Practical advice for journalists covering rising authoritarianism

This column originally appeared in Navigator, GroundTruth’s newsletter for early-career journalists.

Holding government officials accountable and reporting on complex policies is no small challenge, but when a democracy is under attack by its own leaders, it becomes particularly difficult, even dangerous. Journalists often need to be more resourceful and prepared when dealing with sources like these, and more careful when approaching people both in person and online.

These considerations were foremost on our mind when we dispatched eight journalists to seven countries to report on how world leaders seem to be drawing from the same “playbook” to undermine the democracies that elected them. Our fellows produced a series of articles and podcast season that not only map these dubious tactics, but revealed the challenges of reporting under these circumstances.

Democracy Undone Fellows (from right to left) Juan Arredondo, Nicole Tung, Letícia Duarte, Una Hajdari, Soumya Shankar, Lorenzo Bagnoli and Alessia Cerantola with GroundTruth co-Founder Kevin Grant (third from left). (Photo by Wilson Liévano)

For this installment of Navigator, we asked these reporters to reflect on their experiences. Here, they offer tips and advice to other journalists covering places where democracy is being undone. While this advice is from journalists Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What practical advice would you give to journalists who are pursuing stories in countries where democracy is being eroded?

1. Backgrounding and due diligence
Study your subject carefully before going for any interview. Attacking the press and trying to discredit journalists is one of the first tactics these leaders use, so we have to be extra prepared to recognize it and avoid feeding the cycle. It’s not just about studying their ideology and biographies, but also about their tactics on intimidating the press and distorting reality.
– Letícia Duarte, GroundTruth Fellow, Brazil

2. Do a risk assessment (for online and offline threats) 
Be prepared to tackle and defeat trolling, threats, and in some cases, actual violence. Know that your reporting may be twisted, misread, misinterpreted within the polarized ecosystems of faltering democracies. Do a risk assessment with your editors and peers, take all the necessary precautions.
– Soumya Shankar, GroundTruth Fellow, India

3. Be conscious of how people view of their own country
When you’re going in to interview people in countries that have made headlines worldwide for the reckless actions of their leaders, bear in mind that the local population is quite sensitive to the way their country, including its people, are portrayed internationally. I’ve had people come to me and say “I live a decent, honorable life and worked hard to earn what I have — why does that mean one thing in the country I happened to be born in and something else in a developed country, like the United States?”

People feel like you’re personally blaming them for what their country is going through, and that makes it harder for you to gain their trust and conduct productive interviews. I’m amazed at how good journalists from developing countries are at talking to subjects from other developing countries, even though the respective countries happen to be worlds apart and completely different! Of course, this refers to the average people that you might interview, not politicians. You can blame the politicians for the situation in the country.
– Una Hajdari, GroundTruth Fellow, Poland

4. Understand your responsibility as a journalist
Often, what these guys want is to invite journalists to a fight. Don’t take it personally, don’t overreact. Keep focused on your questions, and pay attention to each detail, so you can describe it later to your audience. Finally, be sure to record and document everything in as much detail as possible, because they will probably later accuse you of spreading “fake news.”
– Letícia Duarte, GroundTruth Fellow, Brazil

Brazilian far-right pundit Olavo de Carvalho shakes a finger at Duarte, shouting insults. (Photo by Mitch Hanley/GroundTruth)

5. Create a reporting plan
I think the most important thing is to really work out from A to Z your reporting plan beforehand. Things could (or will) evolve overtime, so you need to be able to pivot your research, reporting, aim. You need to be a bookworm about the country (including on any press regulations, knowing your rights as a visitor, organizations that could be of help). If you come from abroad, like I did, test your ideas and angles with sources, analysts, colleagues to get leads. Foreign diplomats in the country are also often useful.

Pick a good fixer, preferably fluent in your native language, with a journalism background. Always be honest with sources, even if they are becoming antagonistic (sometimes, it is for show). And if you are interviewing officials on the record or off, triple-check your facts and figures.
– Quentin Ariès, GroundTruth Fellow, Hungary

6. Use public events to your advantage

Another tip relates to getting quotes from politicians, leaders of movements, or just about anyone who is not known for having a transparent relationship with the press. I’ve found that it is easier to get a quote from someone who usually wouldn’t react to press inquiries from papers they deem to be “critical” or “not on their side” if you go to a public event that they’re organizing. These people usually love attention, and it’s easier to ask them a question at a seemingly unrelated event where they won’t be expecting it.

I love going to events marking anniversaries or events inaugurating a new school or initiative. Their press people won’t be expecting critical questions and you’re more likely to get a turn. They might get angry at you, but that in and of itself is a reaction. If they completely ignore your question, try to get an aide or someone who is at the location with them — these people want to seem like they’re open to the press and might give you a quote you can use.
– Una Hajdari, GroundTruth Fellow, Poland

7. Free yourself from assumptions
More than advice, I would like to share a warning about bias: I felt I had the tendency to report about the shrinking of the public debate in Italy and the consequent erosion of democracy using an outdated lens and categories (i.e. old-style labels like Fascism). I realized it was unfair and inaccurate during the reporting process. Approach the movements and people you meet with fresh eyes to better understand what they believe in.

