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Q: How can journalists verify information in countries with censorship, dictatorships or unsafe conditions?

Protester with hands symbolically chained A 2014 Venezuela protest. Credit: Carlos Díaz

A:

It’s not easy, but verifying information in places where it is logistically and politically difficult — and sometimes dangerous — is the job of foreign correspondents. They develop sources in the government, on multiple sides of conflicts, and among trusted civilians to verify and confirm information. 

For details, we asked the AP’s John Daniszewski how the world’s largest newsgathering operation verifies information in Venezuela and Syria. Daniszewski, who is vice president of standards at the wire service, previously served as the AP’s longtime international editor, where he directly oversaw all international coverage. He writes: 

“Although Venezuela is a dangerous environment for reporters, we have been able to manage to work there. The government is critical of journalists, but it is not entirely totalitarian. We have reporters, photographers and video journalists able to work on the ground. Of course, it is dangerous because the government employs its police and supporters liberally and journalists are at risk of being shot or beaten up during civil disturbances, not to mention the risk of being victimized by crime in a country where people are under extreme economic pressure just to survive. To cope, our teams there use body armor and hardened hats. We also get around quickly on motorcycles to avoid street blockades. We cover both sides of the political divide, including the government’s statements and press conferences, and report on the doings of President Maduro. He has given us at least one televised interview.

“Syria has been a different kind of challenge during its long civil war. We have always maintained a small office in Damascus to cover the government side of the war, although the journalists have been restricted in what they can do and are closely monitored. On the rebel side, we have used Beirut as our listening post and established contacts by cell phone and WhatsApp with human rights groups and activists on the rebel side. For a period, we also would enter the country without visas on the rebel side, usually from Turkey, to get first-hand stories. But in 2013-14, around the time that Jim Foley and other journalists were kidnapped and killed there by Islamic militant factions, we decided that it had become too dangerous. We made the decision that we would not go into the country ourselves or take material from freelancers there because we did not wish to encourage them to take risks that we were not willing to take with our own staff. A year or two ago, as the Islamic State group was defeated by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, we carefully have authorized journalist teams to go back into rebel-held parts of the country. We also use those remote contacts we developed for information, photos and video. 

“Covering a country remotely is difficult because it means working very hard to verify the information received and the images or video by cross-checking and cross-referencing several sources. Whenever we do send a reporting team into Syria or another dangerous area, the trips are carefully planned and vetted to minimize the risk, and the plans always need to be sketched out and approved at high levels of the AP, including by our security team and top editors at headquarters.”

Even without civil unrest or war, verifying information is challenging in countries without free speech. In Moscow, Los Angeles Times correspondent Sabra Ayres wrote a story just last month about an explosion at a nuclear test site in northern Russia. 

The Russian government wasn’t divulging what happened, making the story difficult to report.

“We had to rely on local bloggers and doctors who came out and said they were seeing patients with radiation poisoning,” Ayres said. “But we could never get the truth.”

You can read her story here, which describes the secrecy of the Kremlin and how the story unfolded without reliable official sources.