This paper was written for the Global Investigative Journalism Conference held in Lillehammer, Norway, in October 2015 as part of the academic track and presented there.
African-Western cooperation in investigative journalism
‘Do-gooderism’ as a cultural challenge
RESEARCH COMPILED IN PRACTICE BY ZAM AND THE AFRICAN INVESTIGATIVE PUBLISHING COLLECTIVE
The African Investigative Publishing Collective (AIPC)’s goal is to table African investigative journalism on international platforms. ZAM wants to be an enabler for this mission. It does this by ‘translating’ the work of African colleagues to fit with international – ‘Western’- media preferences re length, style and angles. This does not always go well.
We find that there are ‘taboo’ subjects in the West. AIPC stories have been refused by Western media for reasons from ‘that is racist’ (about a mention of witchcraft) to objection about the exposure of a quack abortion doctor in Ghana ‘because we must legalise abortion.’
This cultural challenge can be called ‘do-gooderism.’ Do-gooderism sees helpless trafficking victims instead of migrating sex workers. It sees happy noble primitives living side by side with gorillas in Virunga, instead of farmers angry at the environmental ‘protectors’ who fence off their lands. Do-gooderism blames local people for the failure of development projects, but blames (or praises) Shell for everything that happens in the Niger Delta. Do-gooderism never questions ‘fair trade’.
It is difficult for a ‘Western’ journalist to find truths hidden under the layers of dominant narratives about Africa. (Also, Africans have 300 years of experience in telling white people what these want to hear.)
We have developed a process for African and Western colleagues to overcome this cross-cultural challenge together. It rests on five pillars:
- Two sides are real investigative journalists (not working for politicians or NGOs)
- The media house is ready to accept (very) new investigative findings
- There is intensive dialogue throughout (one of the partners knows the stuff, the other knows the audience)
- The media houses’ needs re length, style, angle are clear
- Both sides co-create the story.
The need to table African investigative journalists’ findings on international platforms
Award-winning investigative journalist Idris Akinbajo (Nigeria) has said on multiple occasions that ‘our stories have more impact when published in international (Western) media, because it is only then that our own leaders listen to us.’ The veracity of this notion can be seen in many emphatic responses from African governments to bad publicity in the West. Recently there have been such responses from the Museveni government in Uganda about the proposed ‘anti-gay-law’ issue in that country; from the Nigerian government with regard to oil subsidy protests and the case of the Boko Haram-abducted Chibok girls, and the Kagame government in Rwanda to the BBC documentary on its human rights abuses. (Indeed, ‘the BBC documentary’ is an issue of public outcry (and silent agreement among some) in Rwanda itself).
In contrast, when a national media house in an African country releases shocking findings of bad governance, public interest neglect and injustice, the leaders of the country often choose to ignore it. Examples again abound, from reports on growing unrest and violence in Nigeria’s north-east (which led to the Boko Haram terror crisis of today); the civil war in Uganda, in which many civilians died at the hands of both Joseph Kony and the government military; to the neglected ‘Sickle Cell’ disease, said to affect up to 30 % of West-and Central African populations.
The latter is a particularly good example of callous neglect by African governments of the interests of their people. Imagine the outcry if a Western government did nothing about a painful, debilitating disease that affects one third of its people! The fact that this disease has a direct genetic link to malaria –it protects against contracting this disease- is a further indictment. Mother Nature stepped in where leaders –from colonial times to current governments- simply sat by and watched as the malaria parasite bred in pools and drains. Italy drained the Po valley (1) to get rid of malaria; in Africa, no such thing ever happened (2).
Anas Aremeyaw Anas’ colleague Selase Kove-Seyram has recently made a documentary about Sickle Cell disease and hopes to get it shown in the West. It is, apparently, the only way to get his own government to take the situation seriously.
Canvassing the AIPC, with its fourteen veteran, mostly award winning members, we found that Idris Akinbajo’s words were echoed by all. One finds the same view among African investigative journalists generally. The main challenges they face are bad governance, combined with lack of impact of their stories. Mostly, their powers-that-be get off scot free. Yes, these governments are considered corrupt and incapable. But there have never been any consequences. Excuses abound. They are poor, they can’t manage, they don’t know how to govern very well, their civil servants are corrupt, their countries are new. Let’s give them more aid. In such a situation, why would such governments listen to their own media?
As has been pointed out by Dambisa Moyo and others, in such a situation you really only care what Western media say about you –in the absence of a functioning, substantial tax base, it is where your money comes from. Joseph Kabila in the Congo has polluted Katanga with uranium and presides over mines that kill dozens of people every day, whilst having his friends loot the proceeds. He is still getting millions in development aid and is now going for a third term. Interestingly however, international protests are not directed at his government but against a new partner of his: British oil company Soco, which is trying to win oil in the Virunga nature reserve. UK- and Europe-based environmentalists are very vocal about this indeed.
As a result, internationally, the debate centers around two non-Congolese players: bad oil versus the environmentalists.. So far, nobody has asked the views of the farmers who live in Virunga. Nobody has asked the Congolese government to account for the human misery in the area.
Except Eric Mwamba and team (2). These are Eric Mwamba’s findings: whilst worldwide campaigns are conducted to protect the gorillas; whilst the Kabila government is trying to placate these, treading softly on the Soco issue- the farming and fishing villages in the region are starving. The inhabitants can’t hunt anymore, nor can they fish: environmental protectors have pressurised the Congolese government into fencing off all areas that are under environmental threat. But, since the humans who live in the area have no Western protectors, finding a job with the oil company looks like the only alternative for them.
Conclusion: you only matter if you have the ear of the West. In Virunga, the gorillas have that ear. Sadly, the humans don’t. Without exposure in the West, you languish, live with Sickle Cell, get trampled on, die. This is what African investigative journalists find time and time again. It is also why the AIPC has listed publishing in the West as a priority in its (draft) mission statement (4).
- Instead, when it comes to malaria in Africa, NGOs then come to (ineffectively) take over the job of a government. Western malaria programmes, for example, donate millions of mosquito nets. Not that these aren’t helpful, but our research shows that many people don’t use them because they are too cumbersome for constant use and one gets bitten anyway. Mosquitoes after all start buzzing around at dusk, when families need to cook and toddlers are still awake. Additionally, the insecticide on the nets causes skin irritation and the extra layers of cloth also add to heat, which is especially unbearable in the case of pregnant women. Instead of taking note of these problems, and coming to the logical conclusion –that malaria needs to be eradicated by drainage, spraying and medication-, NGOs then organise workshops to explain to people some more about the proper use of bed nets. This is similar, in our experience, to all the ‘safe sex’ workshops offered to women who don’t have either condoms or power to negotiate such, and then complaining about ‘people who still don’t understand it.’ We take the liberty of calling this ‘NGOsplaining’.
- The AIPC website, which will display the final mission statement, is presently under construction. It will hopefully be finished by the end of the year. The mission statement –to be adopted in final form immediately after the GIJC- can be made available to interested colleagues upon request in the meantime.
Western good intentions
Many –if not all- Western investigative journalists who report on Africa focus, quite correctly, on injustice, corruption, lack of public services, poverty, the ruthless elites, the widening gap between rich and poor, etcetera. We all share an often acute interest in such themes that, broadly speaking, can be summarised as issues of black and white, rich and poor, power and dependency, wealth and plunder, traditional hierarchies and modern questioning. We are all aware that Africa is the continent where these issues attain the most urgent focus. It is indeed –even in spite of new ‘Africa Rising’ narratives- the blackest, the poorest, the most powerless over its own resources and, as it appears, its destiny.
Coming from the regions that are traditionally attributed with more agency –or power-, then, Western colleagues want to help –again, quite correctly. If unearthing wrongs and exposing injustice is our business, which in investigative journalism it is, one must indeed set out to do exactly that.
But there is also a problem with ‘Western’ good intentions in journalism in Africa and that is that the good intentions tend to replace curiosity. We already know about many wrongs and the injustice: it is the reason why we got interested in the first place. We then decide to investigate one of these wrongs: often a wrong that we already know –or we believe we know. This is a problem, because, coming from afar to report on a foreign continent, we should maybe first look, first listen, before we decide what we focus on. But this is difficult, because we don’t have the time and the funds to just live and walk around in the countries of our choice for sufficient periods of time. And then it happens: we pick a subject to be well-intentioned about. And then journalism comes very close to what we have called, for the purposes of this paper, ‘do-gooderism’.
