By Rayane Moussallem, AIPS Media

SEOUL, May 13, 2017 – He is not the kind of journalist you meet every day. He does not seem to like how sports journalists work nowadays. Covering sports events and competitions are not part of his interests. It’s what is happening behind the scenes that matters, he says. This is what makes Hajo Seppelt unique.

The German journalist whose focus on the investigation of doping and corruption in sport, and in Russian athletics in particular made him one of the most renowned in the world took the stage at the 80th AIPS Congress to talk about investigative journalism.

“I used to say to myself that if I want to become a journalist, it is through sports. I was always interested in the background of the athletes: why they achieve results and break records. Because my duty as a journalist is to see behind the curtains,” Seppelt said as he addressed the auditorium of over 200 journalists.

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After starting his career as a sports reporter and commentator on swimming events for Germany’s premier broadcaster ARD TV in 1992, he was fired in 2006 after his critique of ARD’s uncritical reporting on doping became public. Since then, he has been working as a freelancer for ARD, filming reports and documentaries about doping.

‘Part of the sports family’

“My colleagues didn’t like what I was doing, they told me that I was destroying the product and sports and that they do not want to be involved in this. They are part of the sports family but I am not, I am a journalist,” he explained.

“A lot of officials misused sports for their own interest and this is not how journalism should be done. A lot of journalists were part of the game; they are superficial and too close to athletes.

“This doesn’t give them the distance to be out of it, and monitor it” Seppelt was clear.

The Shadowy World of Athletics

In 2015, Seppelt won the AIPS Sports Media Pearl Award in the “Video Documentary” category for his piece “Doping – Top Secret: The Shadowy World of Athletics” [see video above] on widespread doping in Russia, Kenya and beyond.

Answering a question on the authenticity of sources in his work, the German said: “You need between 10 or 15 people at least to check the evidence. I have worked with the Stepanov family who were called traitors by Russian media so we have to check on everything,” Seppelt said, referring to Russian athletes Yuliya and Vitaly Stepanov who brought to light the extent of doping in Russian sports in 2015.

For that, Seppelt admitted receiving warnings and threats from Russia: “A lot of journalists didn’t like my work, particularly from Russia and they threatened me. They sent life threat messages in an unbelievable way. ARD had to rent security personal to protect us. They don’t want to understand what investigative journalism is all about.”

Many journalists who become involved in this kind of investigative work might easily be putting their jobs at stake, given that their employers could easily refuse such stories for sponsorship and advertising purposes.

And the German admitted that his particular work environment is helping him in his mission.

He said: “ARD helped in that. Sometimes we have deadlines but it depends on the events. The point is that the story has to be serious and correct. In 2014, it took us a year to investigate the Russian scandal; they asked me if I can make a story of six minutes and I said no I need 45 minutes.

“I know this is difficult, and I say that we have this privilege where I work.”

‘IAAF is doing better’

“Just 10 or 15 years ago, no one would have accepted that I would be in an AIPS Congress talking about this. The approach has become different but we are still far away. Now we are seeing the real faces of some people, we have to think about a way to support publishers and investigators. Now 40 or 50% of the stories are being out which is much better than before.

“The IAAF is doing much better than it was just a couple of years ago, other federations should follow this path,” Seppelt added, referring to a a cleanup of the world athletics body that his work was a catalyst for.

‘Journalists should not be fans of sport’

The 2017 Gold World Medal winner at the New York Film Festivals in the category “Current Affairs” for his documentary “Doping -Top Secret; Showdown for Russia” was critical towards the work of journalists around the world.

‘In my opinion, journalists are not there to be the companion or fan of sports, they are there to be the watchdogs of sports,” Seppelt told the AIPS Congress.

“Over 400 journalists were sent from Germany to cover the Olympics; they didn’t investigate a single matter. We have to change part of the system. If we have a department and there is no one interested in this, then it’s a major problem.

German investigative journalist Hajo Seppelt speaking at the Panel on Journalism at the 80th AIPS Congress in Seoul and PyeongChang (Photo: Sonja Nikcevic)

“Journalism is the same in every part of the world. In the majority of countries, we don’t have critical journalists. They are too close to the subject they report,” Seppelt said. A number of journalists present added to the discussion that ‘critical journalism’ was often a case of funding, circumstances, a platform made impossible in many lower-income nations around the world.

The 54 year-old who revealed doping scandals in Germany and China too, explained how the door to more corruption is open for every single federation.

He said: “Big countries like USA and Russia who achieve a lot in sports have one vote in international federations just like Fiji Islands for example, and this is so wrong on many levels which opens the way to more corruption.”

Even though he was involved in sports throughout his career, Seppelt has a common view for all journalism.

“I have no experience in other fields but what happens in sports, happens everywhere. If I am a sports, economy or politics reporter, it’s the same. They have to invest a little portion into background and dig deeper in investigative journalism,” he concluded, marking the end of one of the most successful panels on journalism at an AIPS Congress.

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