By ANDREW SHEETS —
CLAREMONT, Calif. – Having faced threats of being chopped into pieces and stuffed into a tire, New York Times correspondent David Barboza is careful to balance his personal safety against the dangers of investigative reporting.
Barboza won Pulitzer Prizes in 2013 for explanatory reporting (for contributing to a series on the darker side of the global economy) and international reporting for stories on secret wealth held by relatives of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Focusing on business journalism, Barboza has been based in China for almost 11 years. He is now the New York Times Shanghai bureau chief.
While reporting sensitive stories in both the U.S. and China, Barboza has faced numerous risks including death threats. For Barboza the danger comes with the job. “If they want to get you they’re going to get you,” he said in a talk to students at Claremont McKenna College. “If you want to be a reporter and do investigative that just comes with the territory.”
After writing a story about a company with links to organized crime Barboza received the tire death threat on a voicemail at his Chicago office. The New York Times hired an FBI agent as a consultant, but Barboza was mostly left to protect his own safety, as the agent’s main advice was simply to carry a cell phone and avoid dark alleys.
Barboza deals with threats and obstruction to his reporting from those he investigates as well as the government in China. “There is a person in security who has a file folder with your name on it and knows who your wife is and everything about you, and they will be assigned to follow you while you’re in China,” Barboza said. He is followed and photographed, and has even found a bugging device in his home. He also believes his office is bugged.
Being followed so closely presents a challenge to his reporting that he must overcome creatively. “When I was doing any sensitive story, especially about the relatives, I had to try to come up with a strategy to do it without them figuring out,” he said.
While he would not reveal his tricks he used to avoid detection by Chinese officials, he described how they would follow him. When foreign reporters check into hotels with journalism visas, police are informed of their presence. Barboza recounted that he was at times followed by a van all day, and would try to find some way to lose it.
The government tries to prevent Barboza from any sensitive interviews. Sometimes during a meeting government agents will come to the door. Addressing only the other Chinese, they say, “Whose house is this? Step outside.” The interviewee returns moments later to end the conversation claiming some excuse such as a headache. “It’s obvious they’ve been told to cancel the interview,” claims Barboza.
Concerns for his wife’s safety prevent Barboza from taking on assignments that could be especially dangerous for him and his family. Especially in China, his wife faces extra vulnerability because she is a Chinese citizen. “As a Chinese citizen, you have no rights. When the police come and say you’re going to jail you have no lawyer,” he explained.
Writing about the prime minister’s family was a particularly tense time for Barboza, although his wife found the threat of danger a bit of a thrill. “She loved the whole game of trying to escape from the Chinese government and people following us, but that wears off when you start getting the death threats,” he said.
Barboza has little interest in reporting from the more dangerous parts of the world, as he places more importance on his life and family. “A lot of the people who go out in the dangerous parts of the world—they’re younger people and get kind of excited about the danger, but as you get older you definitely become more conservative and think more about if something went wrong,” Barboza said.
(Written by Andrew Sheets, edited by Terril Yue Jones; Oct. 2, 2015)