STORIFY: Powerful ending to African investigative journalism conference
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Margaret Renn is a Wits visiting fellow in investigative journalism. She is the organiser of Power Reporting, The African Investigative Journalism Conference which is hosted each year by the University of the Witswatersrand. Renn is also a freelance journalist in London.
When did you become the coordinator of the power reporting conference?
I took over 2009 and it was the power reporting workshop and then it became the African investigative conference.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face putting the conference together?
Everything is a challenge. From what people are going to eat, the busses, everything. But I think the biggest challenge is the programme, that’s where all of my effort goes and then I kick myself when I come to the conference and then small things have gone wrong and then I think I should have paid attention to that beforehand but then what I was paying attention was important.
The success of the conference?
I’m impressed by then number of Africans that have come to the conference. I’m impressed by everyone’s positivity about the conference, sure you get the odd person who didn’t not like their hotel or the lunch or they couldn’t find the toilet but what I care about is do people go home at the end of the three days with something new. Where they can go back to their work place and say ‘why don’t we do this, I learned how to that and we should be doing that story’. That’s what it’s all about and it always baby steps, nobody goes from being an average journalist to being a top investigative journalist overnight. You have to keep going year after year … And it is better to train as a journalist today with the internet, all these wonderful ways that people that can learn and that makes it so much easier, I mean you have everything.
What is the importance of Power Reporting?
Overall I think the conference has become an attraction for journalists around Africa. They know this is where they can come and learn something new and learn new skills. It’s like building a community of investigative journalists, we have more networks of investigative journalists around the continent.
What do you think about the standard of investigative journalism in Africa?
You know people elsewhere in the world think that Africa is a country and it’s not. But let’s look at the people that are here [Africa]. In Nigeria, they do fantastic journalism, in Kenya, Tanzania, and Namibia. All around the continent there are little groups of people in different countries who do incredibly well and I find that so interesting.
Nkandla is much more than just a story about a very, very expensive house, according to investigative journalist Sam Sole, one of the members of the Mail & Guardian’s amaBhungane team.
Sole, Lionel Faull and Craig McKunne, three of the journalists who helped uncover and develop the “creation of a presidential palace” in 2012, spoke on Monday at the annual Power Reporting conference about their work on the story dating back to 2009.
Nkandla documents ‘repeated gumpf’
The team spent weeks compiling the data they had received, after months of filing and pushing for the promotion of access to information act (PAIA). After being turned down and appealing several times, they were eventually handed 42 lever arch files, containing 12 000 pages of documents, which they had to copy through a single scanner. The team, comprising of 8 people, split the workload and spent an entire weekend scanning.
Sole said that the team did not know how long they had to deal with the information provided. “We got an exclusive, but in a story that is embarrassing to government, they [the government] tend to make press statements and spoil the exclusive.”
Faull explained that a lot of the information was duplicated. “It was repeated ‘gumpf’, a tactic to slow us down and make it hard.”
The use of data journalism, combined with extensive probing and investigation revealed how much Zuma should have paid for the three private houses he started to build at the time of security upgrades (R19.5 million in total), as well as the fact that he would never have been able to afford it. It also allowed the team to create an “Nkandla phonebook”, which led them to useful contacts, some of whom were willing to speak.
The delegates who attended the session were from predominantly from other African countries and found the team’s investigation “impressive”, considering the amount of work it took to get the information.
There are very few investigative journalists around the continent, according to Panic Malawo Chifulya of the Zambia Daily Mail. “It is too risky,” she told Wits Vuvuzela. “We are all just all-rounders, covering a bit of everything.”
One of her colleagues, Rebecca Chileshe, explained that no editor would ever allow their journalists to conduct such an in-depth investigation, because they would “be the ones to lose their jobs”.
Chileshe spoke of a story she had done, which, if published, would embarrass the Zambian government. Her newspaper refused to publish the story and in the end, it was picked up by a smaller, private media house. According to her, this is one of many examples where stories have been swept under the carpet out of fear.
Margaret Samulela, of the same newspaper, also explained that such large legal costs would make it impossible to do the same type of story in Zambia and other such countries. “But this is happening in our country, it’s just that journalists aren’t able to investigate,” she said.
Social media in journalism is increasingly becoming a useful tool for investigative journalism said Raymond Joseph, social media expert and freelance journalist, at this year’s Power
Reporting journalism conference. Twitter, if used properly, can be used as a tool to probe sources for investigative stories. According to Joseph, Twitter can be creepy because you can monitor what
people say and do without their being aware of it.
