On the Road to a Journalism Award: Persistence Pays Off

On the Road to a Journalism Award: Persistence Pays Off

A participant in the education program “Investigative Journalism and Organized Crime”, implemented by NetNovinar Training Center, who won an investigative journalism award for a story done during the program, describes the long and frustrating road that resulted in a good story and recognition by the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia (NUNS).

I didn’t break up a child pornography distribution ring in Serbia, I didn’t catch a politician who likes to look at nude children, which happened in an EU country, but I did write a serious article on the issue, maybe the first such article in Serbia.
Several months of work on the story paid off many times over. In addition, luck follows those who are persistent – the article was published by the weekly "Vreme" a day after Austrian police in early February reported breaking up a pedophile ring (which I had had no idea about several days earlier when I handed in the article for publication), which involved not only people from Western Europe, but from the Balkans as well, even Serbia. From the moment I started working on the story in early September last year, lots of things happened in “unstable” Serbia and I thought that, thanks to “more important” events, what I was doing would go unnoticed.

Things turned out differently. Without reproaching colleagues, some of my sentences from the article were included (often precisely copied) in their stories which followed the news from Austria. Of course, without attributing them to the source.

Why This Issue?

I applied for the education program “Investigative Reporting and Organized Crime”, implemented by NetNovinar Training Center in Sarajevo. The program involved a specific five-month investigation and publication of a successful investigative story, with continuous training and assistance from their trainers. However, if I was going to sacrifice five months of my free time, for our work on the stories was parallel to our everyday work, I had to choose carefully what I would sacrifice it on.

In May 2005, "great dust" was raised in Serbia after several people, following an FBI report, were arrested for the exchange of pornographic material showing children. The “big dust” lasted some 10 days. Several months later, news on the verdicts received some space in the media. Media coverage of events in Serbia related to this phenomenon, more or less, boiled down to that.

Several years ago, a friend of mine, downloading music from the Internet, completely by accident picked up three photographs of children and showed them to me. Those who haven’t seen such photographs don’t know the meaning of the word “disgusting.” Serbia, like other countries, is not free of verdicts for sexual abuse of children. Cameras, both the better kind, as well as those on mobile phones, are available to everyone. For me this was sufficient reason to suspect that child pornography was being filmed and exchanged in Serbia in a much bigger scope than what ends up being known to the police and judiciary, and therefore also the public. In consultation with the trainers, I made my decision and tackled the investigation. As I said, I didn’t find the perpetrators, but I did find something else, which was very disturbing. Serbia is a very, very liberal country with regard to child pornography.

From Assumptions to Facts

Before starting a thorough investigation, I didn’t know much about the issue. Not knowing all aspects that one should examine when this issue was concerned, initially I wandered trying to figure out what exactly I wanted to say. My wandering ranged from a desire to criticize the fact that Serbian police don’t have a special unit for fighting this type of crime, as other countries do, to attempts to infiltrate in circles of child pornography users and to find them myself. I gave up on the infiltration. It’s almost impossible to do that unless you have resources unavailable to me and after all that’s police work. Some experts also suggested I would be wasting my time because child pornography users are not naïve people.

The most important questions tormenting me at the time were imposed by the main investigation document, which is a must in the NetNovinar program and is developed in detail – the investigative story synopsis. This form is the first test for the issue you are investigating and it examines it from all angles, asking all the key questions on which the survival of the investigative theme depends. For example, if you don’t find out (using your own efforts) something that is important for a large number of users of your media outlet, and it’s not known, or someone is hiding it, the story is not an investigative one. The synopsis, of course, requires even a broad issue such as child pornography to focus on one segment, in which it is necessary, important and feasible to make a discovery, a breakthrough, worth the invested time and effort. The synopsis makes you develop a detailed and comprehensive list of sources – documents, laws, newspaper archives, internet sources, verbal sources – everything that can give you information on which you can base a credible investigation. Most importantly, a synopsis allows you to use analysis to come to the pivotal point of your theme – the specific information that you must discover if you want your story to be an investigative one.

I made an initial list of some 20 people to interview based on internet search. Other than searching the internet, which I did every day, I didn’t check newspaper archives right away. It turned out that they were the place where I would find a good lead to the key interviewee who, true to say, didn’t feature in the article, but the interview with him was more than useful for understanding the issue. As I have already said, there are few articles on child pornography, but many which mention it. After reading some 500 articles, several booklets on child protection, technical articles and, especially important, all laws pertaining to my story in any way, the list of people to interview was expanded and became more specific. From the whole investigation of the abundant newspaper documentation, two things became crystal clear: very little had been published about the mechanism of distributing pornographic material of this kind and – none of the articles mentioned something I had observed earlier – in Serbia, under the law, possession of child pornography is not prohibited. Although I found the latter fact illogical, at the time I didn’t grasp its full significance.

