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Thursday
Mar152018

Do FOIA requests put journalists at risk?

Murdered Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak (credit Aktuality.sk)A 27-year-old Slovak reporter and his fiancée were murdered in their home in late February. It looked like a professional hit.

The journalist, Jan Kuciak, was working on an investigation for the Slovak news portal Aktuality.sk, in cooperation with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), the global network of investigative journalists.

Kuciak's colleagues think he was killed because of his work.

They also think the killers or those behind the killings may have learned what he was working on through his freedom of information requests.

Through a series of stories, he was investigating whether the ‘Ndrangheta, an Italian crime syndicate, had infiltrated Slovakia.

"Kuciak obtained much of his information for all of these stories through freedom of information (FOI) requests," the OCCRP said Monday.

Most EU countries have freedom of information laws.

"But in order for journalists to make use of these laws, they often have to identify themselves to the government offices they are seeking information from," the OCCRP said.

Kuciak’s editor at Aktuality.sk, Marek Vagovic, said Kuciak was careful with sensitive information. He encrypted his notes, drafts, and evidence.

"That’s why I think the information was leaked by the police, prosecutors, courts, or office workers he sent information requests to, stating his personal details, such as his home address,” Vagovic told the OCCRP.

To support Kuciak's FOI requests, he included background about stories he was working on. His editor thinks that could have made him a bigger target.

Kuciak had filed dozens of FOI requests connected to his last investigation. Among the state agencies he requested information from were land registries, agricultural agencies, prosecutors, and courts.

"All denied sharing information about journalist’s request with the subject," the OCCRP said.

In other countries, FOI requests are known to have exposed those asking for information.

Serbia’s Anti-Corruption Agency, for example, "informs the subject of an investigation that a request for their information has been received and asks them to consent to giving out that information," the OCCRP said.

In Montenegro, a journalist working on a story about hotel development in a protected coastal area "received a call from a person of interest asking why they were looking into his business dealings." The Ministry of Culture had told the subject about a FOI filing.

A reporting team in Italy investigating waste smuggling "received intimidating phone calls from smugglers insisting they 'stop nosing around their business.'"

According to the OCCRP, the smugglers had been given "journalists’ phone numbers, addresses, dates of birth, and personal ID numbers by the offices where the information requests were made."

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Richard L. Cassin is the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog.