Migration-focused video journalist Renata Brito in Barcelona took note of a heartbreaking photo on social media to spark a story about the situation at the Tunisia-Libya border — and she used her years of source work, expertise on the border and help from around AP to confirm the story.
On July 19, the photo of a woman and child lying dead, barefoot and face down in the tawny desert sand began circulating on social media. It was retweeted by activists who accused Tunisia of abandoning migrants to their fates on the other side of Tunisia’s desert border with Libya.
But little was known about the photo or the stories of the two who had died.
Since early July, AP had reported on increasing violence against Black Africans in Tunisia, with mass expulsions to the Libyan and Algerian borders.
On social media, some said the photo spoke to that growing crisis, but others insisted it was an old image from another country.
Three days after the photo surfaced, a source of Brito’s in Libya messaged her, saying he knew the woman and child in the photo. From afar, Brito had developed a relationship with the source for years — a Cameroonian man who has put her in touch with other West African migrants in Libya, helping her to expand her network on the important topic of migration and providing a group of people who regularly tell her about the situation on the ground and share photos and videos.
For this story, Brito asked the source: How did he know it was them? Could she speak to friends or family? With whom did they travel?
Eventually, she was put in touch with the husband of the woman who had died. The man, Mbengue Nyimbilo Crepin, and Brito spoke at length for days until the story was published.
He told her his story via video call and audio messages on WhatsApp. He’d been traveling with them from Libya to Tunisia when they were found by Tunisian officers and taken back to the border and abandoned. He recalled everything in detail with dates, approximate times and more.
He also shared photos of his wife and daughter wearing the same dress and sandals as in the initial image, shared their registration papers, and gave contact info another migrant who’d been traveling with him and could back up his story.
AP was one of the few media organizations to speak to Nyimbilo directly.
With assistance from London user-generated content editor Nadia Ahmed, Brito used UGC verification tools including reverse image search and found no indications that the image was old or misleading. Reporters Samy Magdy in Cairo and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut also helped verify the photo was authentic and obtained more information by calling Libyan border guards and a local journalist who was the first to post the photo on Twitter.
In addition, Magdy monitored social media posts by Libya border guards showing in dramatic photos and videos how several bodies were being found in the border area, in line with reports from migrants and human rights groups. He also gave important context to the situation in Libya, with its own record of abuses against migrants.
A source in the security forces told him many of those “rescued” by Libyan border guards were being taken to horrific detention centers where grave abuses are committed.
Paris-based news staffer Elaine Ganley, with feeds from a Tunis freelancer who cannot be named because of fear that the government will retaliate, pulled together Tunisian government statements, reaction to the accusations and context.
The story was comprehensive in its look at the tale of one migrant family that shows the broader problems at this border in the context of migration from Africa to Europe.
For dogged source work and deep background reporting, Brito, Ganley and Magdy earn Best of the Week — First Winner.