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Last week, three Somali men were convicted by a federal jury in a Norfolk, Va., court on charges that included piracy. It’s one of a number of recent cases prosecuting piracy that some think is helping to curb a flurry of thefts, kidnappings and murders on the high seas over the last several years. Others say deterrents like more armed guards on cargo ships are stemming the tide. We explore how companies and individuals are responding to the threat of piracy and the challenges of prosecuting the crime.
- John Huggins director, Oceans Beyond Piracy
- Martin Davies Admiralty Law Institute Professor of Maritime Law and Director of the Maritime Law Center, Tulane University Law School
- Sam LaGrone news editor, U.S. Naval Institute
MR. MARC FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Forget the eye patch, the peg leg and schooners. Modern day piracy involves all of the high stakes danger and none of the romance we might expect from tales of yore. The problem burst into our collective conscience in dramatic fashion in 2009, when the cargo ship Maersk Alabama was boarded by Somali pirates. A tense hostage situation ended only when Navy SEALs were called in and rescued the ship's captain.
MR. MARC FISHERSince then piracy in the Gulf of Aden where armed men hold cargo's ransom has continued to pace. At the same time piracy problems are brewing off Africa's opposite coast in the Gulf of Guinea. Here to help us understand the piracy picture and why so many piracy cases end up being tried in Virginia, Sam Lagrone is the news editor for the U.S. Naval Institute's news site. Martin Davies is joining us from New Orleans where he's a professor of maritime law at the Admiralty Law Institute. And he's director of the Maritime Law Center at Tulane University.
MR. MARC FISHERAnd joining us from Broomfield, Colorado is John Huggins. He's director of Oceans Beyond Piracy, a nonprofit that works to develop a response to maritime piracy. And you can join our conversation at 1-800-433-8850 or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let us know if you've worked for a maritime company that has experience with piracy, if you think the United States and the International Community are doing enough to address piracy.
MR. MARC FISHERAnd what do you think of putting armed guards on ships carrying valuable cargo? Well, Sam Lagrone, last week three Somali men were found guilty of piracy. And the way that Somali pirates are thinking about their targets apparently has gone through something of a shift. What's happened?
MR. SAM LAGRONEWell, the specific incidents where these pirates were convicted were related to the seizure of a 58' motor -- or sailing yacht, pardon me, back in 2011, February. So there were four people and they were hijacked by a group of Somali pirates. And there was a standoff between them and the United States Navy, which ended up having the pirates -- actually now, convicted pirates who ended up killing hostages.
MR. SAM LAGRONEAnd that was new -- or it wasn't new but I mean, it was a trend in Somali piracy. Instead of going after cargo you would go after individuals and then hold them for ransom. And that ties back to a 2009 incident where a British couple had been taken and brought into the Somali inland and had been held hostage for more than a year until about a million dollar ransom was paid for them. And typically when you see Somali pirates out in the Gulf of Aden, they go after cargo and they go after ships. And they hold those for as long as it takes for the shipping companies to round up the insurance money for the ransom -- typically insurance money for ransom. And so...
FISHERSo the pirates want the money, not the cargo.
LAGRONEThe pirates want the money. In the Gulf of Aden they specifically want the money. So we'll hold a high value asset and we'll keep that as long as we can until we can negotiate a settlement for it. And, you know, these are very sophisticated -- not on the actual pirate end but on the -- you know, these are -- the organizations that run the pirates are relatively sophisticated.
LAGRONEAnd, you know, I mean, there've been reports of stock exchanges. And there've been ideas that, you know, they have public relations officials. And it's a relatively sophisticated operation on the upper ends of the management. But the people who are typically seizing the ships are 16-, 17-year-old typically Somali people.
FISHERAnd so once the insurance company says yeah, go ahead and pay them and the cash is released and given to the pirates, what's to prevent the authorities from just picking up the pirates at that point once the hostages have been freed?
LAGRONEWell, the primary goal of, you know, the military introduction is to make sure that, you know, everyone's safe. And I think probably the other guests would agree that the difficulty in prosecuting pirates has almost become a secondary consideration. You'll have a couple of rare incidents -- or instances like the SV Quest that happened in 2011 that actually go to prosecution. But for a lot of these pirates, depending on who gets them and what the circumstances were, a lot of them are caught and released.
