journalists, our ethics are based on the public interest. What we do must be done in the public interest. We protect our sources to the best of our abilities, and we constantly learn more about ways of protecting them. But our approach to this may leave something to be desired; for example, our communications systems need to be improved. We need to protect sources much better than we are currently doing. We are learning a lot from hackers about

Is it ethical to lie in order to obtain information? Are there lines you won’t cross?

We try not to lie to get information, but that’s not always possible. If we feel that it is in the public interest to expose a wrongdoing, we sometimes lie, we go undercover. I’ve lied quite a few times: going undercover to pretend to buy trafficked women, for instance. And I felt that this was for a good cause. However, even this can be very tricky. It was indeed done for a good cause, but what I did not understand at that point was that I was becoming part of the problem. My reporting on traffickers buying and selling women in Bucharest and elsewhere was interesting to the public, but it did not solve the problem at all. After buying a woman, I took her to a shelter for victims of trafficking. And I thought, “Okay, this is great. She’s now safe. She’s going to go to school, she’ll have a life.” I was wrong. The system of shelters offered her limited assistance and then she was back on the streets. For me, it was a great story: there was a good outcome, some of the traffickers were arrested... but they were only imprisoned for relatively short periods, one or two years, and then they went straight back into business.

We do not generally pay for information, but in some countries where you can’t get information any other way, we have paid. What we try to do is to carry on this ethical debate all the time. Whenever we need to do something different from what we would usually do, we have a discussion about it. We say, “We'll have to lie to these people. Why should we do this? Are there any other ways we could get the information? Are we taking an unethical short cut by doing this?” We try to debate these questions and, in the end, we reach a conclusion. It might or might not be the best possible conclusion, but we are always discussing ethical questions.

You and your organisation have been taken to court a few times. What do you think about the risks of litigation? What advice would you give other investigators who are reporting on powerful individuals and institutions? What are the biggest risks and how should they deal with them?

There are various risk levels. There is obviously a physical risk when you report on criminals and corrupt politicians: they could try to hurt you. In that situation the best advice I can give is to be part of a network – and in that respect, it’s even better if you belong to a cross-border network. The moment your subjects realise that the information about them is held by a number of people across a network, they realise that harming you will not do any good, because they will not be able to get rid of the story. So spreading the risks across the network is very important. 

\ Of course, you have to take other measures. Even if you are fairly safe because you’re part of a network, it’s important to take further precautions, such as having some sort of surveillance whenever you meet someone who’s dangerous: you could have your colleagues come along with a long lens and take photographs from a distance. This is not only because of the physical risks, but because the person you’re interviewing might try to bribe you, and might later claim that they actually did bribe you. They could just shove an envelope into your pocket and then call the police.

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Read more about Sahin Yuksek.

You never completely eliminate the risk, but there are all sorts of ways you can mitigate it. You can have a recording device on you that transmits to your colleagues outside. You can leave your phone on and set to record. Sometimes our reporters use GPS trackers when there is a dangerous situation.\ There are also litigation risks, legal risks. We operate across borders and publish our stories in various countries, so we can be sued in various jurisdictions. We’re on trial now in the USA, Latvia and Russia, in cases that are all instigated by the same people.

\ In this situation, the truth is the best defence. If you base your investigative reporting on clearly documented facts, you can always show your good intentions. You can show that you have done a very thorough job, and you did not mean primarily to harm any specific person. You did not start the investigation with the intention of ruining someone. Your investigation is a service in the public interest.\ Lots of people doing investigative reporting don’t give the other party to an opportunity to express themselves on the story. This is why you do need to talk to the subjects of your stories, because some of them at least will see that you're working in a professional way, and that you don’t have anything against them personally.

What is your approach to the libel risk related to exposing personal data?