“There are conversations that are going on there [Twitter] about things that you want to know. You can actually monitor someone without them actually knowing that you are watching them. There
are useful tools which allow you to get to the heart of a subject or source.”
Garaki Fadzi, a delegate from Zimbabwe, said he was not active on Twitter until he attended a talk on its use for investigative journalism. He says he now realises how helpful Twitter is when it comes to crowd-sourcing stories.
“I’ll be able to get leads from people without following them directly and I will be able to get more depth than I was doing now.
It also keeps me secure when I’m confronting people … So I think I will benefit a lot,” he said.
A journalist from China says there is a Chinese twitter called Weibo. It works the same as
Twitter and people interact in the same way as they would here in South Africa.
You can actually monitor someone without them actually knowing that you are watching them.
Liam Lee, a delegate from Hong Kong, said he noticed South Africa and China have similar ways of using social media as an investigative tool to write stories. He used Weibo to find out what happened to people after an earthquake struck a small town in China.
“I try use my Chinese version of Twitter to find people who were living in a small town where there was an earthquake.” He thinks social media is fast and efficient because ordinary people are always posting breaking news and are at the scene when a story breaks. When the story broke about the earthquake, people using Weibo who were at the scene were very descriptive in how it all happened.
“A young, kind father replied to my request and gave me leads to phone numbers and an email so
I could contact people to tell me what happened and they described every detail for me so I appreciate it,” Lee said.
Adeonke Ogunleye, from Nigeria, thinks Twitter can have positive and negative effects on journalism. She said she has been bullied on Twitter for exposing corruption in Nigeria. Ogunleye complained about the bullying to Twitter and the harasser was suspended, only to return to social media two weeks later.
“I’m a victim of Twitter bullying because of all of my stories from the past, stories I’ve done or investigative stories I have been able to carry out and so many people have come after me on Twitter, they bully me, even fellow reporters and journalists.”
However, according to Joseph, Twitter, if used correctly, can help journalists uncover stories in a way they have never been covered before. He said in all his experience as a journalist he has never seen such a powerful tool.
“If you use Twitter properly you should never have to look for stories … If you’re doing it properly. The tools do the heavy lifting.”
He admits that Twitter on its own is not enough and conversations on Twitter need to be written and read in context so that the story is not skewed or clouded by rumours. He said using lists is also a way for users to sift through tweets.
“Twitter on its own is not enough. There is a variety of tools that you are using that you use around it. The secret source is lists where you can distil right down to subjects so what you really want is an controlled stream,” Joseph said.
When Swedish journalist Daniel Öhman heard the words “I got something for you” he knew he was onto something big.
Öhman, a Swedish Radio journalist who helped uncover his country’s secret arms deal with Saudi Arabia, was on a train when he got a phone call from an unknown person and simply given a meeting date and time. When he showed up, he was given an envelope, with a brief introduction to the story.
Öhman gave the opening address on the second day of the investigative journalism conference, Power Reporting, earlier today.
The most important thing, said Öhman, is that his team never gave up. “If you have a person who is crucial to your story, don’t give up after your first phone call, or your second. Don’t give up after the first time you’ve seen them, try and try again”, he said.
The Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) had plans to help Saudi Arabia build an advanced arms factory in the desert. Known as Project Simoom, it began in 2007 and was exposed by a group of journalists five years later.
Two years before the operation officially began, Sweden signed a “military cooperation treaty” with the Saudi regime. The agreement was to assist the Saudi government in the building of its own weapons industry, but everything was “top secret”, according to Öhman.
In the two months that followed the initial story, which exposed the Swedish government, 5 400 articles were published in local media while the international media continuously reported on developments in the story while plans to build the weapons factory were stopped and the Swedish defence minister was forced to resign.
One of the biggest challenges they faced was gaining the public’s trust. They knew right from the start that the government was lying and “we needed to make sure people believed in us and not in government agencies”, Ohman said.
Öhman said the situation for journalists in Sweden as very different to that of other countries. While the team were undermined and threatened by government officials, at no point did they fear for their lives. “It is not like in other countries, where you can be killed,” he said.
Many journalists have suffered whilst reporting or working in countries with laws that gag the media. Investigative journalism has cost many journalists their lives in the pursuit of informing the public.