FISHERMartin Davies, one of the advantages of piracy on the high seas, I would imagine, is the confusion or uncertainty about who's in charge out there. What -- who's responsibility is it to protect these cargo ships and the people aboard them?
MR. MARTIN DAVIESThat's a question of responsibility is the right to take action against pirates. Piracy is the classic example of what international law calls universal jurisdiction, which means that any country anywhere in the world can prosecute a pirate. And that's because piracy by definition takes place on the high seas, which is outside the territory of any country. And it's long been regarded -- like for centuries been regarded as a form of a crime against humanity. Therefore can be convicted -- can be prosecuted rather by any country regardless of whether that country has any connection with the incident.
MR. MARTIN DAVIESNow in order to do that the country has to have laws making piracy an offense, as the United States does. And it also has to be bothered to take steps to prosecute the pirates. Most countries would only take steps to prosecute pirates if there were some connection with that country. But if, for example, India or Switzerland had antipiracy laws, they could just as well have prosecuted the pirates that took the vessel that Sam referred to. Of course they would be unlikely to have any interest in doing so. But the bottom line is that any country anywhere can take action against pirates.
FISHERJohn Huggins, given that sort of free for all legally on the high seas, how -- is there any way that countries can come together or have come together to cooperate in attacking this problem?
MR. JOHN HUGGINSYeah, I think so. And I think you've seen some real success stories, off the coast of Somalia in particular. I think the reasons that the piracy has gone down, which it has somewhere around 80 percent over the last year-and-a-half, we have -- navies are better coordinated. They are more aggressive towards following these pirate action groups. Industry itself has done a lot to harden their vessels and to pick certain transit routes and transit speeds that discourage pirates.
MR. JOHN HUGGINSAnd I think the third thing that's been a real game-changer now is a lot of these ships are now employing private security teams onboard, which I think really changes the risk reward ratio for a lot of the pirates. So I think that's why you've seen success at sea. Of course, this doesn't get into a longer term rule of law solution which I think is much more difficult for the issues that have been emphasized by the other guests.
FISHERAnd how often do the pirates get away with piracy? How often do they get the money and either take it for themselves or pass it on to their organized groups, John?
HUGGINSWell, I think at the height of this you were seeing somewhere around 175 attacks a year off -- or attributable to Somali pirates between 2009 and 2011. You saw around 50 successful ship-takings in 2009 and 2010. So it occurs quite often but as I mentioned the defensive measures put in place now make it much more difficult.
HUGGINSWe still assume there's about 50 to 70 hostages being held in Somalia. And those that are still being held are in pretty dire straits because a lot of them have been abandoned perhaps by their shipping companies or the shipping companies have gone bankrupt. So it's very difficult for the pirates to negotiate a ransom for a crew like that. So what we see now are some very desperate situations where the pirates are held on land.
HUGGINSWe even had news last week that one of the few remaining ships, the Albedo, has actually sunk. And we're not sure exactly what has happened to the hostages that were onboard that vessel.
FISHERAnd in general, is there any general rule about where those hostages are from? Are they from all over the world or...
HUGGINSYeah, a lot from all over the world. I think each crew is kind of a separate mix of four or five different countries. You may have -- Filipinos make up the largest percentage of seafarers in the world, followed by India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, some of these other countries. But we also see a lot of the other crews made up of people from say Denmark or Ukraine and some of the other countries in Europe as well.
FISHERYou can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email us at email@example.com. And Martin Davies, was -- I mean, with people being held hostages and the ships in question being from many different countries, what is the American role here? And does the U.S. government see this as something that -- where we need to take a leading role?
DAVIESWell, I believe so. I mean, the United States has taken a very prominent role in the naval task forces that have been patrolling the area affected by Somali pirates. And the United States as I mentioned before does have legislation making piracy an offense. So it is able to prosecute any pirates that it picks up, although understandably the prosecutorial authorities have been most interested in cases like the Maersk Alabama where U.S. citizens are involved. But the role of the U.S. Navy in that area is very significant.