The key is to report on what the mobster does. You do not report on the daughters of a mobster. You do not report on his wife. Even if there are more “entertaining” stories there, we avoid reporting on people who are not directly concerned. We’re not in the business of finding personal dirt, we are just doing our jobs as investigative reporters. Because of this, we’ve now come to be respected by certain mobsters. When we call them, they answer our calls. They talk to us. And we can confirm some of our information with them at that point. You have to demonstrate that you are doing good work. In the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, we have an extra layer of protection: libel insurance. Whatever is done via the network is covered by our libel insurance, which shelters us from harm and gives us access to good lawyers. It also means that we need to abide by the highest reporting standards.

How would you deal with accusations that you’re not neutral because you get money from a foundation or government that may have links to people whose misconduct you should be exposing?

Sources of funding are a big problem for investigative reporting. That’s why we disclose our financing, so we can say, “Yes, we get money from here, here and here”. We try to diversify our funding base and say, “We don’t just get money from the Americans, we also get money from the EU and from Denmark.” But this doesn’t necessarily help persuade people who really want to believe that we’re secret agents!

Above all, we try to have all of our reporting sourced and to be very transparent in our reports. If anyone accuses us of something, we just tell them, “Read the story. Consult the documents that we posted with the story. And if you look here, we also explain how we obtained the information.” Our ultimate defence against these sorts of accusations is that we are transparent and we post all the documents online to show people that they come from public records. We don’t get our information from the CIA or from MI6, or from the Montenegrin Secret Service, or from any other shadowy entity. We always work with public records, and you or anyone could do the same work. We teach people how to investigate because we want as many people as possible to do it and use our tools. This is also why we publish our handbooks.

You expose yourself to a lot of stress when you meet criminals – you never know what may happen. How do you deal with that?

We should probably be doing more about the stress we face. Sometimes we’re under pressure because we’re threatened with court cases and so on, too. I think that what helps us in that situation is that we are a group and we always have each other to talk to. Some of our people have suffered post-traumatic stress disorders, and in some countries, we’ve asked for professional help for them. We probably ought to consider getting more help because in the long run, this work is quite taxing.

Exposing the Invisible has a list of organisations and resources you should look at . Check it out!

When a new investigative reporter or activist arrives to work with you, do you check how they use security tools? Have you ever said “I don't want you to work like this!”?

When a new reporter arrives, who is not familiar with any of the tools, we will assign her or him very small tasks that will not endanger anyone, such as getting hold of the public records of registered companies. We try to teach her or him the importance of this work, that these documents are pieces in a puzzle. If she or he wants to access other sorts of documents, first she or he needs to know how to handle those. However, as yet our security protocols are far from perfect.

There is an amazing Serbian man in our network. His security skills are very good; he trains other members of our network from time to time. He trained our people on how to choose a good password. These things are basic but very useful – and of course he teaches and other tools.

In some countries, even if we had hackers teaching journalists how to do it and giving usb sticks with systems that they can use to anonymise their presence on the Internet, they're still not using those. They use those only for short period of time...

There’s only so much you can do. For example, it turned out that our colleague in Azerbaijan was being recorded in her bedroom for a few months by the authorities. There was a hidden camera in the wall. A video was posted on the Internet of her having sex with her boyfriend. She said “OK, so I can use all these fancy security tools on my computer, but then they will just install a camera in my bedroom and film everything. What's the use of all this security when they can just put a camera outside of my window and intercept whatever is going on in the house?”

We tell our reporters that no solution is perfect, but that the idea is to minimise the ultimate risk. We can make a difference to our own safety.

What categories of information might you decide not to release?

We might have recordings of people giving us information who would prefer that their voices not be recognised. Then we do not post their recordings online. We don’t post information that would identify? our sources. That’s the only sort of information that we avoid posting.

Of course, we don’t post information based on rumours. We sometimes have access to reports from various intelligence agencies, but usually that kind of information is very low quality. We don’t use it. We read the rumours and assess if there is something interesting there, and we might investigate, but we never publicise the rumours themselves

First published on July 10, 2015

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