ICIJ member Syed Nazakat of The Week talks about the risks and benefits of conflict reporting in "the most dangerous place on earth".
1. How do you navigate the challenge of being spied upon by Intelligence officials while covering stories in Kashmir?
I was born in Kashmir. I vividly remember I was in school in 1988 when the first bomb exploded in the Kashmir valley. It was the start of a bloody insurgency which transformed the extremely beautiful valley into what President Bill Clinton would later describe as "the most dangerous place on earth." Suddenly everything changed in Kashmir. Bomb blasts, killings and torture became routine stories. Everybody became a suspect. After college as I joined a local newspaper I closely witnessed and experienced the hard realities of conflict reporting.
Every day, every minute, one used to weigh the benefits of reporting against the risks. There were always issues of physical security. It was never an easy call to chase a story and to decide how far one can go in pursuit of watchdog journalism.
Despite all of the risks and challenges we somehow managed to report and survive. Some of our colleagues were arrested; some threatened and killed.
Every day used to be a day of survival. The biggest challenge used to negotiate daily gun-battles, bomb blasts and search parades, if not the late-night knock at the door.
It was only after I left Kashmir that I came to know that the Indian intelligence agencies had kept a file on almost every journalist working in Kashmir. The newspaper, the stories and the journalists were followed and marked. You were either seen as pro-India or Pro-Pakistan. Perhaps on the other side of the divide, the Pakistani agencies followed the same protocol. Amidst this covert melee journalists have somehow learned to live with the divide.
2. You have reported from 17 countries. What are the basic tools of the trade that have helped you address specific challenges in them?
For a journalist the foremost thing is to do proper research about the subject, the people and the place. Get your facts right. Never trust any information until you cross check and verify it. And always make sure that you put in your best effort to pursue a story. You never know - a small story may lead you to a big one.
3. Share with us a recent story or investigation that you pursued and the impact it had.
One of recent stories I did was about how arms and ammunition produced by China's third-largest and state-owned defense company (NORINCO) were procured by Pakistan's intelligence agency, ISI to fuel insurgency in India.
It was a cross-country investigative reporting project where I managed to unearth official records in India and later traveled to Bangladesh to get exclusive access to the 3,500-page case diary of the Chittagong arms haul case, the largest arms haul in Bangladesh's history.
As I followed the lead, it revealed how organized arms-dealers were operating in countries like China, Thailand, Philippines, Myanmar, Bangladesh and India.
It was a sensitive story as it involved top Bangladeshi intelligence officials, including Bangladesh's chief of Directorate General of Forces Intelligence and military intelligence agency. Both men, currently in prison, report directly to the prime minister.
The story, based on documents and interviews of the investigative officers, for the first time established the whole sequence of how arms were procured from NORINCO and brought to a Bangladesh port. It was followed in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan and as well in China. A Danish newspaper, Politiken, also followed the report with a one-page special report on Bangladesh arms trafficking.
4. What is the path that led you to investigative journalism in the first place?
I believe that every story needs a bit of leg-work, investigation. A reporter has to make an effort, meet people, collect information and verify it. I perused stories with the same journalistic discipline.
That eventually introduced to me to in-depth and investigative stories.
Through the years, I have been fortunate to work for editors who were dedicated to pursuing stories wherever they led us. At THE WEEK, where I currently work, there is freedom to pursue stories. At a time when newsrooms are shrinking - owners and editors are abandoning investigative reporting - we have been lucky that our organization spends good amounts of money and energy on watchdog journalism.
5. What methods, techniques, and tools have served you best as an investigative journalist? Please illustrate with an example
For any story I try to meet as many sources and people as possible. I always prefer to record statements of people I interview. I collect documents and other material related to a story.
More importantly I always prepare a plan. I outline major points of the story; the people to be interviewed and the angles to be looked into. I identify questions and the people who might have answers.
And I remain open to change the whole story plan the moment the story takes me to a different and new direction.
In early 2011, I was working on a story about the procurement of night vision devices by the Indian paramilitary. The scope of my story was limited to a concerned Indian defense company.
But as we started digging we came to across a much larger story which hinted at an international fraud. We immediately changed the focus of the story, which finally revealed a cross-border scam in the purchase of night vision devices for India's paramilitary troops. The weapons were procured from an Israeli company under the guise of transfer of technology. The path right from tendering process to trials to procurement was a maze replete with international intrigue, false claims and dubious weapon systems.
6. How has the increasing importance of digital and online media (especially the immediacy factor they emphasize) impacted the quality and practice of investigative journalism?
The rise of the Internet in the early 1990s has transformed the process of newsgathering in general and investigative reporting in particular - in the way it reaches to audiences and how news and information is gathered and distributed. Social media, which is largely defined as a group of Internet-based applications, build on the web to allow the creation and exchange of content. Surely the Internet hasn't replaced getting out, gathering information and documents, and talking face-to-face to people during research, but in a time of information overload, the Internet has made readers and viewers a part of the newsgathering process. In newsrooms reporters use web-based and mobile technologies like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Second Life, text messaging, e-mail, and the like. The aim is to use social media as a platform to bring in information and at the same time make media more interactive, informative and entertaining.
7. Do you employ a lot of data-based methods in your investigative reporting? If yes, what kinds of data do you use and how?
There is a lot of information already available in the public domain. For example, in terrorism-related cases, I found the first information reports (FIR), charge-sheets, seizure-reports and affidavits very useful. In the government policy-related story, databases of public records, documents such as lawsuits and other legal documents, tax records, government reports, regulatory reports and corporate financial filings and parliament questions are available online and provide lot of answers and statistics.
I remember last year I was doing a story on increasing suicides within the Indian Army. The figures eventually came from archives of a defense ministry's and parliament's websites. I also often use the Right (Freedom) of Information Act to seek official data.
8. Talk about your approach to stories. Is there anything unusual about the way you conduct your research or choose your themes?
All too often we work simultaneously on different stories but the challenge is to not lose focus. On my daily routine, I particularly follow news which is relevant to my beat or work. I do take notes of fresh developments and maintain a notebook. I also make it a point to build new contacts. I do plan stories and I always attempt to look at the bigger picture. The aim is always to make information meaningful.
9. What do you consider some of the most important lessons you have learned over the years?
No story is worth dying for but some stories are worth taking a bit of risk.
10. What are the key elements that make an investigative story truly "click"? What do they have to have and what should they not be missing?
As journalists we must always remain alert to the herd mentality. It kills instincts and the power of observations. It destroys the ability of a reporter to think independently and pursue stories. Regardless of available reports one must always follow a story independently. Verify and check details, and then write clearly. A good investigative story should be based on facts, figures and documents.
11. What is the biggest single threat to your investigative reporting and what advice can you give to others who might be facing the same obstacle?
In the name of “investigative journalism” some tabloids, newspapers and broadcasting stations offer pure sensation. That kind of journalism kills credibility. Without credibility, journalism has no value.
12. What tips would you give young, emerging, investigative reporters?
Cultivate news awareness; take every story as an opportunity and develop a habit of reading. If you want to pursue a career in journalism then you should teach your mind to express itself through the power of the written word.