Just to illustrate the contrast: African journalists don’t need to start on the basis of concern for people somewhere far away, or on the basis of a desire to right a particular wrong that they heard or read about. They are right there. All they do is look and listen and hear and chat and absorb. They have a wide range from where to pick the subjects and priorities they eventually decide upon. But a journalist who is not there doesn’t have the advantage of street noises, gossip, village experiences, bar conversations, heated arguments, or even tears in the aftermath of conflict. When it comes to investigating things in Africa, a Westerner has, out of necessity, to focus on what he or she already knows.
And what you know is precisely that: what you already know. You know, for example, that big corporates are problematic. That they tend to pollute, evade tax, plunder and exploit. So you focus on Shell and Soco and mining companies. (Maybe on Chinese companies, because they are the same, or the same but a bit different, or sometimes worse, because we have read about that.) Or we focus on human traffic because our paradigm is the suffering of refugees. Or on aid projects because lot of what is reported in Western countries is about aid projects. Like those mosquito net projects, or HIV/Aids. Or we focus on more ‘fair’ relations between our privileged part of the world and African farmers and miners. Our sources are then likely to be in the ‘Fair Trade’ sphere. Or we focus on climate change, with sources in Greenpeace.
We may have sources in African NGOs, too. These, remarkably, often confirm our previous knowledge and assumptions; they appear to share our themes, subjects, priorities and angles. However, rather than this being a reality check, this may have something to do with the fact that most of these NGOs are funded and staffed by the same Western ‘developmental’ people who informed us in the first place.
The resulting stories are often true. Big corporates do tend to pollute and evade tax. Cocoa farmers are exploited; child labour is a terrible scourge; climate change really does affect villages in Zanzibar and the Sahara desert; overfishing is a crime that depletes the Somali seas as much as those of Ghana; mining companies don’t care about workers’ rights in Ivory Coast, Malawi or the Congo and wood is looted by Chinese and others in Mozambique and Sierra Leone. And yes, it is also true that many of these stories were done in collaboration with African colleagues.
It is important to note, though, that the story ideas practically never originated from these colleagues. And that very rarely the African side composes their own investigative briefs. Often they are headhunted (5) after story idea, working hypothesis, funding, i.e. basically everything the story is going to say, is already prepared. They are the workforce on the ground; they are often, basically, fixers.
Again, that is not in itself wrong, nor does it mean that the resulting stories are not important. But, though many such stories are true, or show at least a partial truth –since a report can never say everything – there are also plenty who just, well, aren’t.
- ZAM is often approached by Western colleagues with a story idea, a letter of intent, a work plan and a request for a contact with ‘someone in country X.’
Things that are not actually true and the influence of the NGO sector in the West
For example, Fair Trade in the cocoa sector in West Africa doesn’t help (6). Not only does it not help, it makes things worse. It cements local power relations that oppressed farm workers would like to get rid of. On several Fair Trade cooperatives in Ivory Coast and Ghana, the powerful Fair Trade machinery went into business with local cocoa tycoons, who were simply the biggest regional landowners as well as kingpins in the cocoa mafia. If it weren’t for Fair Trade establishing cooperatives and putting the biggest players ‘democratically’ in charge, organically grown social struggles might have already led to more level playing fields in these countries. Now oppressed peasants are not just oppressed by the local cocoa bosses; they are also oppressed by Fair Trade.
But do they get more money for their cocoa? No, found the six-month, five-strong investigation in three West African countries, which interviewed over 200 farmers and was eventually nominated for a prestigious journalism Prize in the Netherlands. Consumers in the West are paying all that extra money straight to the Fair Trade corporate chain. Fair Trade cooperatives are equipped with a water well every now and then, though. Sometimes these work for longer than two weeks.
We –including myself and the other Dutch colleagues who worked on this investigation- would never have known this, let alone thought of doing this at all, if we hadn’t asked our colleague Selay Kouassi from Ivory Coast for a story idea.
