Weighing Risk When the Reporting Is Dangerous

In early March, Anton Troianovski, The Times’s Moscow bureau chief, working closely with newsroom leadership, decided he should leave Russia.

Flights out of the country were filling up. Mr. Troianovski took one hour to pack and then boarded a plane to Dubai, a reliable international connection as Western countries closed their airspace to Russian planes. Even as he made arrangements to exit the country, Mr. Troianovski was “focused on the mission of making sure that all of our staff were safe,” he said.

That week, the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, had introduced a law that would punish the publication of what it deemed “false information” about its invasion of Ukraine with up to 15 years in prison. The language of the law would prohibit any contradiction of the government’s statements about the war. For a news organization, that meant potential peril.

After the law passed, The Times decided to pull the rest of its correspondents out of Russia for the first time.

The legislation “eliminated the ability to publish fact-based journalism” on the war in Ukraine, Michael Slackman, an assistant managing editor at The Times, said.

It was not the only occasion The Times has had to remove reporters from areas that became hostile to journalism. A security team watches over Times journalists, who work all over the world, with contingency plans. If Times reporters are in danger, there are procedures in place to mitigate risk.

Tug Wilson, the director of international security at The Times, thinks about an international reporter’s exposure as though it’s a footprint. The greater the footprint, the greater the risk.

Early in the Russia-Ukraine war, The Times evacuated some of its staff from Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, when Russia’s assault there intensified.

“It made sense not to have quite so many people there while strikes were taking place,” Mr. Wilson said.

Hazards, though, may at times be more covert or specific to an individual. Mr. Wilson said his team had plans for those, too. Three basic areas of risk are most often used as markers for a response.

One occurs when a journalist has received a targeted threat. Another is seen when a journalist is assigned to a country in turmoil, such as Afghanistan after the government fell to the Taliban last summer, or in parts of Ukraine right now. Another occurs when a journalist is working on a sensitive article and a government, or a powerful group of people, may be unhappy with the subject of an investigation.

Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments

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Russian oil embargo. European Union countries are likely to approve a phased embargo on Russian oil, sealing a long-postponed measure that has divided the bloc’s members and highlighted their dependence on Russian energy sources. The ambassadors expect to give their final approval by the end of the week, E.U. officials said.

Deterrence and aid. Britain’s military said it would deploy 8,000 soldiers to Europe to join troops from other NATO countries in exercises meant to deter further Russian aggression. The announcement follows President Biden’s request to Congress for $33 billion to bolster Ukraine.

On the ground. After a period of relative quiet, Russian rockets slammed into Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. The barrage hit an empty weapons factory and a nearby apartment building, and Kyiv’s mayor said one person was found dead under the rubble.

NATO guarantees. NATO is exploring ways to defend Finland and Sweden should they ask to join the alliance, even in the period before their membership is ratified. As fears mount that the conflict might spill over the borders of Ukraine, the two countries have been moving toward requesting membership.

In Afghanistan last summer, it was not only reporters who were in danger. Translators, members of the office staff and other Afghans who had aided The Times faced reprisal from the Taliban for their association with a Western news organization. The Times helped them and their families — hundreds of people in all — flee the country.

One morning in August 2021, Steven McElroy, executive director of Newsroom Operations, received a call from Times leadership, who asked him to help resettle the group from Afghanistan. The Times found temporary residences in Houston and Mexico City, where around 200 people have since passed through or remain. The resettlement process is ongoing, and Mr. McElroy said he has been traveling between New York and the two cities, working with Times teams aiding the families.

“We’re not going to abandon anybody,” Mr. McElroy said.

Whether protecting a group of several hundred or a single person, The Times weighs all potential risks with the same scale. In Russia, the new legislation may not have directly threatened loss of life, but the inability to report — and the risk of 15 years in prison — was also taken into account. Times journalists from the Moscow bureau left safely; Mr. Troianovski is currently reporting from Istanbul, relying on sources who remain in Russia and, when necessary, taking measures to protect their identities.

The Times still has an office in Moscow, and hopes to return to reporting from Russia when it’s safe to do so. As in Afghanistan, and now Ukraine, reporters want to be on the ground to gather news firsthand.

“We have to balance our journalistic mission against the security risk,” Mr. Slackman said. “Our job is to cover the world. In order to cover the world, you have to be there.”

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