Outside South Africa, investigative reporters are excelling at probing social issues. Gill Moodie reports.
Many South African journalists think they are the torchbearers for investigative journalism and plucky reporting in Africa, but there is a lot of courageous, excellent investigative work going on in other African countries too.
And whereas South African investigative teams tend to focus on busting political corruption, much of the in-depth investigative work going on in countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda is about social issues and related problems.
“There’s a tendency to see investigative journalism in South Africa as the journalistic equivalent of a private investigation – getting inside information and getting leaks,” said Derek Luyt of the Public Service Accountability Monitor, who has worked with investigative journalists across the continent.
“There’s also a move towards data journalism [in SA], but we needn’t be so precious about defining investigative journalism and [making it only about] busting corruption. If you take a slightly broader view, then Africa is chock-a-block with brilliant investigative journalism.”
Nigerian journalists have won the annual Forum for African Investigative Reporters award for three years in a row, said Charles Rukuni, peer mentor at the Johannesburg-based organisation. Last year’s winner was a story by Peter Nkanga and Idris Akinbajo of the now defunct Next newspaper in Nigeria on a secret government deal giving lucrative oil production rights to a shadowy company with no prior experience or fixed address, days before the Cabinet dissolved, to allow President Goodluck Jonathan to appoint a new one. (The forum’s website – fairreporters.net – is well worth a visit to get an idea of the range and depth of investigative work happening in Africa.)
Rukuni also referred to the undercover work of the famous Anas Aremeyaw Anas, a Ghanaian journalist with the New Crusading Guide newspaper, who was praised by United States President Barack Obama on his visit to Ghana in 2009 for his courageous reporting.
Never allowing images of his face to be published, Anas has gone undercover many times in the past decade, investigating everything from the conditions in psychiatric hospitals to brothels and child-trafficking rings.
Cherilyn Ireton, a South African journalist who now heads up the World Editors Forum in Paris, said: “Examples of incredibly brave investigative reporting, such as the work of CNN Africa Reporter of the Year reporter Fatuma Noor from The Star in Kenya, show an astonishing and admirable determination to expose the wrongs in our societies. Not all African reporters have access to sophisticated tools or systems to aid their work, but this does not deter many young reporters, who have shown they are prepared to risk their own safety to get to the truth.”
Noor’s award-winning story in 2011 was a three-part investigation into young Somalian emigrants, mostly living in the United States, who had returned to Somalia to fight for the jihadist al-Shabaab group. Noor travelled through Somalia – considered one of the most dangerous places in the world – with the men and was almost killed by hardliners in a roadblock en route to Mogadishu for being an unmarried woman travelling without male relatives.
It is possible that many African journalists focus on social issues because of constraints on press freedom in their countries, making political exposés dangerous work. But, as Rukini pointed out, investigations into social problems often required time-consuming, foot-slogging work. “It is very difficult to investigate a social story, because you have to do the donkey work. And that’s why these tend to win awards, because the stories show a lot of effort.”
While attending the launch of the Nigerian Investigative Journalism Network in Lagos in November, Margaret Renn, the investigative journalism fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand’s journalism school, met award-winning TV journalist Deji Badmus.
Pillar to post
“He told a story [at a meeting of journalism students] about a rickety road bridge,” said Renn. “Everyone in Lagos complained about the bridge, but no one knew what the problem was. So he hired a boat and took a look close up and discovered the supports were going. The bridge was closed and, no doubt, lives were saved. Investigative journalists often need to go after the obvious – and that might mean going from door to door or, in this case, from pillar to post.”
Rukuni, a former Zimbabwean journalist, said there seemed to be a dearth of investigative reporting in Southern Africa. Interestingly, he believed the lack of investigative work in Zimbabwe had less to do with harassment by the authorities and more to do with a lack of resources and that most newsrooms were understaffed.
It was a similar economic story in Ethiopia, said Luyt. Newspapers have so little money to pay decent salaries that most journalism students go into government.
On the upside, Professor Herman Wasserman, deputy head of Rhodes University’s journalism school, said new-media platforms such as cellphones, blogs and social media were being embraced across the continent and were leading to interesting work, which “can again be picked up and amplified by legacy media”.
Social media activists
“The examples that are starting to surface of governments that clamp down on bloggers and social media activists in Africa are testimony to the potential of these new avenues,” Wasserman said.
The power of Twitter in the Arab Spring was widely used and well reported. Less well known is the innovative Ushahidi website, launched in 2008 by a group of Kenyan techies for bloggers and citizen journalists to report and map incidents of political violence following that year’s presidential election.
It may not be investigative journalism in the conventional sense, but it is information democratised. And with excellent broadband in countries such as Kenya there is bound to be more to come.
Renn said she was struck by how Nigerian and Kenyan journalists had seized on new computer technologies and used them with some skill. As an example she used Nigeria Police Watch, an online crowd-sourcing project that aims to tackle corruption and inefficiency in the police. “I encourage all South African journalists and the public to interface more with Africa,” said Luyt. “We tend to think we can dispense knowledge in all kinds of areas when, in fact, if we were a bit more humble and looked a bit more at what’s going on elsewhere, we’d realise we’ve got a lot to learn from others.”