Another one. In the Netherlands, most reporting on Nigeria centres around Shell Oil. Shell pollutes the Niger Delta, evades tax, gets oil fields cheap, in short, is to blame for much misery of the Nigerian people. Interestingly though, Nigerian investigative journalists don’t always appreciate this exclusive focus on Shell or Agip or whichever other multinational company. “Focusing the blame on Shell provides a great environment for our leaders to continue asking for bribes from these companies,” in the words of Emmanuel Mayah. “You should see them accosting the company directors, begging and cajoling for gifts and shares and dinner invitations in exchange for drilling licenses.” Idris Akinbajo remarks that “it would actually be difficult for Shell to behave differently. In Nigeria, government officials practically force you to partner on shady deals with them individually rather than pay tax. And if you don’t please the provincial bosses, you can forget their help the next time vandals set fire to your installations.” He adds that “Shell cannot behave in the Netherlands the way it does in Nigeria. Why is that? It is all a question of governance.”
As if to illustrate Mayah’s and Akinbajo’s words, a Dutch documentary (7), a few years back, broadcasted an interview with the Nigerian federal commissioner for the environment in polluted Delta State. The man was given ample space to express his shock and dismay about the pollution caused by Shell. But the interviewer, a nice progressive leftist journalist, never once asked what the federal commissioner for the environment had done to prevent, stop or repair the damage, or even blow the whistle on it in his own region, where he is quite a powerful boss.
A recent ZAM story by Nnamdi Onyeuma (8)on the lawless environment in the Niger Delta focused on the ruling warlords and corrupt provincial government, plus their aligned kidnapping, vandalising and extortioning mafias as the real obstacles to a cleaner, more democratic and prosperous environment. If only international environmental campaigns for Delta State could include the warlords, the mafias and government accountability in their agenda –but this does not happen. Their focus remains on the bad corporates, as if no one else in that rich province, which counts enormously powerful people whose children study at Oxford and Harvard, who run entire armies and private oil shipping companies of their own, has any agency at all.
In the Netherlands, most media rely on a Nigerian source residing in the Netherlands who is known as an anti-Shell activist –and gets a lot of NGO money for his anti-Shell campaigns. Sunny Ofehe (9) is, however, a personal friend of several of the leaders at the top of the aforementioned mafias. He receives income from advertorials he runs in a Niger Delta glossy he gets edited –free of charge- by Dutch supporters. (Three of these Dutch supporters were, incidentally, recently kidnapped in a particular area in the Delta State region where Ofehe has powerful friends. The Dutch embassy had to pay a rather big sum in ransom money to free them. Ofehe, who had taken them on that unprotected boat trip in that very kidnap-riddled area was also very briefly kidnapped, but remarkably released the same evening and without having to pay any ransom fee.)
Ofehe is still the source of choice for Dutch journalists when it comes to the Niger Delta. ZAM’s efforts to market Nnamdi Onyeuma’s story to Dutch media at the time of the kidnap were unsuccessful; it ran only in ZAM.
Another example. This one is about bad traditions: like oppression of gay people in Uganda, it is also something we know something about and would rightly like to highlight. But sometimes, bad traditions are already on the way out, simply because new generations tend to get rid of them all by themselves. Such changes, however, sometimes hardly filter through to the West, simply because nobody has an interest in broadcasting these. Who knew, for example, that, in Somalia, women are abandoning the old, horrific form of female circumcision, or FGM, in very large numbers? A Unicef report found in 2013 (10) that, whereas in the past 98% of girls were sewn up in the most unhygienic, painful, debilitating way, this fate nowadays only awaits 25 % of girls, mostly in the rural, most traditional areas.
Only, this report was hushed up by Unicef itself. (If you doubt that it was hushed up, try and find it or phone Unicef to ask for it. We tried.) The organisation, and literally hundreds of other anti-FGM NGOs, continue to maintain that Somalia is still a main terrain of struggle against FGM. Unicef, in a later report, has only stated that ‘we need to fight against all forms of FGM.’
