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Q&A: How Collaborative Journalism Defeats Censorship

A man holding a giant pencil in the air in the middle of a crowd
A man holds up a giant pencil during a gathering to honor those killed in the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack, in Tarbes, France, on January 8, 2015. © Laurent Dard/AFP/Getty

Laurent Richard, the director and founder of Forbidden Stories, an NGO dedicated to continuing the work of slain journalists, was one of the first people to arrive at the offices of Charlie Hebdo after it was attacked by terrorists in 2015. In this interview, the Open Society Program on Independent Journalism’s Amina Boubia discusses how the experience affected Richard and inspired his subsequent work.

What can you say about that day in 2015 when you went to the Charlie Hebdo offices?

I was walking up to the 2nd floor of a building in Paris where I worked. Going up the office steps, I did not know what I would find. I did not know the day was going to change my life. 

The news agency where I was employed at the time was immediately next door to the editorial office of Charlie Hebdo, a cartoon agency known for their political satire. After the departure of the terrorists, I was among the first to arrive. The horror was unspeakable and unforgettable.

Did the attack feel personal to you, as a journalist? 

Yes. I had previously reported on a lot of violence—in Iraq, Kashmir, Palestine, and elsewhere—but in those cases I was more of an independent observer who was simply trying to get the facts right. In this case, however, it was my neighbors and colleagues who had been murdered—executed—for doing their jobs. 

How did you process it?

Beyond the sadness, the anger, the nightmares, I wanted to react using the thing I knew best: journalism. So, after months of reflection, an idea came to me: Why not create an organization whose mission would be to continue the work of journalists who’d been silenced through threats, incarceration, or even murder.

How did you go about turning that idea into something real?

I spent a year developing the idea with partners at the Knight Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan. And then, in September 2017, and with the help of a number of international reporters who believed in collaborative journalism, we launched Forbidden Stories.

And it wasn’t long after that when Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Maltese investigative journalist, was killed.

Right. She was killed by a car bomb. So, the very next day, after we heard the awful news, Forbidden Stories helped coordinate a collaboration among journalists who wanted to continue Galizia’s reporting and investigate her assassination. It was a major undertaking. For almost six months and in great secrecy, 45 journalists from 18 news organizations across 15 countries worked together to get this done.

What did they produce?

Journalists from all over the world began publishing stories drawn from Galizia’s work and about her murder. In fact, it was coordinated so that many of these stories were published simultaneously.

The message we wanted to send to the people who killed her—and to anyone else who thinks they can silence journalists through threats and violence—was: Killing a journalist in an attempt to stop them from making their reporting public will only bring more visibility to their work.

What impact did the reporting have?

For over two weeks, coverage of Daphne’s assassination and work were featured in publications in more than a dozen countries. The Maltese authorities who were the subject of her investigations had never been so exposed. And after the arrest of several suspects who were found to have close connections to figures in the government, the prime minister announced he was stepping down.  

That cause and effect seems to connect to larger questions about the relationship between democracy and a free press.

Right. In our view, Forbidden Stories is not just about protecting journalists and their stories; it is also about protecting democracy itself. The work that journalists do—providing information to the public, holding people in power accountable for their actions, and so forth—is an essential part of making democracy work.

Forbidden Stories is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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