Talking to a lot of organizations dealing with child protection and fighting human trafficking, I realized that not much is basically known about the issue of child pornography distribution, which made my theme even more important and exclusive. However, the answer I got everywhere was that they agree it’s a serious problem and it’s commendable that I want to write about it. As a journalist searching for information, I gained nothing from their praise. I realized that I must find a person with whom I can check all my assumptions, suspicions, dilemmas…

I made one of the first interviews with Ognjen Haramin from the Croatian MUP (Ministry of Interior), a big expert in cyber crime. Fortunately, he was very willing to talk. The one-hour interview helped me define the central thesis of my story. Evidently, it wasn’t enough just to explain how the distribution unfolds, which I learned the most about from him. So, what was the key finding from the interview? The fact that statistics show that 60 percent of those who consume child pornography sooner or later want to have physical contact with a child. And why should that be crucial for my story? Another question for Ognjen Haramin and it all came together – because of this fact, holy practice in most countries of the world is that possession alone of such material is prohibited. In Serbia possession is not prohibited. BINGO!

I think this is a good moment to limit descriptions of my joy to journalistic impatience – after investigating for such a long time an issue that practically hadn’t been written about, let alone investigated in Serbia – to get a story that will actually reveal something important. Far from it that I was glad Serbia had such a law. Actually, I was deeply disturbed.

A trip that seemed pointless

Very soon after starting the investigation, a colleague of mine notified me that a local newspaper in a Serbian town had reported that a “kid” was arrested for selling discs with child pornography. I reacted immediately. I found his lawyer and tried to contact the guy through him. Well, now, how do you say to someone: “I would like to talk a little about where you got that from and how you were selling it.” I decided to call the lawyer, explain what kind of story I was working on and that due to the sensitiveness and seriousness of the issue, I didn’t want to talk on the phone in detail, but would rather come in from Belgrade to let him see who I was and talk to me. “My hat is off to you, I respect that,” he replied. He could see me only on week days, to my great “joy,” as I was working on the story alongside my work at the radio. That day my shift was from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. and I set off after work and met with the lawyer.

When I suggested talking to his client myself, with guarantees of absolute anonymity for the interviewee, I got the answer that the guy was embarrassed, he was ashamed and didn’t want this to get out, but he would ask him again… Finally, I went home with just his client’s statement made to an investigating judge.

Although the trip had seemed pointless, it did pay off. I kept contact with the lawyer and followed the case. In the meantime, a verdict was passed with a six-month jail sentence (one year suspended) for distribution of pornographic material using children. The verdict, of course, went unnoticed in the media. I was the only one who reported that a total of three, not two, verdicts for child pornography distribution had been passed in Serbia.

The fact is that I never succeeded in meeting with the guy and asking him how distribution of what he was sentenced for works, at least in his experience. But if there is any chance of reaching an insider in an investigation, my advice is – don’t give up. For, the very work on establishing contact and dialog with an insider brings information and material (a statement to an investigating judge, whatever it may be like, is also exclusive) and many other benefits and if the thing succeeds in the end, the entire investigative story is raised to a whole new level. During the whole time of working on the story, I kept contact with the guy’s lawyer, reminding him of my proposal. Although I didn’t get the meeting with the buy, I respected his wish not to publish his name or town where it all happened. In addition to this being the ethical and consistent thing to do, after some time passes… Who knows? Maybe the boy will change his mind. Who knows what was not in the statement made to the investigating judge.

Patience has no end

How long should an investigation last? My opinion is that it can’t last forever. I resolved to investigate for three months, from September to December, and whatever I did – I did. But an investigation keeps going until all the main directions of investigation come to a conclusion. In my case, it was necessary to talk to someone from the police before the story was complete, for without interviewees from the MUP, it was like the story was missing a leg. I am writing about an issue in Serbia which is primarily dealt with by the police and the only policeman I have in the story is from the Croatian MUP! I was even ready to allow the article to be published as it was, of course noting that I had waited for two months to be contacted by someone from the Serbian MUP, sent several requests, phoned, tried to find someone to interview through colleagues’ contacts from “chronicles” in different Belgrade media outlets… Literally days were separating me from handing in the first draft of the article when several days before New Year’s holidays, the MUP contacted ma and approved an interview. This was an excellent opportunity to check once more the thesis that Serbia, thanks to its laws, is practically a “hole” in which the trail of an international pedophile ring can get lost.