In truth, many younger Somali women now opt for such ‘other’ forms of circumcision of their daughters. Reading Unicef’s reports (and others) however, it transpires that these ‘other’ forms are very minimal indeed; the most common form is comparable to male circumcision (as it is practised by jewish and muslim communities worldwide and even advocated for in Africa in the fight against Aids). Nevertheless, the ‘fight against all forms of FGM in Somalia’ corporate machinery continues to advertise pictures of precisely that type of FGM that is, by Unicef’s own admission, down to a quarter and may, according to a ZAM survey of Somali women, be extinct in the next five years.
The sneaking suspicion creeps up that maybe it is not Somali women who need the ‘fight against all forms of FGM’ to continue, but the tens of thousands of westerners and local employees who thank their jobs to this fight.
And its not just the NGO industry. The NGO industry has penetrated our media, directly influencing our reporting. When a Somali colleague was approached by the development section of the Guardian for ‘help with a story about FGM in Somalia,’ he responded earnestly that he didn’t think there was a need for such a story. In context: he lives in a reality in which people, even close friends and family, people, face real daily threats to their lives. Lack of health facilities for all kinds of ailments, a failed state, hunger, clan and gang warfare, piracy, terrorism and the war on terror have all killed people this colleague actually knew. Another ‘awareness raising’ story about a feature of everyday Somali life; a tradition that all Somalis know about, have discussed and are gradually abandoning was, in this context, not very important, not very new, not very necessary. Needless to say, The Guardian development section head was appalled. This colleague’s stories have never appeared in The Guardian, but countless stories FGM in Somalia continue to appear.
We tried to get in touch with the Guardian to bring the above context to their FGM campaign, but the person in question never answered the phone or emails.
The Guardian did, however, present a big documentary about slavery on Thai fishing boats (11), with lots of victims in need of ‘our’ help. Like many ‘slavery’ exposures, it was all quite horrific. But once again, the issue was only treated as a portrait of victims in need of rescue, and not as a quest for accountability: the Thai government, Thai opposition, the unions, the impunity of the slave-like employers, were all not questioned. Neither were the motives and initiative behind the travels the migrants undertook to end up as ‘slaves’ on fishing boats. Once again, as pointed out by many observers including Human Rights Watch and our own Tobore Ovuorie (12), comparisons with slave trade are way off the mark: except in the case of minor children (and according to observers cases of child trafficking, in spite of many alarmist reports, are minimal worldwide) every single one of nowadays ‘slaves’ left their place of origin voluntarily. According to Ovuorie’s work, this includes Nigerian sex workers, aspiring to work in brothels in Rome and Berlin.
People who leave villages and towns to look for shiny bright lights elsewhere are migrants, not slaves. Yet, in many well-intentioned reports in the West, these migrants are portrayed as helpless beings without any minds of their own. The image of African victimhood, perpetuated by NGOs and the donor industry, creates a paradigm of, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, the ‘known knowns’ and ‘known unknowns’. You know that African people, particularly women, gays, children, and the sick are being victimised, and you have a notion that ‘we’, i.e. ‘The West’, are often very accountable, through ‘our’ corporates, ‘our’ refugee policies, ‘our’ lack of helpfulness, ‘our’ stingy consumers, ‘our’ selfish governments.
The ‘known unknowns’ follow: how much tax is being evaded by ‘us’, how much fish is plundered and by which Western supermarket chain exactly, how many people are ‘enslaved’ by (Western) consumer greed and so on. You can run good stories with that. But there is an enormous void. It is what Donald Rumsfeld called the ‘unknown unknowns’. These unknown unknowns reside largely in what African investigative journalists know very well: in those layers in Africa where a lot of agency, acting power, resides indeed. It resides in the Joseph Kabilas, Al Shabaab and the Niger Delta warlords as much as it is shared by determined migrants, modern Somali women and men, cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast who came out to protest Fair Trade, in local churches, village networks, taxi associations, burial societies, in short in many places that ‘we in The West’ have never even heard of. This is very often because there is no NGO there. There is no NGO in about, we think, ninety five percent of places in Africa.
