NEW YORK — CNN's Clarissa Ward says her story this week about Russian involvement in the Central African Republic came with a price: she was trailed during her reporting and made the subject of a 15-minute propaganda video denigrating her work.
Ward said she was shaken by the experience but it confirmed for her that the story made powerful people uncomfortable.
"This was very clearly an attempt to discredit and intimidate us," Ward, CNN's chief international correspondent, said Friday.
Her story about Russian involvement in gold mining and other activities in the African nation touched upon the role of Wagner, a private Russian military contractor believed to be backed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to the Kremlin. Prigozhin was sanctioned by the U.S. for investing in organizations that tried to influence the 2016 American presidential election.
Ward's first reporting visit to the Central African Republic went smoothly, but troubles emerged when she returned. She and her team had problems getting accreditation, were accused of smuggling and of having fake documents.
During a visit to a gold mine, Ward said she noticed a vehicle with four white men following them. She approached the car and the men swiveled their heads to avoid being seen on camera and drove away. She saw the same vehicle later near her hotel.
Part of CNN's concern was the knowledge that three Russian journalists had been killed last year working in the Central African Republic, although Ward said she believed the affiliation with a well-known international news organization offered some protection.
"The Russians understand that if something were to happen to us it would be a huge, huge fiasco for them," she said. "At the same time, what you worry about ... is that it's possible that someone decides to take matters into their own hands, believing it would be pleasing to the Russians."
Reporters need to take physical and digital security seriously in advance of doing sensitive stories, said Courtney Radsch, advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists. Reporters, particularly women, have been the subject of online harassment but the use of video campaigns is relatively new, she said.
Recently, Iranian TV made a fictionalized series that mirrors the government's story about Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, who was held captive for nearly two years. Iran accused Rezaian of being a spy, as the fictional character is depicted.
Four days before Ward's report was scheduled to run, a "teaser" video asking "what is the dirty secret behind CNN's trip to Africa?" appeared on RIA FAN, or Federal News Agency, a news portal believed to be linked to Prigozhin. Days later, the site posted a 15-minute video charging that Ward offered people in Africa $100 to say something bad about Russia. Ward denies offering any bribes.
The site also alleged that Ward and members of her team were linked to the CIA and claimed that their mission was to stage a "media provocation intended to sow chaos in the Central African Republic." The video flashes to news stories labeled "fake news."
Ward is seen on video surreptitiously taken in a hotel lobby. One of the men accusing Ward of offering bribes is filmed in the hotel room she vacated. People she also interacted with who had claimed to be journalists were also interviewed. Ward called it creepy.
"It's a very clear warning to me and my team who had worked on the reporting," she said. "This time, we may have rattled your cage a little bit. But next time it could be different, so be careful."
Associated Press correspondent Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.