FISHERAnd Sam Lagrone, each hijacking is different obviously. So what brings the U.S. Navy into these kinds of situations? How do they decide which of these to engage in?
LAGRONEWell, for any of the navies in any of the task force, I mean, there's a very sort of specific set of criteria to when you respond to a piracy attack. The most stressful is the one where you have hostages onboard that are under control of the pirates. So they're -- and that's the situation that the Maersk Alabama was in, which was probably the most dramatic and the one that we're most familiar with. And then the SV Quest, the most -- the one where the conviction just came out on the 9th.
LAGRONEIn those situations where the pirates have control of the hostages, it escalates the situation to where you really have a very limited amount of people that can respond to that effectively. When you're looking at some of the more elite United States Special Operations Forces, specifically the Navy SEALs. And Navy SEALs were both involved in the taking of the Maersk Alabama and then the SV Quest. After the Quest incident went bad, Navy SEALs immediately responded. And they had been deployed there as part of that three-day standoff to be able to interdict in the case that they did.
LAGRONEYou have sort of lower level hostage situations. A lot of the maritime companies are installing what's called a citadel on the inside of their ships. So in the instance of a hijacking or a potential hijacking, the crew will go and secure themselves in the citadel and they'll be...
FISHERWhat is the citadel?
LAGRONEThe citadel is a hardened room on the inside of the merchant ship. And it's a place where the...
FISHERLike a safe room.
LAGRONELike a safe room. It's like a panic room. And it's a situation where the crew can be able to be safe and then you can have forces that are kind of a slightly lesser, not quite as sophisticated to go and intervene. And there have been a couple of examples where Dutch troops have been able to rescue folks that have been in a citadel. Because once the hostages are taken out of the equation it becomes a much easier military operation.
FISHERAnd, pardon my ignorance, but how do these pirates in a small vessel stop one of these big cargo ships in the first place?
LAGRONEWell, typically what the pirates look for is they look for ships that are slow. And they look for ships that have what's called the low freeboard or the distance between the water line and then the top rail of the ship. And so actually the trailer for the new Tom Hanks movie about the Maersk Alabama does a pretty good job of showing how the pirates kind of come in. So you'll come in on a skiff and you'll have a ladder. And if you're -- run alongside the ship and if it's got a low enough freeboard you'll be able to kind of throw that ladder over the edge of the ship and then climb onboard.
LAGRONEAnd it's particularly -- and if you think about it, one of the suggestions from the international maritime organization on best practices, particularly in the region of the Gulf of Aden is you need to go really fast through there. You need to be able to protect your freeboard with razor wire or concertina wire. There's -- you know, you can have fire hoses onboard in additional to other sort of nonlethal ways including the armed security teams, which we're starting to see a lot more of since 2009.
FISHERAnd John Huggins, you mentioned those armed security teams earlier. What -- who's organizing those and is that something that the shipping companies do on their own or are governments involved?
HUGGINSI think what we saw was most governments were really hesitant to bring armed teams onboard a couple years ago. They were afraid about an escalation in violence. But I think the geographic nature of the problem is so massive that you could not guarantee a military response. So I think a lot of flag states then rethought policy and brought these teams onboard.
HUGGINSNow, when they first came onboard many of them did not have a lot of experience in the maritime realm. And we had up to 200 companies entering into this business. A lot of them are based in UK mostly, but also in the U.S. So the decision to bring one onboard is one the actual contract is between the shipper by the security team and then it's reviewed and approved by the flag state.
HUGGINSSo we're seeing -- we estimated mid time last year a little upwards of 60 percent of the vessels now having these private security teams -- the larger merchant vessels that is -- in this high risk area.
FISHERAnd Martin Davies, this most recent case in which three Somali men were found guilty was (unintelligible) five-week jury trial in Norfolk, Va. How does a case like that end up in Norfolk, Va.?
DAVIESWell, as I said, I mean, it can be prosecuted anywhere where the pirates are brought into the country that has the legislation in question. And it's just been chosen that that district in Virginia has been selected as the place where prosecutions are going to take place. For a while Kenya kind of volunteered itself to do pirate prosecutions because it was a country that both had piracy -- antipiracy legislation and was actually on -- you know, had an Indian Ocean coast.
