Shell shock

The shot that felled Montreal crime reporter rang in every journalist's ear

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MONTREAL — The shooting last week of crime reporter Michel Auger in the parking lot of the Journal de Montreal is stirring scary memories and less than cheerful forebodings in journalists across North America.

For Italian-Canadian journalist Antonio Nicaso, for example, it recalled an unsuccessful car-bomb attack against him years ago in Italy.

As co-editor of Corriere Canadese, a Toronto daily and one of the most influential Italian newspapers outside Italy, Nicaso frequently writes on the Mafia and other crime stories, both in his columns and in his books.

“When I first heard of Michel’s shooting, my immediate thought was of Bertolt Brecht’s famous phrase, ‘Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes,'” he says. “We are paying the price for 30 years of underestimation of the problem (of organized crime), and the danger is definitely increasing.”

Heroes are few and far between in Montreal’s decade-long bloody gang war that has so far claimed 150 lives.

Auger, who has spent his entire working life on the receiving end of an endless stream of death threats, was shot five times in broad daylight and is recovering under a blanket of police security.

Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, speaker of the Quebec legislature, has first-hand knowledge of such attacks. When he was a reporter covering organized crime for Montreal’s Le Devoir in 1973, a mob hit man walked into the newsroom and shot him three times in the chest and arm.

“People who strike like that don’t give warnings,” he says. “I’d be surprised if Michel had any.” Following the attack, fear dominated Charbonneau’s every waking moment.

“You can’t do this kind of journalism behind a bodyguard and a bullet-proof vest,” he says.

“But I was very afraid. For three years I carried a loaded revolver, but it was mostly psychological protection.”

In 1976, investigative reporter Don Bolles was murdered while pursuing a story in Scottsdale, Arizona. The incident galvanized reporters and editors and resulted in an extensive six-month investigation of crime and corruption called the Arizona Project.

Thirty-six journalists from 23 media organizations dug into organized crime, land fraud, drugs and political corruption. The project led to creation of the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) organization presently based at the University of Missouri.

Sordid activities

Since then, no journalist has been killed on U.S. soil. “The message to organized crime,” explains director Brant Houston, “was that if you hurt one journalist, you get 30 more on your case. Hurt those 30 and you get 300.”

Throwing huge spotlights on their sordid activities may be one of the more effective weapons against organized crime, and it may also help keep reporters alive to tell the tale.

New York City-based freelancer Robert Friedman has been called the “don” of contemporary investigative reporters. In 1998, following a blistering expose of Russian mob influence in the National Hockey League for the Village Voice, the Russian mafiyaput out a $100,000 contract on his life.

Acting on FBI advice, he and his wife fled their home, but returned a week later. “I was angry,” he says. “We weren’t going to let a bunch of gangsters kick us out of our home.”

So far, nothing has happened. Friedman and his wife remain in their Greenwich Village apartment and take common-sense precautions, but to his mind their best protection comes from peers and the general public.

“Publicity has really made me safer,” he says. “They thought they could play by Moscow rules, where journalists are killed with impunity, but when my case came out in the public, there was a great hue and cry.”

No arrests have yet been made in the Auger case, and police report that they have few leads and no suspects.

The investigation continues.

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