The interview was worth going to. It’s one thing when I write that omissions in the law hamper police work, but it has an entirely different weight when a police officer says it. Of course, not just any police officer, but someone ranked high in the department. In addition, the fact that a police officer uttered confirmation of my thesis cemented the validity of my allegation. Later I though I might even say “thank you” to the police public relations office. For, thanks to them, the interview occurred towards the very end of working on the story. If they had granted my wish right away, the interview would have happened too early and I might have missed the chance to ask the right questions to which I came upon during the months of investigation.

After talking to Serbian police, my story, at least for me, was complete. It explained how child pornography distribution works. It explained how serious the omission in the law was. Facts were collected which clearly show that, although the state is obliged by the law to set up bodies for fighting cyber crime (which includes child pornography distribution), although money for this purpose was received from abroad and allocated from the budget, this wasn’t done. One would say, by standards of everyday journalism – enough for a good news story. However, the trainers in NetNovinar Training Center’s program “Investigative Reporting and Organized Crime” insisted, since I was criticizing the law most of all, that I should have someone who wrote or proposed the law. So they could say why possession of child pornography was not prohibited. “If they wrote the law, why should I ask them anything now,” I thought. For me their opinion was the law they wrote. As far as I was concerned, they had showed enough. But the argumentation of one of the trainers was: “Set up an interview, ask the people, who knows what you will hear. There can be no harm, and I, as a reader, would expect to hear from the one who created the whole problem, wouldn’t I? I agreed to do that one additional thing. To be honest, after several months of work, from this viewpoint, I had another reason to hesitate going to the authors of the law – I was beginning to get a little passionate. “If this is prohibited in all of Europe, how is it possible that it’s not prohibited here,” I wondered more and more often.

I found a professor from the Belgrade Law School who headed the team that wrote the Penal Code. Although I think it’s much better, even a must, to do an interview in person, not by telephone, because of the professor’s commitments and the fact that I had been working on the story for months, which can make editors quite edgy, I had to act differently.

First call to the professor. I explained what I was writing about and what I wanted to talk about. I did not beat around the bush very much, for after all there was just one real question: “Why, when you wrote the law, wasn’t possession of child pornography included in it as a felony?” “Are you sure it’s prohibited in other countries,” asked the professor. “Quite sure,” I replied, but for someone with a Ph.D. in law that was not definitive enough – we agreed to speak again in an hour, to give him time to check it. And really, in the next conversation, the professor told me I was right, that it happened because the Penal Code was written in a short time and, most importantly, neither the public, nor the experts who read the law before it was passed, noticed the omission. Additional confirmation for me. Although I had thought the interview would be much more severe, I actually got the impression that the professor was truly sorry about the evident omission. Moreover, he remarked that the law should be changed as soon as possible. The problem was that I, a complete layman, after two months of investigation found a big hole in the law, and the “public and experts” didn’t. Another “small victory” for a journalist, but quite a big defeat for my country’s legislature.

Unusual meeting

As I’ve already said, reading archives of newspaper articles, carefully and in detail, was not the first step in my investigation, but that’s exactly where I found a good lead. A retired FBI agent, who worked for years on fighting pedophilia in the United States, was visiting Belgrade. Did I have a better interviewee for the story I was working on? I was surprised how easy it was to find him and he agreed to the interview right away. Because of certain procedural reasons and the capacity in which he was visiting Belgrade, we defined the interview as “off the record.” I didn’t use anything from the interview in the article, but the hour-and-a-half meeting with him allowed me to understand the broader context and phenomenon of child pornography distribution. I even got know-how that may come in handy in some subsequent story. Let me say this, too – he was very surprised by the fact that possession of child pornography was not prohibited in Serbia and suggested that this fact should be the starting point or main point of my story.

The experience with the retired FBI agent taught me something: archives shouldn’t be read superficially and nothing should be skipped. The man was mentioned in the news in passing and if I had chosen what news I would read based on the headlines, I would have missed him. There is no such thing as an irrelevant interview if the interviewee is an expert in an issue, even if it’s “off the record.” Although if I didn’t use the facts I learned from him, I knew much better how to use the ones I found in other places.

The result of the investigation was my first newspaper article (I am primarily a radio journalist and I also used to work as a TV journalist), published on 8 February 2007 in the prominent weekly Vreme on four pages. For me, primarily a broadcast journalist, a big honor. That was completely enough for me, believe me, but then the second news came: for this article I won a NUNS award for investigative journalism, for the second year in a row [Grković won a NUNS award for a radio show the previous year in the same category, copy editor’s note]. The months of work and investigation paid off in different and unexpected ways.