To get out of the heavily NGO-influenced, ‘do-gooder’ angled ‘known knowns’ paradigm, one only has to google Anas Aremeyaw Anas. Or Kassim Mohamed. Or the publications of any other AIPC member or associate (find them on www.zammagazine.com/chronicle). The stories are full of quests for transparency and accountability in the countries where they reside; they document social protest and struggles at grassroots level, they expose mafias and gangs and warlords and police hit squads and smugglers and witches (more about witches later) and high-placed thieves and conmen. They reveal a universe that is very different indeed from the known stories of victimhood.
Especially the conmen they expose are interesting, for, like in the case of Fair Trade, and the Nigerian anti-Shell activist Sunny Ofehe, these conmen often enjoy the naïve support of Western do-gooders. Orphanages are a case in point. Anas exposed some a few years ago and recently exposed yet another one: run by crooks, full of kids who weren’t even orphans, and veritable guzzlers of money brought by individuals, companies, institutions and even UN structures based in the West.
Africans know, after all, more than anyone else in the entire world, how to fool whites.
Anas Aremeyaw Anas is very explicit in wanting the whole world to know about the crookery and corruption that is holding his country back. He is also very explicit about the stereotypical images that pervade media reports about Africa in the West: during one memorable visit to a media house in Amsterdam he bluntly told a crowd of interested, capable and open minded Dutch reporters who had invited him that ‘really most of your perceptions are wrong.’ (The reporters, to their significant credit and very much unlike the Guardian development section, asked to hear more after this.) There were, however, also visits to media houses where Anas and his colleague Selay Kouassi were warmly received as visiting trainees and given a tour to see ‘what a newsroom looks like.’
Such mixed experiences –even if some not so nice- are all welcomed by Anas and his colleagues, simply because for them, connecting internationally and with ‘The West’ is a necessity. Additional to the ‘making own leaders take note’ factor, it is also simply a question of safety: Anas and others might have been long assassinated if they would have worked only locally. Fortunately his work is so hard hitting, full of documentary evidence and yes, sensational, that it attracted ‘western’ interest from the start.
In Anas’ case, the ‘making own leaders take note’ factor worked really well. His international exposés of a crooked mental hospital, crime-infiltrated customs operations, money laundering at the harbour, woefully absent childcare services and most lately the judiciary corruption scandal have led to better border control, better management at the harbour and acute reform attempts in other sections of the state such as the driving license authority, which has embarked on a transformation process after Anas named the people who cause deaths on the roads by selling licenses to untrained drivers. And this is exactly what he aims to do. He is more than a journalist: he is, like many colleagues who work in developing countries with fragile state structures, an active state builder. He works with those in the state who also try to build. They ask him to help reform their own departments and he does precisely that, unapologetically so. If there is agency and social impact in African journalism, Anas Aremeyaw Anas is its most visible protagonist.
Another reason he succeeds in achieving international spotlight is because his stories are in fact more than Ghanaian. The wrongs he exposes in Ghana also pervade other African countries. He has gone after quack doctors and lack of regulation in health care in Nigeria, and in Tanzania, witchcraft mafias that ruthlessly kill albinos for ‘magical’ medicine that promises power to those who crave it. Anas’ context is the shared African history, of colonialism, white domination and a context of powerlessness vis-à-vis foreign powers (a context, incidentally, that may partly explain the witchcraft mafias: if you have been surrounded by foreign powers beyond your control for such a long time, it’s hardly surprising that local spiritual leaders would crave to maintain and further develop some ‘powers’ of their own).
In that African narrative Anas presents himself, with power to do journalism: observe, question, focus and act. And what he exposes is not just victimhood: the powers he interrogates and sometimes ‘nails’ in his undercover documentaries are African powers. His baddies are not ‘uncaring Western companies’ but African players, criminals, dictators, sell-outs and exploiters that the West, inwardly focused as it is on its own agency, its own role and its own ‘developmental’ recipes, simply does not see.
Anas cares less about multinationals who come to exploit Ghana; he cares more about Ghanaian ministers who allow these companies to simply take out resources in exchange for individual bribes, not tax. Though he will also help to nail white men who come to have sex with underage and vulnerable black children in his country; he will expose, and hope to jail, the Ghanaian policemen, judicial workers and elders who do not protect these children –their own Ghanaian children.
