Summer Reporter 2011: Underground professional journalism (Part III)


A dream came true for Dutch journalist Gemma van der Kamp when she was given the opportunity this summer to embark on an investigative trip to report on the theme “Journalism without Journalists” in eight European countries.

In the first half of the trip, I spoke mainly with innovative non-journalistic organisations which had discovered new niches to be exploited in the news market or found a way to repair the cracks in the news supply of shrinking traditional media.

In the second half of the trip, the theme turned on its heads. I met with professional journalists who, to avoid government censorship, had redefined their profession as a “volunteer” activity or a “hobby”.

In Ukraine, I spoke with a plumber who practises independent journalism at night. In Bulgaria I met an investigative reporter who was forced to quit his paid job and decided to continue publishing outside of professional journalism, from abroad.

Ukraine – the plumber

Who are you, by the way? This is a question Serge Dibrov is often asked when he speaks with doctors, academics or lawyers during his investigative work. Triumphantly he produces his plumbing diploma. Dibrov, who lives in Odessa, Ukraine, is what he likes to call a “hobby journalist”. It may sound amateurisch, but in Ukraine it is the way he has found to practise independent and critical journalism while hiding away from a suspicious government.

Plumber and hobby journalist Serge Dibrov

By day Dibrov runs two companies, one in pest control and another one in computer software. In his free time – in the evenings and at night – he carries out investigations into criminality and medical corruption. 

The news last August that the Ukrainian government had finally withdrawn a highly controversial Danish vaccine against tuberculosis (BCG) from the market was the crowning victory for Dibrov’s latest investigations into the damaging side effects of the vaccine.

For more than three years Dibrov had investigated and published articles on the unreliability of the vaccine, which had led to a tenfold increase in complications (chicken pox, abscesses and bronchitis) amongst young children in Ukraine.

The vaccine, which replaced a Russian version, appeared to cause different side effects in Ukrainian children compared to children in other countries. It is widely known that the effect of a same tuberculosis vaccine can differ from region to region, but the Ukrainian ministry of health had not tested the vaccine before authorising it.

At first, no one – not even at the Ministry of Health – would listen to Dibrov’s warnings, in spite of the fact that they were supported by doctors, academics and lawyers.

Eventually, by publishing and spreading clear explanations on the internet, Dibrov succeeded in convincing millions of parents to refuse the vaccine to be administrated to their children. As a result of this silent protest the government was forced to take the product off the market.

Politics and money

In Ukraine, professional journalists often cannot engage in this type of research for several reasons. “Journalists who work for press agencies or national broadcasters have to dance to the tune of their employers or they choose not to reveal this sort of information out of fear of losing their job,” says Dibrov.

“Professional journalism is controlled by two things: politics and money. Most media organisations – mainly television channels – are politically biased. Furthermore, they are dependent on what advertisers want. Many issues cannot be raised,” he adds.

Dibrov says that he derives satisfaction from this work which, it must be noted, all goes unpaid. He needs it to relax, he says.

However, the case of Ukrainian investigative journalist Oleksiy Matsuka whose apartment was set on fire last July makes me raise the question of his personal safety. After all, Dibrov’s hobby activities lead him to unearth wrongs that indirectly criticise the government.

“It is safe,” Dibrov assures me, “because I work according to four rules of thumb:

1. Publish important material immediately, never save it on your personal computer or at home

2. Always try to use government information that is publicly available. The trick is to collect the information and link up facts

3. Never publish articles without first having them checked by an expert

4. Never directly attack the government or a member of the political elite

“I use clear language to describe medical, economic and political situations for a broad audience,” explains Dibrov. “The articles are circulated online; people learn where matters stand and change their vision or opinion. In case of the BCG-vaccine an increasing number of parents, after reading my publications, started to refuse their children to be injected with the vaccine. I made sure however in my articles never to single out any politician or directly attack the government.”

Nevertheless, even this strategy does not completely stave off the suspicions of the authorities who are highly sensitive to negative publicity. Dibrov knows he must be careful. The Ministry of Health recently described him as a “unique, well organised antivaccine campaigner.” Dibrov smiles: “They can’t put me into a box. So far, that gives me a relatively safe position.”

