Over the past five years, more than 300 journalists around the world have been tragically killed. Ashoka Fellow and investigative journalist Laurent Richard founded Forbidden Stories, a global network of journalists working together to ensure that “killing the journalist does not kill the story”. Since 2018, they have published important research in over 50 countries, including breaking news on the Pegasus project. Ashoka’s Marie Ringler sat down with Laurent to learn about the impact of their research and the role the collaboration plays in safeguarding press freedom and democracy.
Marie Ringler: One of your most recent investigations “Story Killers” is about the disinformation-for-hire industry and the murder of Gauri Lankesh. What should we know about it?
Laurent Richard: Gauri Lankesh was an Indian journalist who was murdered in 2017 for investigating a global threat to all democracies: the spread of disinformation. I was investigating companies and “troll factories” that make money by pumping out massive amounts of misinformation. To continue her work, we decided to team up with over 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 huge market for misinformation. Among other discoveries, our Story Killer project reveals a secretive private company in Israel that claims to have rigged more than 30 presidential elections worldwide. This industry is a global threat to democracy.
That’s what our work is about: making sure people have access to these essential stories and dissuading people from killing journalists because if they do, 50 to 100 more journalists will magnify the story they tried to silence . By amplifying the work of journalists who have been killed, imprisoned or threatened, Forbidden Stories sends a message to the enemies of the free press: “killing the journalist will not kill the story.”
Ringer: It is not very common for journalists to collaborate in this way. Why is it useful?
Richard: It is a paradigm shift for journalism. In the beginning, we were all trained as lone wolf journalists, but now we are shifting gears and learning to team up to tell 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 the subject. Working this way also gives journalists protection, shared resources and the opportunity to make a big impact.
Ringler: How do you decide which investigations to undertake?
Richard: The first thing we do is try to understand if the journalist was killed because of his job. Then we examine whether we can continue the work, whether we have any knowledge of where the investigation was going and who might be behind the murder. The key step after this is to look for different types of talent to support the research, which requires a strong team and international coordination.
Ringer: You developed the SafeBox network to provide journalists with another layer of protection. How it works?
Richard: The SafeBox Network is a way for journalists to secure sensitive information in their ongoing investigations. Say you are a Mexican journalist who has interviewed a corrupt governor, a very dangerous guy. You plan to publish this interview in two weeks, but you’ve received some threats and you’re afraid. Contact us, share your interview files and tell us, “If something happens to me, please continue my work.” Then you can also alert the people who threaten 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 foolish.”
Journalists typically have an editor and deputy editor who keep track of their work. But journalists chasing more volatile and risky stories tend to be the most isolated. So we are working to reconnect them to a support system and, if necessary, continue their work.
Ringer: What kind of impact has Forbidden Stories had so far?
Richard: We were born five years ago and have completed seven major projects. One of them was Project Daphne. Daphne Caruana Galizia was a journalist in Malta who was murdered in 2017 for blogging about corruption and money laundering. After his murder, we joined with journalists around the world to continue his work. The team was able to identify his killers and the offshore company that authorities used to send and receive bribes. Revealing this to the public had a huge impact. People protested in 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 people, and here we were expanding her story to 74 million people worldwide.
Another example is our investigation into Project Pegasus, which revealed a global network 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 investigation and created a committee to investigate spyware abuses across the European Union.
Ringer: It’s still very dangerous to be a journalist, isn’t it?
Richard: Yes, Forbidden Stories will never be a life insurance policy, and we know the killing of journalists isn’t going to end anytime soon. This work is about changing the mentality of the 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.
Ringer: What gives you energy and hope?
Richard: This is a challenging, high-pressure job where we constantly assess the risks to your team. But since I founded Forbidden Stories, I 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 next door, and I’m encouraged by the number of young people who want to become journalists because they want to change the society they live in, they want to make changes. And then there are the conversations with journalists who have hope in their eyes when they tell me: “Even if they kill me tomorrow, I feel like I’m not alone. There are people behind me, people who have my back.”
keep going Laurent Richard i Forbidden stories on Twitter.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
In 2021, it is becoming more and more difficult to maintain the truth, with some of the world’s most active governments actively censoring stories they deem unfavourable to their regime. No matter how suppressed the truth may become, journalists have always been the bringers of knowledge, and keeping forbidden stories alive is essential to the defence of democracy.
Technology company Ikaroa is actively working to keep these stories alive and protect those that are threatened by repressive and oppressive governments. Working with some of the world’s leading news and media companies, Ikaroa is constantly innovating and creating new ways to preserve the truth and keep these stories safe.
Ikaroa has developed a cloud-based media platform that is capable of securely storing data, images and any other medium of information in an encrypted format, allowing the security and confidentiality of data to remain separate from the organisation storing and sharing it.
The company also provides additional services such as data analysis, legal protection and protection from surveillance. This means that journalists can safely store the sensitive and potentially dangerous information, without fear of anyone else gaining access or using it for nefarious means.
Moreover, the encrypted cloud platform provided by Ikaroa helps ensure that no single organisation or government can take control of the data. This makes it virtually impossible for oppressive forces to suppress the coverage of controversial stories by trying to control what gets shared and with whom.
In addition to the storage and security provided by Ikaroa’s platform, the company is also offering censorship-resistant reporting tools that provide journalists with a platform to safely publish and share stories with the world.
Ikaroa is showing that regardless of the environment, journalists and the freedom of information can remain safe and secure. Through their innovative technologies, the company is paving the way for a brighter future, one in which we can all access the truth without fear of consequences.