It is the responsibility of the media to pull focus to issues plaguing the society – issues the public should be interested in – however this does not mean the journalist is not a person, someone with friends and a family
Anton Harber, Caxton professor of Journalism at Wits University, said one should take all the necessary precautions and learn as much as possible about apotentially dangerous story before immersing themselves in it.
“The biggest danger is ignorance. Be careful and understand a situation in as much detail as possible,” Harber said.
“No story is worth a life.”
According to Harber, in cases where a journalist might be arrested there are international networks that might responde with help. However, the ultimate responsibility lies with the news organisation toprotect the journalist. A news organisation will almost always support the journalist “if a story is important enough”.
Harber was himself arrested in South Africa while the editor of the Weekly Mail, now known as the Mail & Guardian. In the course of pursuing an investigation into the apartheid government, the paper was caught bugging a hotel room. The bug was discovered before any incriminating evidence had been recorded.
“Ethically it was wrong but I[only] regret getting caught,” Harber said.
Harber said if he faced the same situation again he would be “extremely hesitant”.
Ron Nixon, an investigative journalist for the New York Times, said the best way for investigative journalists to remain safe is to always let someone know where you are and always work in teams or pairs.
“Be aware of your surroundings and always let people know where you are. Including embassies as well. In case anything goes wrong,” he said.
Many journalists prefer to work alone because they’re after scoops. Nixon advises against this the information isn’t worth the risk of working without a safety net.
“Sometimes the information you are getting is not that exclusive.”
It is then up to the journalist to make an individual decision to either report the story, and possibly be first, or to be safe.
The second annual Carlos Cardosa memorial lecture was delivered by anti-apartheid activist, journalist and founding editor of The Nambian, Gwen Lister.
Remembering the guerrilla typewriter
The talk honouring the work and memory of Mozambican journalist Carlos Cardosa, who was gunned down in November 2000 after his investigative reporting threatened to reveal the full extent of multi-million dollar corruption involving the Mozambican government and the state bank.
Lister titled her lecture “Guerrilla Typewriters: Fighting for Media Freedom before and after Liberation”, and deliberately set out to light the fire of revolution under the conferences delegates mainly comprising journalists.
The tactic was a success as the idea of a public service journalism, inspired by Cardosa’s work, stirred more passionate rather than clinical discussions, reflected in the words that came from the panel as well as from the audience as journalists.
Wits deputy vice-chancellor Professor Tawana Kupe’s opening remarks set what was to be an introspective tone streaked with jubilation:
“There is a historical resonance between Carlos Cardosa and investigative journalism. To have Gwen Lister and Anton Harber under this photo of Carlos Cardosa is an absolute historical moment. Take out your phones and your cameras. Get the picture,” Prof Kupe enthused.[pullquote]At an earlier session in the same auditorium addressed by investigative journalist extraordinaire Mzilikazi wa Afrika, the audience challenged the newspaperman and each other over the feeling that there was no fraternity amongst journalist.[/pullquote] One journo said she was disappointed when fellow journalists had not stood up for a BBC journalist when he kicked out of a press conference by then ANCYL president Julius Malema.
Lister’s address sought to sew together these fractures by reminding journalists of their revolutionary responsibility to creating democratic societies.
Reading from what sounded like a carefully written, emotive speech, Professor Harber picked up the thread.
After reminding the audience of Cardosa’s history as Wits SRC (Students Representative Council), president and his consequent deportation back to Mozambique by the South African government for his writing criticising the Lisbon Coup, Harber sought to draw out the meaning of Cardosa’s work as a journalist bent on exposing corruption to journalism today.
“We gather to remember Carlos not just as a fierce and brave investigative journalist, but as one who came to symbolise the spirit of public service that is at the heart of great journalism.”
Journalism is a passion and vocation
Gwen Lister upped the momentum as the keynote speaker, speaking of issues at the core of what many feel is wrong with journalism today. She tackled the role journalists in the fight for media freedom from the onset.
“I see journalism as a passion and a calling … and this is underpinned by freedom of expression. I call on all of you to be journalists on a mission to excellence and advocacy.”
She said this right was continually undermined on the continent, seen in the impunity with which violence against journalists was committed.
“We need to get out of our nationalistic boxes and feel the pain when other journalists on the continent are being killed,” Lister said.
She described Cardosa as a crusader against corruption, but not the only journalist who has had to pay with his life for this kind of journalism. For Lister, journalists were linked by this common pursuit for freedom to report on wrong-doing and abuses in their societies.
