Paule Beugeand-Champagne
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Shooting The Messenger

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When Michel Auger was gunned down last fall, editors at Le Journal de Montréal suddenly had to wrestle anew with this troubling question: How do you best protect reporters who accept dangerous assignments?

For nearly three years, I have been the editor of Le Journal de Montréal, a daily newspaper that since its foundation in 1964 has focused on local stories and court cases. It may seem an unexceptional form of journalism, but it still requires a good heart, a strong stomach, compassion and a sense of justice.

And nothing more? This is what we used to believe-until last September, when one of our crime reporters, Michel Auger, was the victim of a murder attempt on the newspaper’s premises. Since then, we have realized that it also takes courage and determination to do this type of journalistic work.

No one thought that it could be dangerous to be a journalist in this country. And whenever trouble erupted in the past, as in the Vancouver case where newspaperman Tara Singh Hayer was killed by terrorists from his homeland, it was blamed on political turmoil of an intensity that is rarely seen in Canada.

Michel Auger wrote about the Mafia and members of criminal gangs. He always assumed that the people most at risk were the subjects of his articles. Of course, he had been threatened and he took certain precautions to protect himself and his family-but he never really believed he was in danger. Who would shoot the messenger, especially in a peaceful Western country like ours?

Journalists and photographers sometimes have to work in difficult or dangerous conditions, such as countries in the grip of war. Some have been seriously wounded or killed or taken hostage by guerrillas. Others, and I’m thinking particularly of some Latin American journalists, have been tortured or murdered in their own countries because they tried to inform the public about embezzlement by government leaders or armed groups, or about the hold of organized crime on the public or private sector.

Who would have dreamed this kind of danger could exist here? Yet it does.

Here at Le Journal, we had to rethink the way we protect our journalists and help them to protect themselves. We already had certain measures in place, but we had to sit down with our people and reevaluate our approach.

An editor can never send someone on a dangerous assignment without first making sure that the journalist-and his or her family, as appropriate-wholeheartedly agrees with the assignment and is fully aware of its risks. Organized crime, the Mafia, terrorist groups, wars….When the reporter knows the danger involved, he or she will be more cautious and will take the precautions necessary for personal safety.

It’s never easy for an editor or a publisher to assign potentially dangerous work to a reporter. Only someone so insensitive as to be practically unconscious could fail to be wracked by some really fundamental questions: Is it worth it? Does the right to know, and the collective good, justify requiring a reporter to take such risks? Are there other ways to get the information? Just how far are we willing to go? Where do we draw the line and refuse to let our reporter pursue the investigation any further? There is no one clear answer: we face the questions anew, every time.

Management must also ask what security measures it can take to protect the journalists. Personal safety specialists can be brought in to meet with any journalists whose work is potentially dangerous. Once these experts have familiarized themselves with the journalists’ homes, means of transportation and activities, they can teach them what security devices are available and how to use them. There are many preventive measures that people can take to protect themselves; only in the most exceptional circumstances do they need to be armed.

A news organization, either through its editorial executives or its human resources department, must work closely with the police so that help will arrive quickly if needed. It must also, if need be, engage a private security agency to accompany a reporter to work or to protect his or her family.

The greatest danger facing reporters and their bosses is that of underestimating threats and attempts at intimidation. This is why the management must always be fully informed about the reporters’ activities. Reporters can very easily get carried away by their work, lose sight of the risks they run, or shrug them off as a minor nuisance. It’s up to management to show the prudence the situation requires, but without causing panic.

A good question to ask when faced with a dangerous situation is: Can we get this information or pursue this investigation in some other way? News organizations elsewhere, including ones in the United States and in Ireland, have worked with their reporters to come up with an interesting new approach: they put many journalists on a single story, so that no one person may be singled out by those who don’t want the information to be made public.

At Le Journal de Montr&eacuteal we have been using a similar method since last September. In the days and weeks following the attempt on Michel Auger’s life, a number of his colleagues took over his files and began writing their own stories about the biker gangs. We now have a greater variety of bylines than in the past.

Auger came back to work in January 2001. The paper’s management has provided him and other journalists with the safety measures I mentioned earlier. They feel safe and comfortable doing their work. But if any of them ever told us that they no longer wanted to take this kind of risk, even on a shared basis, or that it was just too stressful, we would immediately change their beat. Without a moment’s hesitation.

Paule Beaugrand-Champagne has been a journalist for 35 years. She has worked at La Presse, Le Devoirand L’actualité.

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