Investigating and reporting on sexual violence

How can journalism make a concrete impact on society and help bring justice while respecting the dignity of rape survivors?

IRPI (Investigative Reporting Project Italy) had this big dilemma after being contacted – via its whistleblowing platform Irpileaks – by a young woman from Portugal. She had been sexually assaulted by her couchsurfing host in Italy. She was one of many.

Dino Maglio, a former police officer, used to lure girls into his house in Padova through couchsurfing, the hospitality exchange website for travellers. He put drugs in their drinks and assaulted them.

It was the first time IRPI investigated cases of this type. “We needed specific training and we wanted to help girls find justice in Italy”, said Giulio Rubino, co-founder of IRPI. The first step was to provide assistance to the young women: through lawyers for legal help, and associations for psychological support.

In the investigation process, the advice of Gavin Rees, director of the European branch of Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, proved to be fundamental. Journalists do not know how to talk about sexual violence, nor people generally know what its impact is, Rees said. “Survivors can remember what happened, but it’s often fragments of experience that are not very linked together.”

As a journalist, Rees continued, you need skills when interviewing someone, but speaking to a rape survivor is not like interviewing a politician: “You need to give space. You need to listen. When they don’t find a word, leave them space. Journalists should not fill the gaps.”

Questions throwing the blame to the survivors (such as “Was there something that you could have done to prevent it?”) should be avoided. Rather, it is always best to ask if it is ok to ask a question about something. What we need, said Gavin Rees, is to “find a common language when we discuss sexual violence”.

IRPI had to find a way to build trust within the group of 14 girls, aged 18-24, who were already in contact with each other. Cecilia Anesi and Alessia Cerantola, both co-founders of IRPI, were speaking to a few of them to listen to their experience and to get updates on their case.

“I was woken up at 3am by one of the girls who informed me that Dino Maglio was arrested,” Anesi said. With his arrest, IRPI had to dramatically speed up the investigation and gather witness statements that could be used as evidence in the trial. The problem was that most of the girls did not remember well what happened. Still, by putting together pieces from each testimony, the picture became clearer.

Photo by Kayleena MakortoffOnce all the material was collected, the remaining question for IRPI was around the publication of the story. IRPI sought agreements and formed partnerships with several media outlets across the world that had to comply to some requirements: priority to the preferences of the girls, including anonymity of sources; style had to exclude any form of sensationalism; and the photos had to be edited to make some faces not recognisible (with the help of Correctiv); finally the publication had to be coordinated in time.

The story was released in ten media outlets around the world at 6:30 CET on 6 February 2015, putting the case in the spotlight.

Pursuing seriality and internationality was not only a way to avoid sensationalism and take the form of an investigation, but also a way to reach other victims and encourage them to tell their stories.

Dino Maglio, whitin the abbreviated trial procedure for the rape of a 16 years old girl, was placed under house arrest – which he violated. As it was found, he created new fake couchsurfing profiles to contact the young women and invite them to retract their statements. A new trial is about to start and IRPI is still receiving leaks from women who can recall similar experiences. Testimonies can be sent to their whistleblowing platform Irpileaks.