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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Le Journal de Montréal 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
Paule Beaugrand-Champagne has been
a journalist for 35 years. She has worked at La Presse,
Le Devoir and L'actualité.