DAVIESBut apparently the number of pirate prosecutions brought the Kenyan legal system to a bit of a standstill. But it's just a question of where the pirates are brought. And that's where the United States has chosen to bring those people for prosecution.
FISHERWhen we come back after a short break we will talk more about piracy on the high seas and look at the human and economic costs of piracy and take your calls at 1-800-433-8850. I'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo.
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher, and this is "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," and we are talking about piracy on the high seas with John Huggins, director of Oceans Beyond Piracy, Martin Davies, who is director of the Maritime Law Center at Tulane University in New Orleans, and Sam LaGrone, news editor for the U.S. Naval Institutes news site. And Sam LaGrone, the range of movement of these pirates we're seeing this spreading now from the Gulf of Aden to the Gulf of Guinea. Where is that, and what's going on there?
LAGRONESo this is the other side of Africa. So if think of the Gulf of Aden, it's a transit zone to the Suez Canal, and it's a major international shipping lane. The Gulf of Guinea is a little different. It's primarily what you're dealing with there, it's completely on the other side of Africa. It's on their western coast, And it's close to Nigeria and Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire and there's a new type of piracy. Well, it's not so much it's new, but it's reemerging where you're dealing with a very different breed of pirates there that are primarily looking to get petroleum products to sell on the Nigerian black market.
LAGRONESo what you will have, is you'll have pirates take a tanker, and instead of the Somali pirates which will hold a ship for in upwards of a year, you have sophisticated operators that are able to offload a large amount of petroleum in about a week or so and then make a killing in the black market in Nigeria. So it goes, you know, there's sort of a small saying among piracy experts, Somali pirates hold a ship for a year and they might get, you know, anywhere from five to $10 million, whatever the negotiated rate's going to be from the insurance thing, and then Gulf of Guinea pirates will hold a ship for a week and they'll make 30 million.
FISHERAnd who gets that money?
LAGRONEWell, that money is going into very sophisticated crime elements inside Nigeria and that region. Sophisticated criminal groups that are going to be able to offload that material and that petroleum in a way that they can able to reap the profits back, and those mean that there are criminal groups that are obviously well connected. I mean, if you think about Somali piracy it's very much, okay, we got the ship, we've got the hostages, we get paid, and then it goes into the coffers of the pirate masters on shore.
LAGRONEThis is a much more sophisticated operation that, you know, has implications dealing with the Nigerian government, and there's ideas of corruption there, and it's a lot more gray problem. It's not as black and white as the Somali issue, and there's much more interconnectedness in the existing Nigerian government with potentially these organizations.
FISHERMartin Davies, has there been any success anywhere in the world in tracing these organized crime rings to the top and making inroads into them or breaking them apart?
DAVIESSo far as I'm aware, very little. In fact, surprisingly little, given that they're obviously very well connected, but there's been very little attempt -- I mean most of the on (word?) focus has been on the relatively young people who are out there actually taking the vessels. There's been very little attempt to try and sort of follow the food chain up to the big cheeses at the top. Now, having said that, there is a case that's presently on appeal in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, again, in Virginia, about one of the shore-based fixes, so to speak.
DAVIESAnd the question on appeal there is whether he can be guilty of piracy given that what he did was concerned with bankrolling these operations on shore. Piracy is traditionally -- well, and by definition indeed, actions that take place on the high seas, and this person's argument is, well, he can't be a pirate if what he has done is confined to action on the land. Now, the prosecutors say, well, it is in essence an organized crime activity, and therefore, anybody involved in this organized crime activity is guilty of the offense. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals hasn't yet decided that, but that's an interesting legal question.
FISHERJohn Huggins, you mentioned earlier that the number of pirate incidents is off considerably in the waters off Somalia, but over in the Gulf of Guinea it's a different story. Is the same kind of enforcement efforts and strategies, have they been put into place in the Gulf of Guinea, or do you have different actors there who are not prepared to cooperate in the same ways?
