Courage Required: Reporting on Belief Systems Can Be a Dangerous Job

December 19, 2016

GPJ-USAGLOBAL PRESS HQ — Some of the most fascinating stories published at Global Press are those that push against our hard line of accuracy and balance. When a reporter writes about someone’s belief system, where do we draw the line between reporting someone’s belief and proving that someone’s belief is correct?

This aspect of working at Global Press came to a head in recent months when we asked reporters around the world to write about LGBT issues. In some cases, Global Press editors can predict the countries from which we’ll receive the meatiest story pitches on certain topics. As expected, our Asian and American reporters quickly found valuable stories.

Reporters in Africa took longer. In Uganda and Zambia, the request to find LGBT-related story ideas was a request to report on people who are not only breaking local laws, but who are also flatly rejecting what is preached in most churches in those largely-Christian countries.

Apophia Agiresaasi, a senior reporter based in Kampala, pursued a story about the root of Uganda’s anti-gay culture. She found her sources at local churches.

One pastor insisted to Apophia that foreigners pay Ugandans to recruit people into homosexuality. The Ugandans who engage in that transaction record themselves assaulting people as proof that they’re keeping their end of the bargain, the pastor told her. He played at least one of those videos for Apophia.

He refused to offer specifics on how the videos changed hands from the perpetrators to those who had been sexually assaulted and then on to him. I asked Apophia to look for any evidence at all that foreigners are paying Ugandans to engage in rape and other forms of sexual assault. As expected, she couldn’t find any.

I didn’t ask Apophia about her beliefs on the issue. But I do know that, by living in Uganda, she is surrounded by people who both believe that foreigners pay Ugandans to commit sexual violence and who don’t take kindly to be questioned on that belief. (Read Apophia’s blog post on her experience here.)

When you read our special series on LGBT issues, keep in mind that some of the reporters behind it mustered great courage to ask tough questions in societies where even a casual comment can be misconstrued as support for something those societies believe is despicable. They risked their own local credibility by approaching the untouchables of their communities and asking hard questions of the people who are creating that system.

Some of the most courageous reporting occurs when the dangers are embedded in a culture’s fast-held beliefs.