“The power is still in our pens,” Lister concluded her talk, short of raising her fist to the rousing applause.
THE FIRST primarily African data journalism team has come to the Power Reporting conference to show how data journalism can aid in ground-breaking investigative reporting.
The team of 16 seeks to introduce journalists at the conference to the world of data journalism. But the biggest challenge might be to convince fellow journalists that working with numbers is not an insurmountable task.
For most journalists, words are second nature. But when faced with numbers, however, it may seem like a daunting task to turn them into stories. Learning data journalism is an important skill for the future.
Media trainer Ray Joseph called data journalism the new “buzz word” in the field and it is a tool that can help journalists do their job better.
Data journalism does the “heavy lifting” so journalists can focus on the stories.“The story is in the data and you have to find the story,” he said.[pullquote align=”right”]“Information becomes important when it talks to me, when I don’t have to look at the bigger picture and I see what it means.”[/pullquote]
Joseph believes that journalists don’t need to be techno savvy to make use of data journalism. He said that even a basic understanding of data journalism can be useful.
Ron Nixon, a New York Times data journalist, believes it is important for journalists to understand data because it “is as critical as learning how to write”. Nixon said understanding the collection and use of data allows journalists to understand information better, giving a fuller context for articles.
Joseph argues that an uptake on data journalism in South Africa has been slow, as journalists believe they don’t have time to acquire new skills. They are wary of taking on new things that could potentially increase their work load.
Even so, Joseph and the rest of the team are adamant that data journalism is the future of journalism. Nixon hopes data journalism will become the norm rather than something seen as “exotic”.
Team member Luvuyo Mdeni, of SABC digital news, presented a mapping seminar. The seminar showed how data can be visually appealing through mapping.
Mdeni said there is a lot to be done in terms of data journalism because it can show how large amounts of information can be relevant to an individual.“Information becomes important when it talks to me, when I don’t have to look at the bigger picture and I see what it means [to me],”said Mdeni.
Michael Salzwedel of SABC digital news presented on Google tools. Salzwedel raised concern about the fact that people were not aware of the free tools that are available to journalists. Salzwedel said it was important to use new ways of gathering and visualising data.
INVESTIGATIVE journalists in Nigeria face being ostracised for unmasking corruption, not only by the government and large corporations they expose but also by their fellow colleagues.
This was the sentiment shared by Nigerian reporters who attended Premium Times editor Idris Akinbajo’s presentation Investigating for Change in Nigerian Oil.
Akinbajo was a key player in exposing the Malabu scandal of Nigeria, a scheme to steal oil money by government officials together with major oil companies Shell and Eni.“It is difficult being an investigative journalist in Nigeria. Journalists are probably even more corrupt than the government officials. But who reports on the reporter?” Akinbajo asked.
He said because he worked on the Malabu report, he was asked by colleagues why he bothered to pursue it. They told him he had nothing to lose from walking away from the investigation.
Akinbajo said the mentality in Nigeria was to go along with corruption as it is the norm. “People feel we are all corrupt. Why expose it? Why do differently? That’s the mentality,” he said.
Akinbajo said it was important for journalists to remember why they entered the profession and not be swayed by money. “Why are you in journalism if it is not to expose people who do wrong?” he asked the crowd.[pullquote align=”right”]“It is difficult being an investigative journalist in Nigeria. Journalists are probably even more corrupt than the government officials.”[/pullquote]
Akinbajo said he was offered about 100-million naira (about R6.2-million) to drop the investigation but refused to do it as he made a decision to work hard and to be ethical.
“You have to be persistent. You must remain objective, work hard and persevere. Even though you will be ostracised you will also be respected more by others,” he said.
Going the extra mile
Although Akinbajo knows that there are reporters who are corrupt themselves, he does not think that he would report on corrupt journalists. “I would love to but dogs don’t eat dogs,” he joked. “On a serious note, though, the truth is sometimes I see these reporters as victims as well and it is very difficult to blame them.
They have food to put on their tables and children to put through school. I do not see them as the primary cause of the problem and therefore I will pursue the primary cause before I will expose journalists who are the result of bigger issues.”
Tobore Ovuorie, a fellow Nigerian reporter, said she felt the talk was insightful and fantastic.
“He went the extra mile for his story. Journalists in Nigeria do not dedicate time. He’s been an inspiration for me,” she said.