HUGGINSYeah. I think that there's a different piracy model, as Samuel mentioned, on the East Coast that's about getting hostages and getting ransoms for that. Because there's really no way to offload cargo. On the west coast, there appears to be -- and this is where you wonder how much organized crime, or there perhaps might be pollution with officials because the ships are held for a very short amount of time. There always seems to be an easy way to offload some of the refined product that is then sold on the black market.
HUGGINSSo it's a little different type of crime. The other challenge that you have is, on the east coast with an ungoverned space off Somalia, there was a decision that international navies and others could be involved very close to the Somali shore to fight piracy. On the west coast in the Gulf of Guinea, you have established nations there, and so it's a question of getting those nations now to police their own regional waters.
HUGGINSAnd there is no international navy effort as of right now. The states there are just beginning. Last month they had a state summit to come up with a regional plan to how they're going to fight piracy. So you're seeing the urgency starting to tick up, especially now that the focus appears to be more on West Africa.
FISHERAnd John, we have an email from another John in Bethesda saying, "Some of the cases sound disturbing, but isn't this just the cost of doing business for these big oil companies? They simply have to secure their ships even if it costs them. They make enough profit." Is that a fair analysis at all?
HUGGINSAgain, some of the things that we saw industry that they were able to do on the east coast, and I think we talked about the private armed teams that are able to be there at the point of attack, a lot of the attacks on the west coast defer within these regional waters where these armed teams are not welcome. So there's limited options for industry to do, and I think it's -- again, it's (unintelligible) of the governments needing to do more to police their own waters.
FISHERAnd tell us -- yes.
DAVIESIf I can chip in there...
DAVIES...in response to that question. It should be realized that most of the -- both the ransoms on the east coast, and the cargo loss on the west coast, are covered by insurance. Now, the insurers, there are various different kinds of insurers involved. There are cargo insurers, there are hull insurers, and there are insurers called war risk insurers. And those insurers have been in fairly sort of heated negotiations with one another, mainly in the London market, about which of them is going to cover this loss.
DAVIESBut, you know, your questioner asked about, you know, the profits of insurance companies -- sorry, the profits of the oils companies. It may well be that the premiums that they have to pay have gone up considerably, but the loss itself is covered by insurance.
FISHERBut in the end someone is paying for this.
DAVIESAbsolutely. Absolutely. The insurers (unintelligible) at the moment.
FISHERThere is obviously both a human and an economic cost that stems from this kind of piracy. Can you give us a sense of how large that is? John, do you want to take that?
HUGGINSYeah. When we looked at piracy off the west coast of Africa, the thing we wanted to look at was how many seafarers are actually affected by this. And again, there's two different models. On the east coast, there was some sense that we have to protect the hostages in order to get this ransom. On the west coast, there's a big emphasis on intimidating the crew very early in the process so that they're not interfering with the activities that are going on.
HUGGINSAnd so we see some of these can actually be more violent on the west coast, and the number of seafarers that we found was around 950, a little upwards of that, that were -- participated or were there during an attack, and up to 800 of them actually came in close contact with the pirates as the ship was boarded. And so there's long term effects to this on the seafarers. It's a very traumatic crime that they have to go through, and like we said, right now the numbers have been steady, and it's been a challenge to try to lower those figures.
FISHERAnd there was just a story yesterday on the AP that said the group that monitors piracy says well-armed pirates are using new strategies to hijack ships and widening their area of operations amid a worrying surge in attacks, kidnappings and armed robberies in the Gulf of Guinea, and this story put the cost of piracy at about $2 billion over the past year, and it's changing the way shipping companies arrange routes, and they're avoiding some the ports in the danger zones. So clearly there's kind of an international imperative to do something. And Sam LaGrone, do you see the strategies that are being used shifting at all. Is -- as the threat morphs as well?
LAGRONEThe strategies for interdicting West African piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is a much, much more complicated situation, and it's much more difficult, I feel, to get international buy in to be able to police this. You're looking at a relatively isolated population, I mean, container ships and other cargo ships get taken as well, but you're looking primarily at petroleum manufacturers that are getting targeted here.
