A young reporter once exposed the lies of a prime minister. That reporting had global repercussions. Then came the backlash.
Scene from a beach on a Caribbean island. (Credit ViliamM/Getty Images)
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“Good evening, Mr. Solomons. Do you realize what has happened because of your lies? You need to retract that article as soon as possible. If not …”
The phone line dropped but the message was very clear.
This was summer in New York City in the mid-1980s. A few weeks earlier, Rudi Saks — my news editor at Reuters News Agency — and I had been celebrating a big scoop over all the big financial publications and agencies in working out and reporting that a large Caribbean island was out of compliance with its economic aid program with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
My article was based on a private meeting with this island’s powerful, twice-elected prime minister, who granted an exclusive interview to six global media organizations at a large suite at the Pierre Hotel during a brief visit to Manhattan.
As I had been reporting on this country’s economy and sovereign debt negotiations, Rudi sent me to represent Reuters.
Covering the economy of a country
I was a reporter, but felt a bit nervous in the presence of some famous economic writers from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Financial Times, etc. I was encouraged by the fact that I probably knew more about this prime minister and his country than they did.
The prime minister was rather intimidating in his assured but unsmiling demeanor. I knew that he would not admit to my suspicion that his country was out of compliance with their international funding program.
So I just inserted into the conversation some seemingly innocuous questions about the country’s inflation rate, mineral production, economic growth, etc. and once I got back to my desk, I started to put the pieces together.
“I think they are in trouble,” I told Rudi.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Take a look at these IMF projections and the PM’s responses to my questions. They don’t match.”
“You’re right,” he said.
“Can I write that they are out of compliance?”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Go for it,” he said.
So I did. Rudi edited and sent the article out on our newswire the following day and then we eagerly waited to see if there would be something similar from the other organizations. They mostly regurgitated the prime minister’s bland talking points. We were the only ones reporting the dirty truth. It felt very satisfying.
One story can have global repercussions.
What Rudi and I did not realize was that my story kicked off a whole chain of events outside the United States, which led to the threatening phone call to me a few weeks later.
The day after my article went out on Reuters global newswire, the international edition of one of the other big newspapers picked up my article as part of a larger story on this particular island.
Then the party of the populist opposition leader and previous prime minister featured this article in a manifesto, harshly criticizing the incumbent prime minister and his economic policy. This in turn led to well-attended but peaceful protests in the capital city.
The prime minister’s people eventually traced everything back to me. Pressure to retract the article started slowly but ramped up over a period of days and weeks.
Fortunately, Rudi continued to support me and so did the managing editor when we presented my notes to her.
Tough journalism can spark a backlash.
But my anxiety got higher and higher as the calls continued. I felt as I if was in a crime thriller, watching out for loitering figures in doorways on my short walks between my office near Times Square and my apartment off Central Park West.
What if I were abducted? What if I were ‘knee-capped’? What if I were killed?
My money desk colleagues and my journalist girlfriend all tried to reassure me. But I was beginning to get a bit paranoid.
Fortunately, the increasingly unbearable tension broke after a couple of weeks when one of my colleagues in Washington, D.C. got the attention of the IMF about what was going on. The IMF then contacted the prime minister and ordered him to tell the truth. He stood up in the parliament and admitted that everything I had written was true.
I could finally breathe again as I walked back into the newsroom with a mixture of pride, relief and elation after the menace and uncertainty of the last few harrowing weeks.
The glow did not last long as I was soon back to reporting on the U.S. dollar.
But I did allow myself a little smile every once in a while when I thought about how conscientious research and accurate reporting on my part and bold decision making and moral support on the part of my editor and others were all able to highlight the supreme value and impact of hard work, truth and courage in journalism.
That was a long time ago. Both prime ministers have since passed away, but some of the other people involved in this story have not. To protect both the innocent and the guilty, I decided to not identify the name of the Caribbean island.
This article is dedicated to Rudi Saks, who was the boldest news editor I ever had. He passed away in January 2019. May his brave soul rest in peace.
Questions to consider:
- When is it appropriate to take risks as a journalist? And when is it not?
- In these days of artificial intelligence, why is it still important to do your own research as a journalist?
- What would you do if you were threatened in relation to a published article that you had researched and written?
Jeremy Solomons is a global leadership coach and facilitator based in Kigali, Rwanda, where he has written regular “Leading Rwanda” and "Letter from Kigali" columns for the New Times newspaper. In the past, he was a Reuters financial reporter in Hong Kong and New York City and then a foreign correspondent in Frankfurt. He was also a farmer in Israel; factory worker and teacher in France; banker in England and Switzerland; and entrepreneur in Italy.