She added that other reporters would have been too scared to report on the Malabu scandal because of the key roleplayers. “They could get corrupted very easily and he refused to take blood money. That is very encouraging,” Ovuorie said.
The Malabu investigation has been ongoing since the year 2000. Akinbajo is still working on it and believes the work of exposing the corruption was possible because Nigeria has become more democratic. “Journalists now have access to more information and more people are willing to talk to us which is why we were able to uncover more,” he said.
When he first started his investigations his aim was for justice to be served. “For me justice is two-fold. One, for those people who broke the law to be punished accordingly. Then two, and for the oil bloc [funds] to be returned to the Nigerian government seeing as it was allocated fraudulently in the first place,” he said.
For further information on Akinbajo’s series visit: premiumtimesng.com
A BLUEBIRD is the latest investigative tool, according to Ray Joseph, social media expert and journalist.
In presentation, Joseph gave tips on how to build a professional profile:
Joseph emphasised the importance of twitter as a search tool for journalists.
“Journalists aren’t always the first people on the scene so social networks help you receive the news first,” he said.
Paula Fray challenged journalists to “remember the faces” behind the “big issues’ they covered. Speaking at a seminar on “Community Voices”, Fray of FrayIntermedia noted that stories had become accounts of “he-said-she-said” battles between officials. “Nobody speaks to the communities that are really affected, the human face is forgotten,” she said.
“Where were the policy journalists when e-tolling was still being proposed years ago?”
Citing e-tolls as an example, Fray explained the different stages a piece of legislation goes through before it becomes law.
She said the debate among citizens and community members should start while the law is being drawn up, when people can still influence the direction it takes. “Where were the policy journalists when e-tolling was still being proposed years ago?
That’s when the debate should have started because by the time they (the media) broke the story, the debate had already been framed and it had become quite a middle-class he-said-she-said game.”
While Fray said she understood the financial and time constraints journalists faced in the newsroom, she urged them to ask tough questions and not to be intimidated. “I know it’s not easy but many of these problems are universal to all newsrooms and you need to push past them.”
Gcina Ntsaluba of Corruption Watch shared his experiences trying to access information from the government and state-owned companies. He explained how to use the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) to get records from these entities. Using examples of stories published by the City Press and other Media24 publications, Ntsaluba gave real examples of how the Act could give more depth and “exclusivity” to a story: “We all love exclusives here and this tool helps you access some exclusive information.”
A community journalist in the audience spoke about the apathy of community members to the work done by community journalists. Fray said this attitude could be changed by a different approach from journalists themselves: “People become disengaged because they no longer see themselves in these stories. Make the stories about the communities who are affected and it will tell a better story and involve the very people you want to see reading your work.”
WHEN most people were sleeping in their warm comfortable beds at 2.30am on Monday morning, 23 students from the University of Limpopo (UL) were getting on a bus headed to Johannesburg. It was cold and rainy but that did not dampen their mood.
They were headed to the Power Reporting conference to be “baptised in journalism,” as their lecturer Thabiso Muswede put it. Muswede said the UL media department brought their entire Honours class, two Masters students and eight staff members to the conference.
“We want them to engage with media people from all over the world,” said Muswede. This was the third time UL attended the conference but for the first two years they could only bring two or three students. Muswede said the change in attitude and behaviour in those students had been notable: “They’ve developed confidence and they are inspired.”
[pullquote]They were headed to the Power Reporting conference to be “baptised in journalism”[/pullquote]Muswede said he hoped that “rubbing shoulders” with respected international and local journalists would help students to “marry theory with practice”, make them more employable and build their confidence. “So when they graduate they are not scared to plunge themselves in any pool and engage in international debates,” he said.
The Limpopo team only received two bursaries from Power Reporting, with everyone else being sponsored by the university “because they value our progress”, said Muswede. UL honours student Khotso Mabokela said she was “overwhelmed” with excitement. Mabokela said she wanted to come last year but she was unable to. Getting the opportunity to attend Power Reporting this year was a big deal.
While Mabokela was tired from the trip and from exams at UL, she was still excited about the conference, especially with investigative journalist Mzilakazi wa Afrika. “I want to know how he won his cases and how he investigates,” she said.
Mabokela wants to follow in wa Afrika’s footsteps and become an investigative journalist. Muswede said Wits was “leading in teaching journalism in Africa” and wanted to expose their UL students to the programme.