LAGRONEThe other thing is the -- there's no real organization -- international organization that's kind of taken this up as a priority. So if you look at east African piracy at the Gulf of Aden, you've had NATO step in because they had an awful lot of members that were affected by this. You also had the European Union come up EUF, or -- which was their navel contribution to the Gulf of Aden piracy, because you're talking about a bunch of ships that are ultimately headed for the Mediterranean.
LAGRONEYou don't have that same intersection of -- that same intersection of priorities in the Gulf of Guinea. What the United States has been doing a lot lately, they have a lot of international exercises they -- west African partnership station is part of that as part of U.S. Africa Command. And Africom and the U.S. Navy has been sending ships down to train.
LAGRONESailors in Ghana and sailors in Nigeria and other places in the region, it was like, okay, this is how you act as a regional anti-piracy force, and it's much more education and putting the emphasis on the individual countries to be able to interdict this, because as the other guests have said, a lot of these attacks happen in regional waters where the jurisdiction is of Nigeria or any of these other countries that are there, and it makes it a much more difficult problem internationally because you don't have the same freedom of movement close to sure that you do in Somalia which is essentially a rogue state.
FISHERJohn Huggins, the non-profit that you direct, Oceans Beyond Piracy, works to develop responses to maritime piracy. Is this work that you do supported by the cargo industry, by the insurance industry, or what, you know, where's your support coming from?
HUGGINSWe're actually self-funded organization. Our chairman has a large real estate company here in Denver, and this is one of the issues that he sees an industry could be involved with, and so he's trying to set the example on getting industry involvement in this particular issue.
FISHERIs there -- do you see a disconnect at all between industry and the various governments involved in this?
HUGGINSWell, I think on the east coast you do have this organization called the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, which really has done a good job of incorporating industry viewpoints as well as advocacy groups and NGOs like us into the process. And we think that that is the ultimate solution because a lot of these crimes occur in international waters where there's not a single state jurisdiction.
HUGGINSWe see that industry is paying 80 percent of the costs, and operating at sea you can't compel them to act a certain way, you need their cooperation. So we see that this fits right within our mandate of our larger foundation, and we're going on three years being involved in this problem.
FISHERMartin Davies, the piracy has its own set of connotations, but when you learn about how these incidents occur and their impact, it certainly brings up the specter of terrorism, and what is -- what are the distinctions in the law between piracy and terrorism, and do they in any way inhibit enforcement?
DAVIESThere's a very important distinction between piracy and terrorism, one, that the pirates themselves are very acutely aware of, because under the law of most countries, giving money to terrorists is very clearly against the law. So those insurers that I mentioned, for example, many of whom are based in the U.K., are forbidden by U.K. law to give money to terrorist organizations.
DAVIESThey're not forbidden by U.K. law to pay bribes or ransom to pirates, and the pirates are very acutely aware of this and make their best efforts to give the impression that this is just a business operation rather than having anything to do with terrorism, because if it had any taint of terrorism about it, they wouldn't be getting their ransom. Now, whether in fact any of the money ends up in the hands of terrorist organizations like al Shabaab in East Africa is another question. But the pirates do their best to give the impression that it doesn't have anything to do with terrorism.
FISHERWe have an email from Sarah saying, "Shouldn't we also be helping to stabilize the countries where these pirates come from?" John Huggins?
HUGGINSYeah. I think that's a very good point, and I think in Somalia this is particularly difficult because of all the challenges that are involved. But just recently we've finally been able to pull the regions together and work on a common maritime strategy to at least lay out the assets required to both police their coast and also, which is important to them, to protect their assets, and, you know, the resources that they have there in their economic exclusion zone. So some of that work has started.
HUGGINSIt's very challenging, but I think that this piracy incident, for as many bad things as happened, it's kind of refocused international efforts there to begin to look at ways on how we can start to stabilize the coast. So I think that's a very important part that we're working on as well.
FISHERJohn Huggins is director of Oceans Beyond Piracy, a nonprofit that works to develop responses to maritime piracy. Martin Davies is director of the Maritime Law Center at Tulane University. He joined us from New Orleans. And Sam LaGrone is news editor for the U.S. Naval Institute's news site, and he's here in the studio with us in Washington. I'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks so much for listening.
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