The Media Today

Telling the stories of reporters who can’t

February 17, 2023
Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

In September 2017, Gauri Lankesh, a journalist in Bangalore, India, was working on an editorial for Gauri Lankesh Patrike, her eponymous weekly newspaper, headlined “In the Age of False News.” The editorial tackled what Lankesh referred to as India’s “lie-factories”—websites that spread disinformation and hate, (including against her) that, she wrote, were subsequently weaponized by politicians, including in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Before the article could run, a man wearing a motorcycle helmet to hide his face fatally shot Lankesh in the driveway of her home. (At least one other man was present at the scene.) A year later, Siddhartha Deb put the killing in context in a story for CJR:

Lankesh’s death has to be attributed to more than the men who pulled the trigger and rode the motorcycles, or even those shadowy figures who planned the assassination. She was killed by the culture of impunity promoted by India’s Hindu right, and that goes not just all the way up to the heads of states and political leaders but also includes the complacent media.

This week, Forbidden Stories, a media consortium that aims to continue the work of fallen and censored journalists, released a series that it is calling “Story Killers,” an investigation into the global disinformation industry that builds on the work Lankesh started. Bringing together a hundred journalists from thirty media organizations around the world—including the Washington Post, Le Monde, and The Guardian—Forbidden Stories has produced an impressive chronicle of how disinformation is paid for and spreads, affecting nearly every journalist on earth. “From India to Saudi Arabia, via Israel, Spain and the United States, the consortium investigated small-scale, artisan-like efforts to promote a foreign state’s propaganda to surgical, professionalized black-ops,” Forbidden Stories writes. “We tracked companies that sell services to influence opinions, manipulate elections, destroy reputations and erase the truth. We scrutinized the mechanics of the business of disinformation.”

When Forbidden Stories launched, in 2017, CJR’s Jon Allsop traced the idea, in part, to an experience that Laurent Richard, the French investigative filmmaker who founded the group, had in Azerbaijan, when he was reporting on corruption in the country in 2014. Wary that he was being followed, Richard copied footage that he had taken during his reporting and gave it an Azerbaijani colleague, who then smuggled it to France. Richard was later detained at the airport, and his equipment seized. The fact that he had passed along his work meant that his reporting survived.

At a time of increasingly sophisticated disinformation efforts, many of them state-run or -backed, individual journalists are often outgunned. The same is true of threats to press freedom more broadly. Many newsrooms simply don’t have the resources to equip reporters with the tools they need to fight back, and sometimes, even high-profile, well-resourced newsrooms are challenged—including in India. Indeed, earlier this week, Indian tax authorities raided the offices of the BBC in Delhi and Mumbai after the broadcaster aired a documentary in the UK that featured criticism of Narendra Modi, the country’s prime minister, and his complicity in anti-Muslim violence in the state of Gujarat when he was chief minister there. As CJR’s Mathew Ingram wrote recently, Modi’s government went to extraordinary lengths to censor the program within India, all while smearing it as colonial propaganda. In the end, the search of the BBC’s offices lasted three days. Officials seized financial documents and the phones of employees. 

Cooperation is a key solution to such threats to reporting. A few years ago, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the Panama Papers project, helping to break down traditional silos between newsrooms working on similar stories. This month, the Washington Post published a story about a Ponzi scheme that finished work started by Jeff German, a reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal who was murdered outside his home last year. (An official whom German had investigated has been charged with murdering him.) As well as blunting press threats, collaboration can amplify important work. Covering Climate Now, a media collaborative co-founded by CJR, has brought together more than five hundred newsrooms to work together on improving climate coverage.

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The idea of working with rival outlets can run counter to a journalist’s DNA. The notion of the lone scoop, coming from nowhere to change the world, is deeply ingrained. But it’s also an anachronism. As Forbidden Stories showed, the forces aligned against facts and truth are bigger than even our most sprawling news organizations. But they aren’t a match for a journalism world aligned.

In his 2018 CJR story, after addressing the culture of impunity that contributed to the killing of Lankesh, Deb reflected on how it might be fought:

There is no police force in the world that can address such widespread social and political malaise. Perhaps, all that is available is what Lankesh herself did, the forging of connections with and between people, and giving importance to politics, and ideas, and words.

You can read Deb’s story here, and more about Forbidden Stories here.

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Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.