Over the last five years, more than 300 journalists worldwide have been tragically killed. Ashoka Fellow and investigative reporter Laurent Richard founded Forbidden Stories, a global journalist network that collaborates to ensure that “killing the journalist won’t kill the story.” Since 2018, they have published major investigations in over 50 countries, including breaking news on the Pegasus Project. Ashoka’s Marie Ringler sat down with Laurent to hear about the impact of their investigations and the role collaboration plays in safeguarding press freedom and democracy.
Marie Ringler: One of your most recent investigation “Story Killers” is about the disinformation-for-hire industry, and the killing of Gauri Lankesh. What should we know about it?
Laurent Richard: Gauri Lankesh was an Indian journalist who was killed in 2017 for investigating a global threat for all democracies: the spread of disinformation. She was digging into companies and “troll factories” that make money pumping out vast amounts of disinformation. To continue her work, we decided to team up with more 100 journalists from the Washington Post, the Guardian, Le Monde and many more publications to continue Gauri’s work in India and investigate the global disinformation industry more broadly. What we found is that there is a vast market for disinformation. Among other findings, our Story Killer Project reveals a secretive private company in Israel which claims to have manipulated more than 30 presidential elections worldwide. This industry is a global threat for democracy.
This is what our work is all about: it’s about making sure people get access to these essential stories, and dissuading people from killing journalists because if they do, 50 to 100 other reporters will be magnifying the story they tried to silence. By amplifying the work of journalists who have been killed, jailed, or threatened, Forbidden Stories sends a message to enemies of the free press, “killing the journalist won’t kill the story.”
Ringler: It’s not very common for journalists to collaborate in this way. Why is it useful?
Richard: It’s a paradigm shift for journalism. We were all initially trained as lone wolf reporters, but now we’re switching gears and learning to team up to break specific stories to the public that are complex, time-consuming and very dangerous. They require a global network because of their scale, and the global nature of topic. Working this way also provides journalists with protection, shared resources and a chance to make a big impact.
Ringler: How do you decide which investigations to take on?
Richard: The first thing we do is try to understand if the journalist was killed because of his or her work. Then we examine if we can continue the work, if we have any knowledge about where the investigation was going and who might be behind the killing. The key step after that is looking for various kinds of talent to support the investigation, which requires a strong team and international coordination.
Ringler: You have developed the SafeBox Network to provide journalists with another layer of protection. How does it work?
Richard: The SafeBox Network is a way for journalists to secure sensitive information in their ongoing investigations. Say you’re a Mexican journalist who has interviewed a corrupt governor, a very dangerous guy. You are planning to publish this interview in two weeks, but you’ve received some threats and are afraid. You contact us, share the interview files, and tell us, “If anything happens to me, please continue my work.” Then, you can also alert the people threatening you: “For my own safety, I have shared my ongoing investigation with a consortium of 150 journalists and 60 news organizations around the world. If anything happens to me, they will continue my story. So don’t try anything. That would be silly.”
Usually, journalists have an editor and a deputy editor tracking their work. But the journalists pursuing more volatile, risky stories are often the most isolated. So, we are working to reconnect them to a support system, and, if need be, to continue their work.
Ringler: What kind of impact has Forbidden Stories made to date?
Richard: We were born five years ago and have completed seven big projects. One of them was the Daphne Project. Daphne Caruana Galizia was a journalist in Malta who was killed in 2017 for blogging about corruption and money laundering. After her murder, we teamed up with journalists around the world to continue her work. The team was able to identify her killers, and the offshore company that authorities were using to send and receive bribes. Revealing this to the public had a huge impact. People protested on the street. The Prime Minister of Malta was forced to resign. We also sent a strong message to the killers who had tried to silence her. Before she died Daphne had an audience of 300,000, and here we were amplifying her story to 74 million people globally.
Another example is our investigation on the Pegasus Project, which revealed a global web of cyber-surveillance targeting journalists, human rights defenders, politicians and more. It led to the US Department of Commerce’s decision to blacklist NSO Group, the company that sells the Pegasus spyware. The European Parliament also launched an inquiry and created a committee to investigate spyware abuses across the European Union.
Ringler: It continues to be very dangerous to be a journalist, doesn’t it?
Richard: Yes, Forbidden Stories will never be a life insurance policy, and we know the killing of journalists will not end anytime soon. This work is about changing the mindset of killers, which is generational work. But if we succeed, we will help preserve democracy, because we all know what happens to democracy when there is no free press.
Ringler: What brings you energy and hope?
Richard: This is difficult, high pressure work where we’re constantly assessing the risks for your team. But since founding Forbidden Stories, I get to spend my days meeting people who want to be part of the solution, and they bring me tremendous energy. I teach at Science Po in Paris on the side, and I am encouraged by how many young people want to become journalists because they want to change the society they’re living in, they want to be changemakers. And then there are the conversations with journalists who have hope in their eyes when they tell me: “Even if I am killed tomorrow, I feel that I am not alone. There are people behind me, people who have my back.”
This conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.