In the Italian case, where authoritarianism is less brutal and evident compared to what  Soumya, for example, reported in India, it is important to delve deep in the narrative of the authoritarian movement. Logic traps, loopholes and contradictions are features of every political ideology, but they are particularly abundant in these current authoritarian movements. The best way to get to the story is through the characters’ own words, but you have to find the right characters to interview. Militants who are still “behind the scenes” are a great resource. For example, Luca Toccalini was the perfect character for us because he was unknown to the audience but well-regarded in the inner circle of the Lega.
– Lorenzo Bagnoli, GroundTruth Fellow, Italy

Listen: The Democracy Undone Podcast

Further advice on…

Interviewing powerful and aggressive figures 
Letícia Duarte interviewed Olavo de Carvalho, the intellectual father of Brazil’s right-wing populist movement. The exchange was tense and Letícia endured a barrage of insults from Carvalho. Here’s how she prepared:

I tried to read everything about [Olavo] as I could, from his books to his interviews, and articles written about him. I also watched dozens of videos on his YouTube channel, taking notes on the most important quotes. Since I knew he often disputes everything the press says about him, I based many of my questions on direct quotes from him, so it would be hard for him to deny it.

This immersion also helped me to prepare my spirit for the interview. I had seen videos in which he exposed journalists, and I knew he often screams and uses a very aggressive language. So I was not surprised when that happened to me, and It helped me to withstand his verbal attack.

Two days after my last interview with him, I found a video in which he oriented his followers to use personal attacks to intimidate critics, using “all bad words from the Portuguese language” and berate them “without respect.” My only regret is not having found this video before my interview, because I could have mentioned it while he was using this very same playbook against me.

Developing sources during a military campaign
Soumya Shankar was one of the first reporters outside Kashmir to enter the state after the Indian army assumed control and imposed curfews. Here’s how she started to develop sources:

I did an extensive risk assessment with my editors at GroundTruth before hitting the ground in Kashmir which was under total communication lockdown with no internet, public transport or telephone services running.

I landed in Srinagar with just a rough idea of where an ex-colleague lived. I hired a taxi – thankfully a few of them were running in certain areas, even though they could have been bugged by the government – and knocked on peoples’ doors to reach my ex-colleagues’ house. I didn’t find him there but his family informed me that he could be at the Press Club of Kashmir. At this point, I crossed 4 barricades showing my press card to reach the Press Club where I found my ex-colleague sitting with a bunch of local journalists. He was my first source who introduced me to other local journalists and activists who were risking their lives to report on the situation in Kashmir.

I worked with them closely, we always traveled in groups to stay safe, there were no mobile phone services so we made sure we were physically together at all times. I think the ultimate tool for conflict reporting is to summon immense inner courage — sometimes more than you think you have — and follow trusted locals. One must always remember that the suffering or dangers faced by the people one is reporting on is higher than one’s own self. That has worked as the biggest motivating factor for me.

Navigating a foreign bureaucracy
Given her experience covering nationalist groups in Central and Eastern Europe, Una Hajdari is no stranger to reporting on bureaucracy and governments, that’s why she hit the ground running when she arrived in Poland to report on the campaign against the LGBT community waged by the government. Here’s how she gets quotes from politicians who are not easily accessible:

Beware of countries that want to keep the press out by putting bureaucratic hurdles between the journalist and the information they want. My advice, besides persisting through the official channels, is to find a way to report around the person or topic you’re trying to cover. If the president won’t talk to you, find a former disgruntled aide who might give you an insight into his thinking. Does that official not want to give you that piece of information? Find someone they collaborate with on a certain issue and try there. No one’s fortress is built so high that you can’t permeate it in some way, or at least find alternative – yet reliable ways – to tell the story without them and still do it justice.

Lukács Csaba, editor of the Magyar Hang, one of Hungary’s few independent media outlets. (Photo by Quentin Ariès/GroundTruth)

Reporting on organizations that blur the line between government and private interests
Kesma, a secretive organization with deep ties to the government of Viktor Orbán  that controls most of the media in Hungary, was the center of Quentin Ariès’ reporting. Here’s how he  untangled the web of connections between them and took precautions in doing so:

Research, research, research. Primary sources. For Kesma, an important aspect of the reporting was also to get court documents, FOIAs, business records, etc. If you ask for those, never give your home address (I know, it can be challenging for freelancers). Then connect the dots. The ‘“good thing”’ about eroded democratic regimes is that political-business ties are not hard to find.

Look for connections you may have in common, how to integrate them into a new environment. Of course, encrypted emails, apps, VPN, secured cloud is a must. And when you write or record the final script, detail the reporting (like highlight what they did not want to comment). If you need 35 seconds to explain some technicalities, do it. It protects yourself, your sources and is a good way to find new sources for follow ups. Is there a possibility to get intel from subsidiaries (knowing companies do have now subsidiaries abroad nowadays), or former employees?

Responding to accusations of bias
When the episode on identitarians was released, supporters of Italy’s identitarian movement accused fellows Lorenzo Bagnoli and Alessia Cerantola of being connected to George Soros and the Open Society Foundation, a frequent target of right-wing groups. Here’s how the reporters responded:

Our nonprofit center for investigative journalism is funded through the Open Society Foundation and this is not illegal. The OSF logo is on our website. So, what was the point in saying that we are funded through OSF? Any reply would have implied that we have to defend ourselves against an accusation of wrongdoing, but that’s not the case.

OSF doesn’t control our reporting, we are totally free to cover whatever we want, with our own voice. In the end, the tweets had no consequence. Even more, the main characters of our story, Luca Toccalini and Lorenzo Fiato, sent us messages via Whatsapp to tell us they appreciated the fairness of our reporting.