Ilya Lozovsky: Journalism does hold people accountable

Ilya Lozovsky and Miranda Patrucic, two editors at OCCRP, came to Prague with the intention of staying for one night to work on a barely-begun investigation with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty into a Kyrgyz money laundering scheme. Then they stayed for over two weeks. After the project’s main source was killed, they realized they needed to complete the big investigation and publish it as soon as possible. What is the role of an editor in life-or-death situations for journalists, and how do they deal with threats, intimidations or the killing of sources? Managing Editor of OCCRP Ilya Lozovsky talked to us about how he finished one of the most important stories of his professional life as the clock was ticking. 

When exactly did you find out that your main source was killed?

The tragedy happened on the same night we arrived in Prague. I found out the next morning from Miranda. The situation was already urgent because one of the source’s employees — a cash courier — had already been killed. Our goal [in coming to Prague] was to make an editing process faster. We were already freaking out a little bit. We planned to stay in Prague for one day to edit one story and go back to Sarajevo, but then we realised we needed to finish this whole project as soon as possible, and that’s why we stayed here for over two weeks. 

What was your reaction as an OCCRP editor?

We definitely had lots of phone calls. We immediately got in touch with Drew (Note: the editor-in-chief of OCCRP). Obviously, the primary concern of editors is being responsible for the safety of the journalists working on the project. We had already been threatened, physically intimidated, and surveilled in Kyrgyzstan, so we knew the subjects are potentially dangerous people. The tragedy happened even as we were taking precautions. A murdered man was our key source, and we’d met him just two weeks before his death. We were asking ourselves: Did somebody know he was meeting with us? 

And what was the answer? Had you noticed anything suspicious during the meeting?

Only one of us went to meet the source in Istanbul. Three of us were sitting nearby and watching just to make sure nobody was following or watching the source and the reporter who was meeting with him. We thought there were some people observing, but we were not sure if they were not just the source’s security guards. I wasn’t sure if they were related to the situation.

Is it a regular procedure? 

Miranda is pretty experienced with this, she’s dealt with very dangerous people. She had lots of ideas for what to do, but first, we consulted with Drew and waited for input from him. He himself says that the editors are always responsible for journalist safety and that there is no excuse. The editor has to know what the journalist is doing. If the journalist runs out and does something dangerous and gets killed, you can blame the journalist for being stupid, but it’s really the editor´s fault because in dangerous situations the editors should have a clear plan for how the journalist should behave: what they should do and not do.

So should editors feel responsible for his death?

In general, yes. The editors and journalists know much more about this industry than sources, especially if they’ve worked on dangerous projects before. A source is a person, not a professional. They don’t necessarily know the consequences of what they are doing. In our case, the source was a pretty experienced operator. He ran a criminal enterprise for many years and had messed up with dangerous people. He knew that. He was not a naive person. But often a whistleblower is someone who is more naive, and those people don’t know what kind of reaction to expect after a story is published; how their personal life might be affected if their names are used in the story. So the responsibility of the journalist is to guarantee the source’s safety and do everything possible to protect them. 

Ilya Lozovsky speaks at Mezhyhiryafest in Kyiv, credit: Mezhyhiryafest

You mentioned your source ran a criminal enterprise, but at the same time blew the whistle on it. Do you think he could have estimated how dangerous the situation was? Did he know he was risking a life?

I think it is the journalist’s responsibility to make a source informed as possible about the potential consequences. You need to be precise: if you talk to us, we first need to set up secure and safe communication channel. You need to explain to the source what could happen when the story comes out. It makes a big difference to have a name in a story, and it’s tricky. On one hand, we are trying to convince the source to let us use their name. But it’s your moral and professional responsibility to identify if there is a real danger in doing this and if their life is gonna change after the story is published.

How often does OCCRP face threats?

We publish hundreds of investigations every year and probably there are three or four threats. Of course this one was very serious. But in general, it depends on the region. For example, in Serbia or Montenegro, there are  many possibilities of finding yourself in danger. That’s the case anywhere where there is a link between organized crime and politics because those groups are also involved in law enforcement. You always need to understand what kind of people you’re dealing with, a clear understanding who those people are and how dangerous they are. Some people are dangerous just because they can sue you. Some people are dangerous because they can physically intimidate you. But not everybody sends someone to kill you. So Drew’s first question is: Who is this person, what is the story, and who could come after us? Is this the kind of person who kills? And many are not. 

What is your strategy when you are talking to “bad guys”?