The Western angle
But, after all is said and done, there has to be a Western angle. No newspaper will publish a ‘far away’ story if there isn’t something that speaks very loudly to the own audience. It is a big and logical factor in our habit to look first and foremost at Western players in African stories.
So we have a problem here. How to present African narratives without an anchor in Western agency? Why should international media houses care about such African narratives with African roleplayers? Why should their audiences care? Why would that editor give out a letter of intent for a project that doesn’t focus on something Western audiences are familiar with? A bad international company, the World Bank, a failed development project, -or alternatively a great one-, Western consumer action, such stories ring a bell with Western audiences. A Ghanaian Sickle Cell disease or Cameroonian criminals story? Not so much.
We believe, however that these angles are there. They are just sometimes not what we think they are. We believe that we, together, can find and create angles that place any important story in the global debate about black and white, rich and poor, modern and traditional, successful and failed.
We at the AIPC and ZAM are now doing a story about corrupt systems in a number of African countries. It is one of our Transnational Investigations. We hope that exposure of the mechanisms in systems that suck people in and ‘make’ them corrupt, will help focus efforts to fight these mechanisms. Since many of these efforts in Africa are guided and funded from the West, there is a clear Western angle –and we hope this will make for riveting reading, too.
On Sickle Cell disease, we ask what is the reason both the Ghanaian government and international donors ignore a condition that causes suffering in 30 % of Ghanaians? A condition that is connected to the failure, in the past century and a half, to drain and spray the malaria parasite away in that country? A –related- thorough questioning of all kinds of charitable international malaria programmes that focus on bednets but let governments both past and present get away, literally with murder, will also be a good story, we hope. We are doing that one as one of our Transnational Investigations, too.
Decisions regarding Africa –be it on aid, trade, war on terror, peacekeeping and whatnot- are taken in board rooms in New York, Geneva, Paris and London (also elsewhere nowadays, but still mainly there). Decisions based on wrong information can have devastating consequences, as we all know since the invasion of Iraq. It is therefore, we believe, possible to convince international editors that African investigative journalism can tell us where ‘our’ decision makers are wrong. We believe it is even possible to engage those in the West who want to be ‘do-gooders’ –because, we say it again, there is nothing wrong with aiming to do good. We just want that aim to be informed properly.
In many instances, support for Africa –which is, in this global world, also indirect support for ourselves- is indeed needed. It may just be different from what we thought. Highlighting active role players may open the road to actual intercontinental solidarity in important social justice struggles; it may offer a way out from a very depressing status quo, where westerners are made to feel they can only do good by giving money, or choosing to buy one consumer product rather than another.
The African angle
When it comes to African editors, there is in this kind of cooperation always an angle for them too. If they were too fearful, or too financially dependent (they often are) to run the original story, they are usually very happy to run with it once it has been published in the West. They are then just quoting it, after all (usually with a sign of relief). We at ZAM often see, to our surprise, that our stories are republished in the DRC, Somalia. Ethiopia and other such countries. We clearly are useful in that respect, and happily so.
But Anas mentioned a possibility that would interest African media houses also, perhaps even more than ‘African’ stories. He points out that African media houses rarely access stories that give useful information about western societies. There is enough online news of course, but very little insight as to what makes our so very much developed countries tick; how ‘we’ got where ‘we’ are today. How does the West handle childcare? Do we even have orphanages? How do we ensure that our children go to school? How did we ban child labour, in the 100 years after children were still working in the Limburgia coal mines in the Netherlands? How did we industrialise without polluting the environment? (Answer: we didn’t). How do we organise our driving license processes, our judiciary? Do we still have corruption? Is it only less blatant? Is less blatant good?
African countries are young: Ghana is 58. The Netherlands are over 300. It makes absolute sense for African countries to have correspondents in the West, to report on what goes on here. Sadly, this is not yet the case, -the question is whether such correspondents would even get visa- but if it were up to Anas, such correspondents’ structures would have been in place ages ago -if only to check, every now and then, which NGOs, themes and projects these western countries are supporting now. And maybe question some of it. Opening our societies for scrutiny by African investigative journalists could be a very exciting, not to mention beneficial, project indeed.
