Knight-Wallace fellows discuss sources, security in writing investigative stories

Knight-Wallace journalists Bastian Obermayer and Laurent Richard discuss security concerns related to investigative journalism in the League on Wednesday.

Knight-Wallace journalists Bastian Obermayer and Laurent Richard discuss security concerns related to investigative journalism in the League on Wednesday. Buy this photo
Arnold Zhou/Daily
Wednesday, March 22, 2017 - 8:48pm

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Two Knight-Wallace Fellows, Bastian Obermayer and Laurent Richard, presented Wednesday evening on a panel titled “Privacy and Security Challenges in Investigative Journalism.” Law Prof. Gautam Hans facilitated the event, which was part of the Dissonance speaker series.


Obermayer and Richard were part of the team of journalists that published the Panama Papers, a leak of 11.5 million documents that belonged to the law firm Mossack Fonseca. These documents detailed how more than 200,000 offshore entities served as shell corporations for uses such as tax evasion, fraud and other illegal purposes, with links to dozens of world leaders.

The panelists discussed keeping sensitive information from being disclosed and how to contact sources while maintaining their safety as journalists and the safety of the sources.

“The question of the privacy and the safety of the sources or the journalists have been always in the history of journalism very central,” Richard said. “Especially (for) investigative journalists where you have to protect sources because they risk their lives not for you but for giving you the information.”

The security of sources has become even more important as more communication has moved online, where many exchanges can be intercepted.

Protecting documents has become a bigger challenge as information has also moved online, where it can be possibly accessed by other people looking to sabotage the story or leak it first.

“So, when we did the Panama Papers … we had our own servers only for people working on this project,” Obermayer said. “Then we had our own working space without any internet contact with the big computers where the data was finally stored on.”

Rackham student Daniel Shy wasn’t aware of the team of journalists who worked to publish the Panama Papers, and would’ve thought that such a large team would result in a leak by one of the journalists.

“I would’ve expected more security,” Shy said. “I’m surprised that they had such a huge network to corroborate.” 

Aprille McKay, an archivist with the Bentley Historical Library and one of the organizers of the event, said the information shared by the journalists was interesting to her as someone who keeps and records information.

“They were reusing information in a different way, and they needed to know about how to manage digital files that are encrypted in ways that lots of people can continue to have access to it,” McKay said. “In my work, I also have to think about how materials that might have particular kinds of security can particularly be made eventful over long periods of time.”

Richard recounted his arrest while working on a story, and how police searched him in attempt to find information on what he was working on.

“I’ve been arrested two times abroad for investigating,” Richard said. “They were looking for the flash memory cards and the computers and they were trying to get inside my iPhone.”

LSA freshman Matthew Wolfgram said he found the case of the Panama Papers interesting, since the journalists worked to keep some information, like cell phone numbers, from the public, while revealing other information.

“Investigative journalism is changing as we are in the context of more and more information,” Wolfgram said. “Especially in the case of the Panama Papers, obviously, there’s stuff that is useful for the public eye, but there’s an overlap between what’s useful and what’s exposing too much information for other people.”

Both panelists touched on how they legally prepare when writing stories that could have political repercussions. Obermayer mentioned that his office employs one lawyer to monitor the stories that are written.

“Our biggest fear, as a relatively small German newspaper … we published worldwide and in English for the first time for the Panama Papers, and this could be the end of our newspaper,” Obermayer said. “We had many sessions with our editing teams, and they said, if you (leave) one mistake, you will end the history of our 70-year-old newspaper.”