In 2014, the French investigative filmmaker Laurent Richard was reporting on government corruption in Azerbaijan when his fixer told him he was being watched. Richard made a copy of his footage and gave it to the Azerbaijani reporter Khadija Ismayilova, who smuggled it to France on his behalf. Sure enough, Richard was detained at the airport, and officials seized his equipment. But thanks to Ismayilova, his reporting escaped unharmed.
That experience stuck with Richard. Now he’s launching a centralized online platform for investigative journalists in dangerous situations, vowing to keep their stories alive should they be killed or jailed. Richard’s nonprofit Freedom Voices Network will officially launch a new platform at the Newseum in Washington, DC, on October 31, inviting journalists to upload their reporting to a secure central portal and giving Richard and his team the means to continue their work if they are silenced.
Richard is currently being sued by the government of Azerbaijan in French court for calling the country a “dictatorship.” But it wasn’t just his treatment at the hands of the secretive oil-rich state that moved him to help threatened reporters. Richard was the first outsider on the scene after two terrorists assassinated 12 people at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015 (its offices were next door to Richard’s documentary company, Premières Lignes, at the time). “This happened in my environment. Not abroad, not on the frontline. This time it was in the middle of Paris,” says Richard. “That was a kind of turning point. [It made me] much more aware about the fragility of the free press.”
The need for an organization like Freedom Voices Network is more pressing now than it was even two or three years ago. Threats to reporters who dig up incriminating secrets are mounting the world over. Just last week, blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia, a vocal and influential critic of Malta’s political class, was murdered in a car bombing. Richard says it’s exactly this kind of incident—on a tiny tourist island known more for its nightlife than its political intrigue—that his team will spotlight.
Although Richard’s mission is to keep unfinished stories alive in the face of tragedy, he hopes journalists will use his platform to protect themselves against reprisal and censorship so they don’t have to rely on outside help. By telling sources that silencing them won’t silence their story, reporters can remove incentives to hurt them. Richard and his team will also launch publicity campaigns should harm befall a colleague, telling the world exactly why they were targeted and sending a deterrent message to would-be copycats.
“The idea is to say to the people who would arrest or kill a journalist that if they do so there will be 10, 20, 30, or perhaps 40 journalists who will continue his work, and make sure that the story doesn’t get killed as well, but continues and makes more noise,” says Richard’s deputy at Freedom Voices Network, Jules Giraudat.
While Richard will head up the project at the same time as his TV work, Giraudat and another French reporter, Rémi Labed, are coming onboard full-time to manage the portal and pick up the work of fallen colleagues. Labed will take responsibility for the project’s digital security—which is of critical importance given that hacks could endanger the journalists Freedom Voices Network wants to protect.
The project’s website will host detailed instructions on how best to keep files safe when uploading them—be it via encrypted email, the secure messaging app Signal, or SecureDrop, an open-source information portal managed by the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “SecureDrop is the most secure. It requires a little bit more work on the journalist’s side, but it’s really worth the effort. It’s a state-of-the-art system,” says Labed. “If [you’re working on] a very sensitive story we’d recommend SecureDrop every time.”
The concept behind Richard’s project isn’t new. After Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles was killed in a car bombing while investigating mob activity in 1976, nearly 40 journalists from across America rallied to carry on his work. Richard has taken this model and used modern technology to enhance it. He’s also leaning on existing global reporting networks to make it tick.
Reporters Without Borders, for example, will lend the assistance of its worldwide team of reporters and monitors, coordinating reporting in countries where Richard’s team lacks expertise or contacts on the ground. The organization will also fund Giraudat’s and Labed’s salaries, and publicize Freedom Voices Network’s efforts from its Paris headquarters. “Laurent contacted me saying he had this idea, which was perfectly consistent and complementary with what we do as a press freedom watchdog,” says Christophe Deloire, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders. “We use the weapon of journalism to defend press freedom.”
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists—the DC-based collective that spearheaded (and won a Pulitzer for) the Panama Papers story—is supporting the project, too. ICIJ Deputy Director Marina Walker Guevara will be at the launch next week, while Bastian Obermayer, a reporter with German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung who received the initial Panama Papers leak, will serve as its vice president.
— ICIJ (@ICIJorg) May 26, 2017
The Panama Papers story was a case study in the potential of collaborative investigative journalism across borders. While Freedom Voices Network might not be the first port of call for journalists who are already sharing big data leaks with colleagues in other countries, it will still offer a useful backstop. “When we started to confront people we planned to write about, like friends of Putin, that was the most dangerous phase,” Obermayer says. “It would have been really great to have had a safe-box, so we could have at least deposited a basic understanding of what we had, and what we were gonna use it for, and who my contacts were.”
Obermayer and Richard studied together as Knight-Wallace fellows at the University of Michigan last year. It was in Ann Arbor that Richard started fleshing out how his project might take concrete shape—with input from other fellows, professional journalists and digital experts, and even Edward Snowden, who Skyped with Richard to offer advice and support. “It all originated with this very simple, clear passion for wanting to preserve information, then his dedication to put the pieces in place,” says Lynette Clemetson, director of the Knight-Wallace program.
While its mission is clear, the exact form Freedom Voices Network’s new portal will take remains a little fuzzy. How exactly it will set about finishing stories—and its success rate—will only become clear once it has formally launched and tackled its first cases. For safety reasons, Richard can’t say much about what stories his team intends to pick up first, though he does have plans in place.
Following in the footsteps of targeted colleagues is a perilous and difficult undertaking. “Our mission is to focus on dangerous stories, so there is danger all the time. There is danger on the computer, there is danger on the devices, there is legal danger….There is danger at every corner,” says Richard. “But I do think the best protection for this dangerous mission is a collaborative aspect. If we are together we are stronger.”