The first step is to not smear anybody — not any politician or organized crime figure. We have to make very clear that this is not personal, this is business. Our journalistic job is to get the truth. And we’re going to report on it fairly, we’re going to give them an opportunity to respond, comment, and defend themselves and put it in the story. And that is often a way of staying safe even in very dangerous situations. Because then the affected person understands that you are not going after them in the way that means they have to kill you to make you stop. You’re just doing the story and they have some parts to play in the story. But, we will present their side in the story. It’s a much less dangerous situation than if they feel like they have an enemy — we don’t want them to feel that way. We are trying to mitigate the danger by making the story less personal, less emotional. And they have to make a calculation: Should I hire someone to kill this journalist, but then… what’s gonna happen afterwards? We often make very clear that if you kill one of us, 20 or 30 of us will cover everything you do. We want to show them that killing a journalist is a mistake. Always a mistake. Not even from a moral or emotional point of view, but also from a rational point of view. This is never gonna be your best move. 

What is the best thing to do when a journalist or a source is killed? To publish as soon as possible?

Definitely. As I said before, the first line of defence is being fair and correct. We are trying to make sure all the facts are correct, that’s why we do double or triple checks of everything. Then they have no excuse to say we are just making up staff to go after us. The next thing is that the faster you publish, the better it is. The most dangerous period is the day before publication because that’s when they still have time to stop you. But an even more dangerous period is just after you send requests for comments. In the most dangerous cases, we try to make this period as short as possible. You have to be fair and tell them what you are accusing them of. So at this point, they know what is coming, what you have, and they have one last chance to stop you. After the story is out, the whole calculation changes: at this point, they’re doing damage control. Going after the journalist who published the story, might only make things worse. 

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When did you confront the “bad guys” in the Kyrgyz story?

Our source was killed on Sunday, we spent a whole week working on the story, and at the beginning of the following week, we sent requests for comment. At the time he was killed, we were not ready at all. The reporting was still ongoing, and the writing wasn’t done — honestly, it hadn’t even started, really. We needed to figure out what the story was going to be about, if there should be just one or several stories. We have to wait because we needed to check all the facts, before we can publish.

Is there a “manual” how to deal with this kind of situation?

I think there’s one in heads of people like Drew and Miranda who have done this for a long time. It’s not a secret, this is an experience that journalists face around the world and I am pretty sure it’s written down somewhere. But in our case, we do have a handbook and it does include a section on safety. 

Ilya Lozovsky and Miranda Patrucic during their work, credit: Ilya Lozovsky archive

Why is it happening? In last few years we have cases of dead and threatened journalists in different countries.

I think lots of democratic countries are not as democratic as they think they are, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. There are places like Hungary, Poland, former Yugoslavia, all of them are technically democratic countries, but there are parties with lots of the levers of power and corruption. They feel they can do whatever they want: they can manipulate the justice system, the police, the special services. This breeds corruption and corruption breeds crime. People who have lots of money, personal power, businesses at stake can lose a lot from exposure. And if corrupt politicians, officials and criminals have the same interests, that’s a very dangerous combination. So in this case, it wasn’t a criminal family that went after us, but rather associates of politicians who went after us. Slovakia and the Czech Republic are not on the same level as Kyrgyzstan, but we know there is lots of corruption and organized crime. 

What should the reaction of the public or government be?

Journalists should be protected. If there is ever a tragedy like journalists being killed, it means the government needs to guarantee a fully transparent investigation. You want to have a police force and prosecutors and people really interested in figuring out what happened and bring it to justice. But in a larger sense, the investigative journalism needs support. It’s very expensive and very difficult. It’s not something that the market really supports. You spend six months and tens of thousand dollars towards a story that is five pages long. You cannot make money on that. People need to recognize that journalism is a public good, same as trash collection or the subway. It’s something for everybody that cannot be supported by the market and everybody needs to chip in. There must be financial support from society. A healthy democratic society can only stay healthy and democratic if it has really effective journalism that holds people accountable. 

And what about the public?

The public should demand it. They should demand that the government ensure there are whistleblower laws that apply to the protection of sources and that there is not a legal regime that makes it impossible to get our work done without being sued. This is such a big problem in the UK, where libel law is very difficult for journalists. That’s always a big pressure on a newsroom: are we gonna get sued? Even if the article is entirely correct, they can sue us. It takes so much energy and money and makes our work less effective and gives wealthy people the opportunity to manipulate the system. This is, unfortunately, a very effective tactic, to go after journalists, even more effective than physically killing them. You can kill one journalist, you can kill another one, but by legal pressure, you can kill the whole industry if the legal regime makes it possible. The public should demand that the media environment is free, financially supported, protected from violence, and able to do its work.

Ilya Lozovsky is Managing Editor at OCCRP. Prior to joining the organization, he worked for Foreign Policy in Washington, where he edited and wrote for the magazine’s Democracy Lab channel. Ilya has also worked as Program Officer for Eurasia at Freedom House, providing emergency support to human rights activists and organizations across that continent. Ilya’s work – which mostly covers the problems of liberal democracy in the world today – has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, Haaretz, and other outlets. He was born in Moscow and emigrated to the U.S. in the last days of the Soviet Union, settling and growing up in the Boston area. He speaks Russian and German and holds an MA in political development from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

By Eva Kubániová
English version edited by Maya Perry
Feature photo by Ilya Lozovsky