My conversation with Dibrov started at 5 in the morning, because I had come straight from the night train. It’s no problem, he had said, as the remarkable pest controller sleeps no more than four hours every night.

There is a striking resemblance between his work as a pest controller and his freetime journalistic activities: in both jobs he combats vermin; literally and figuratively. 20 hours a day.

Bulgaria – The endangered investigative journalist

Assen Yordanov was only a few hundred meters away from home back in December 2007 when he was attacked by four blindfolded men with a knife and iron sticks. Thanks to his former military training and his high level in martial arts, the Bulgarian investigative journalist managed to fend off his attackers. The incident followed the disclosures he made after carrying out an investigation into illegal building activities in the Bulgarian nature reserve of Strandja.

Yordanov does what hardly any Bulgarian journalist dares to do any more: he puts his own safety as risk in his fight against corrupt politicians and the Bulgarian government, unravelling mafia networks and revealing secret information on organised crime.

Investigative journalist Assen Yordanov

Yordanov has been working as an investigative journalist for over twenty years. For most of his career he wrote for national Bulgarian newspapers and appeared on television as an expert on organised crime and corruption. Over the years however, freedom of expression declined and fewer national media were willing to publish his work. As a result, he was forced to publish outside of professional journalism.

In 2009 together with cyber activist Atanis Tchobanov he started a platform for investigative journalism, Bivol. The website is hosted abroad, beyond the reach of Bulgarian censorship. Bivol is supported by donations and attracts around 600.000 readers per month.

Recently Yordanov argued in an article against Bulgaria’s becoming a member of the Schengen area. “Russia still has enclaves in the Burgas’ harbour,” he pointed out. “If Bulgaria joins the Schengen area, Russia can indirectly enter Europe.”

His observations were the result of many years of investigations into corruption in the Black Sea region.

Bulgaria’s accession to the European Union (EU) gave many Bulgarians, including Yordanov, reasons to hope for a better future. “We hoped European leaders would call the Bulgarian government to account”, says Yordanov.

Four years later, Yordanov feels disillusioned. “Nothing much has changed,” he says. “Sixteen years ago I found out that our current prime minister, Boyko Borisov, was the manager of a company that ran an illegal tobacco factory close to Burgas. After my revelations, the factory was closed. A few years later Borisov was appointed General Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs and in 1999 he became Prime Minister. Can you imagine this? My country is governed by tobacco smuggling; not to mention Borisov’s role in international drugs smuggling. And the EU praises this hugely corrupt Prime Minister.”

The Bulgarian authorities either ignore or dimisse Bivol’s publications. “Boyko Borisov calls Bivol ‘deceitful tabloid gossip’,” says Yordanov.

I sat with Yordanov in the capital Sofia in a trendy café filled with young and rich Bulgarians on a night out.

“Many young people here try either to build up a life abroad or to make sure to at least lead a comfortable life in Bulgaria. Their attitude is that political and economic corruption is a given. I can’t understand this attitude.”

Assen Yordanov is the founder of Bivol, a platform for investigative journalism

He feels that he is standing alone in his fight against corruption. “Last year I nearly escaped a second attack. I never truly feel safe anymore and it continuously feels as if I am taking part in a war. I left the army because I did not want to fight with weapons. Now I am fighting with words and I refuse to surrender.”

Last year, Assen Yordanov won the Leipziger media award for investigative journalism. 

Who is really a threat to the journalistic profession?

At the end of my trip I tried to answer the question I had set out with: “Are individuals who engage in journalistic work a threat to the profession?”

In Western Europe I found innovative examples of journalism that were forcing professional media organisations to rethink the ways they produce news. In a certain sense, individuals engaging in journalism were indeed seen as a threat.

Ironically, after my findings in Eastern Europe I am inclined to rephrase the question to “Is professional journalism a threat to the profession?”

And I would suggest that the answer is yes. Dibrov and Yordanoff expose wrongs in society and are loyal to professional journalistic ethics, unlike many of their colleagues who work for traditional media organisations in their countries.

This is the third in a series of three articles dedicated to Gemma van der Kamp’s Summer Reporter project.

Related articles:

Summer reporter 2011: Introduction

Summer Reporter 2011: Discovering new niches in the news market