🗒️ Assignment Debrief: Sexual Violence and Anti-Government Protests in Colombia

Sophie dissects her recent BBC assignment, how she landed the story, reliving her sources' trauma and the right-wing backlash she faced on and offline.

Hello folks, happy Friday! We’re going to change it up this week with another assignment debrief. I recently reported on an incredibly difficult story for the BBC, both in terms of topic and personal safety. 

Just as I did back in February, I hope my experience will help early-career journalists and freelancers around the world to tell deeply sensitive stories and assess the risks involved.

Talking of freelancing, we’re thrilled to once again plug our friends at Case By Case, who literally provide weekly freelance pitches for everyone to steal. Yesterday they rounded up all of last month’s pitches, including:

  1. Stolen scholarships in higher education

  2. The tattoo removal business is booming—but not because people regret tattoos

  3. The politics of problematic faves

  4. Why people are threatening to quit if recalled to the office

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Daniel’s so excited by what Alex and Kate are doing that he’s thrown in ideas for entire newsletters for people to steal.

Similar to Inside The Newsroom where we report on… what's going on inside (and outside) the newsroom, what's it like following the money as an investigative journalist? Or producing documentaries for the likes of Netflix and Amazon? There really isn’t an area of journalism that doesn’t have a keen and enthusiastic audience for this kind of content.

As you’ll discover in today’s debrief, I’m always keen on learning how other freelance and investigative journalists find and track down sources, as well as a host of other relevant skills. So if anyone out there wants to start something, let us know and we’ll do our best to help you get up and running.

If not, leave some more suggestions in the comments and hopefully someone will find something to pursue!

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Moving to Colombia

Let me start by explaining how I ended up in Colombia in the first place. In 2015, my bleary-eyed, 19-year-old self arrived in the capital, Bogotá, to start a six-month newspaper internship for the ‘year abroad’ portion of my Spanish and Portuguese degree. I decided to return two years later once I graduated to try my luck at the “unconventional” way into international journalism — moving to another country and learning as you go.

I’ve now been in Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city, for three-and-a-half years. It took a while to find the courage to freelance full-time, but almost a year since I quit my job at a local media incubator, I finally landed an article with the BBC. I’ll take you through the main steps and hurdles I jumped through to do so.

Colombia's Current Situation

Nationwide protests against President Iván Duque’s right-wing government have been taking place for more than two months, sparked by deeply unpopular tax reform proposals that have now been withdrawn. According to one poll, Duque is the most unpopular Colombian president on record.

Police and security forces have met anti-government protesters with violent repression. As well as dozens of deaths and thousands of injuries, more than 100 cases of gender-based violence and 28 cases of sexual violence by security forces against women protesters have been recorded.

I spoke to some of those women who claim they’ve been victims of this violence, the NGOs and rights groups monitoring it, and the government bodies who oversee the security forces' conduct.

Finding a Gap in the Market

When the protests started, most major news outlets opted to publish coverage from foreign correspondents or stringers in Bogotá, and few editors were interested in the smaller protests in Medellín. As a freelancer, every single hour of my day is valuable, so after one failed attempt, I stopped pitching the same stories as everyone else.

But before long, my social media was filled with shocking videos, increasing police brutality and calls to share what was happening with the international community. I felt a responsibility to do something.

Still cautious about avoiding competing with an already saturated market, I knew I’d need to focus on other developments that weren't being reported if I was going to land a story. So, I channeled my focus into the theme I felt most passionate about.

With some pre-reporting under my belt, I pitched the story — ‘Women’s Bodies a ‘Trophy’ for Colombian Armed Forces During Anti-Govt Protests’ — to four different outlets and received a mixture of rejections and no-replies. But then the BBC eventually gave me the green light.

Reporting on Sexual Violence

As I began to discuss the piece in more depth with the BBC’s Latin America and Caribbean editor, Vanessa Buschschluter, it dawned on me what I had got myself into. I'd significantly underestimated how difficult this piece was going to be to actually report.

At such a tense and politicized moment in Colombia’s history, women who claim to have been victims of sexual violence were understandably terrified of speaking out. The risk of threats and repercussions, combined with the country’s criminal justice system’s history of revictimizing women, meant I faced an uphill task.

