Western paedophiles who have migrated to the beaches of Goa following crackdowns on child sex tourism in Thailand and Sri Lanka have a new irritant. After exposing Test cricket rackets and defence procurement scandals in Delhi, India’s investigative website-turned-weekly paper Tehelka has now turned its sights on them. And it has got the predators - and politicians - on the run.

Stung by its portrayal of his state as a haven for hundreds of European child molesters, Goa’s chief minister has rushed through a raft of measures to tackle the problem and the police have launched a crackdown on pederasts. Known child abusers have gone into hiding and colleges and religious institutions are launching awareness campaigns to educate the local population about child abuse by foreigners.

Tehelka’s investigative triumph contains echoes of the campaign mounted in Victorian London by the editor W.T. Stead. In 1885 he conducted an investigation into child prostitution that forced a change in the law to protect poor girls from sexual exploitation. Stead couldn’t deploy the same sophisticated technology as the Tehelka team - which includes digital spy cameras - but his undercover tactics weren’t all that different.

Just as the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette procured a young prostitute to prove that children were for sale, and went through the whole ghastly procedure of preparing her for export, so his modern Indian emulators set up a dummy events management company to establish the link between trafficking of children and paedophilia in Goa.

Dickensian London and the developing world have many parallels: and they are prompting some journalists in the latter world to emulate Dickens and Stead - though at greater risk.

In June 2002 Tim Lopes, a reporter with TV Globo, Brazil’s biggest broadcast network, ventured into the Vila Cruzeiro favela of Rio with a miniature camera to investigate claims of sexual exploitation of minors at parties organised by drug pushers. It turned out to be his last assignment.

Lopes was shot in both legs, squeezed into the boot of a Fiat and driven to a remote hillside where he was brutally tortured to death. His body was burned and most of his remains were later uncovered in a neighbouring slum. All the police found at the scene of the crime was a single bone, along with his watch, his crucifix and his camera.

There is risk in domestic reporting in the rich world too: Veronica Guerin, the Dublin crime reporter, was gunned down by a motorcycle assailant on a quiet suburban road while digging deep into the Irish capital’s drug networks. The murder was jolting because it is so rare for a journalist to meet such a brutal end in the western world.

Contrast that with Colombia, where asesino de la moto (murder by motorcycle) is a constant terror for any journalist who crosses the cocaine mobs. Hit-men and hit-women, known as sicarios, weave in and out of Bogota’s notorious traffic chaos before meting out their summary justice with machine guns. They usually strike with impunity and make about $1,000 a hit.

Colombia has long been the deadliest place on the planet to be a journalist, because of the apparently insoluble scourge of narco-terrorism. But there are other contenders for that accolade - Mugabe’s Zimbabwe comes immediately to mind. Writing for the wretched of the earth is a dangerous pursuit.

It is in the developing world, and in the fledgling democracies of the former Soviet bloc, that the most courageous and crucial journalism is being practised today, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in a manner we no longer see in the west.

The philosopher Onora O’Neill highlighted this important distinction: “The wonderful image of a free press speaking truth to power and of investigative journalists as tribunes of the people,” she observed in her 2002 Reith lectures, “belongs to those more dangerous and heroic [19th-century] times. In democracies, the image is obsolescent. Journalists face little danger (except overseas) and the press does not risk closure. On the contrary, the press has acquired unaccountable power others cannot match.”

Not every journalist in a developing nation is a modern-day W.T. Stead. Many reporters are as corrupt as the rogues they should be holding to account. The ubiquity of brown envelopes at press conferences in some parts of the world prompted one wit to suggest that the shining ideal of developmental journalism has been eclipsed by the grubby reality of envelopmental journalism.

And, though the murder of Tim Lopes triggered a much-needed debate about the culture of crime reporting in Brazil, it remains the case that the majority of TV Globo journalists come from comfortable, middle-class backgrounds and have no direct experience of - nor desire to confront - the full horrors of the favelas.

There are some crusading spirits left in western newsrooms and courageous foreign correspondents. But journalists in the developing world need to be heroes to report on their own societies: and an increasing number are rising to it.


Rob Brown teaches journalism at Napier University, Edinburgh and taught at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai (Madras).

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