The risks ruled out asking NGOs or human rights groups to connect me with potential sources, a reporting strategy I've relied on in the past. This was the first time I’d worked on a story of this magnitude, and I struggled to know which direction to turn. Time was running out, so I sent out a call for information — a decision I’d later come to regret. More on that later. 

Fortunately a handful of brave women contacted me. But asking them to relive their trauma for the purposes of an article, and listening to countless stories I knew didn’t fit my brief to gather context, was the most mentally testing part of the entire process, and perhaps one of the hardest things I’ve done as a journalist.

Thankfully I was given two weeks to immerse myself in the assignment — more than usual for news stories — and ultimately, over-report. This gave me time to speak to plenty of victims, attend more protests and put the accusations to Colombia’s Inspector General. Getting Colombian officials on the record is extremely tough.

The Backlash

Looking back, sharing my contact information — email, Twitter, and WhatsApp — on the call for info I sent out was pretty reckless. My details were quickly posted to various social media sites and shared more than 300 times. 

My reasoning seemed solid at the time. In Colombia, and Latin America in general, WhatsApp is an essential part of everyday life. More than 90 percent of Colombian internet users aged 16-64 use it every day to communicate with friends, family, colleagues and customers if they run a business. I use it to communicate with government sources, industry experts and NGOs. If I wanted an easy way for people to contact me, it had to be on WhatsApp. 

I immediately regretted my decision once I received the first threatening phone call. A woman called me a “fucking journalist” and a “fucking bitch”, among other things. A few days earlier, I received an intimidating message from another woman telling me she’d contacted the BBC to ask if I was on their staff. A week of Covid self-isolation probably didn’t help, but even after blocking the numbers, my thoughts spiralled and wild anxiety set in, which remained for the duration of the assignment.

Colombia is among the western hemisphere’s most dangerous countries for journalists, where reporters regularly experience abuse both on and offline. According to Colombia’s Foundation for Press Freedom, 109 violations have occurred so far this year.

In 2018, 70 percent of women journalists experienced threats, harassment or attacks while reporting, according to the International Women’s Media Foundation. All too often, I hear that it’s just “part of the job”. 

While local reporters bear the brunt of these threats, the government has cracked down on foreign reporters in recent years by implementing stricter requirements for journalism visas.

This was the first time I’ve ever felt threatened doing my job in this country. After my piece was published, I watched the insults continue on social media, despite my best efforts not to read the comments. Which poses as a perfect segue to the lessons I've learned over the past month: Don’t. Read. The. Comments.

Going Forward...

If you’ve made it this far, thank you! Amid the exhaustion of finishing this complex assignment, I was left mulling what I’d do differently if I had the chance, and I’d like to share the most important takeaways with you:

  • Buy a second phone: In hindsight I should have used a second phone to report this story. I didn’t, so all the threats and abuse followed me wherever I went.

  • Use a more secure messaging service: The adrenaline of reporting clouded my judgement, so it’s important to make as many decisions as possible ahead of time. In future, I’ll establish initial contact with sources using Whatsapp for ease, and then ask to move to a more secure messaging service, such as Signal, to protect both my sources’ and myself.

  • Tailor plan to word count: Another challenge with reporting this story was synthesizing such a complex topic into just 800 words. Instead of worrying about not having enough, it would have been far easier to spend more time carefully choosing the right material at the planning stage.

  • Support for sources: One thing I wished I did after my first phone calls with victims was to suggest a helpline or an NGO that could provide mental health support. I did eventually, but I still felt helpless after those initial interviews.

  • Share my experience with my editor: Perhaps this is because I’m still new to freelancing, but at the time I didn’t feel it was necessary to disclose the harassment I was receiving with my editor. I spoke to friends and family about how I was feeling, and I’m fortunate enough to have a therapist. But in hindsight, sharing this in a professional capacity would have given me another outlet. More often than not, editors have dealt with similar experiences and can help navigate the murky waters.

Thank you once again for sticking with us. We'll speak again next week.