Such a project could come with intercontinental engagement on some of ‘our’ discussions. Western debates have, of course, already inspired debates in Africa. This is the reason why the likes of Mugabe and Museveni associate the gay rights issue and feminism with ‘the West.’ Idem for contraceptive rights and abortion: those advocating for such rights are harassed, beaten up and told to ‘go away to be with their masters in the West.’
This is of course terrible, but not unexpected. We often forget that such conservativeness reigned in the West until very recently (and still does in certain parts in the US and elsewhere). The contraceptive pill only became legal for unmarried women in the US in 1972. Also in the US, women needed written consent from their husbands to buy and sell property until 1974. Gay rights activist Harvey Milk was shot, also in the US, in 1978. In short, modern ideas on gender equality and sexual orientation only started to gain ground in the West in a post-industrial era, where there had already been two feminist waves and never in a rural setting. Partly due to colonialism, most of Africa is still rural: even the most urbanised intellectual can still trace his family back to the village.
It is however not wrong to demand that, just like when it comes to industrialisation and literacy, Africa must do in a very short space of time what the West did in 300 years. This also applies to ‘Western’ modern ideas. Nobody wants to wait another 300 years for human rights, least of all Ugandan gays, pregnant Ghanaian teenagers, young Somali women, Kenyan doctors and South African lesbians. Plenty Africans are demanding human rights for all genders and all orientations, as well as reproductive rights, right now. In such a condensed, focused situation, you get a very burning, emotional debate.
This too, is where Anas steps in. Anas films, undercover, a quack abortion doctor who tries to help himself sexually to a young girl, telling her that having sex with him is a necessary part of the abortion procedure. It is a sting: the girl in this case is a colleague of Anas and there is no actual rape, since the team steps in and gets the guy arrested –just in time. But the raw, disturbing, footage has caused outrage when shown in the West: “They are actually filming a rape,” some of the Western reactions said, disgusted. In a debate in Amsterdam, Anas was put on the spot by an audience who demanded that he tell them how he personally feels about abortion, that he come out publicly as an abortion rights advocate.
This he has refused to do, saying only that his role is to show the terrible practice that victimises women and girls who carry unwanted pregnancies; and that this backstreet and quack abortion practice thrives on the fact that medical legal abortion is illegal in Ghana; and that parliament needs to debate this. Precisely by refusing to be framed NGO-style, avoiding accusations of being a ‘puppet of the West’, by staying true to his audience, and rooted in his society, Anas’ clip may contribute more to acceptance of hygienic medical abortion provision in Ghana than a dozen advocacy projects. His latest film, on corruption in the judiciary, now shown in the main theatre in Accra, has already attracted the public in thousands. Imagine what he could do in Ghana if he could make a documentary in an abortion clinic in the Netherlands and show it there.
To summarise: it would be great if we could really have African Western cooperation. If African media could publish stories from the West that are of value to them; and if Western media and audiences could be informed of what Anas, and Kassim, and Muno Gedi in Somalia and the AIPC guys in Botswana are really trying to do. It would yield unique insights in very different societies; it would hold up many mirrors, and who knows, give each side new ideas. It is our aim at the AIPC and ZAM to achieve such levels of interaction and cross-pollination. But we are not there yet, by a long shot.
Whilst African media mostly still lack the correspondents, independence and funding to source own stories in the West geared to their audiences, Anas’ work is still often labelled too ‘crude’ to be shown here. And it is not only his footage that is met with such hesitation. Descriptions of ritual witchcraft killings have also been rejected for publication in Dutch and Swiss media. “We don’t want to show Africans as primitive savages,” was the response in that case. The fact that the story was done by an African investigative journalist who had taken great risks to expose very savage criminals on purpose, did not sway these editors.
Similarly, ZAM’s stories on the Somali women’s strides made with regard to female circumcision, stories on ‘child marriages’ placed in a context -parents were simply unable to keep children at home because of poverty, or terrified of an unmarried daughter falling pregnant or contracting an STD-, stories on Niger Delta complexities, stories questioning dominant narratives about child soldiers, peacekeeping, rhino poaching –in which entire Mozambican villages are involved- or ‘blood diamonds’ also providing income to entire villages, have all not made it into Western media.
That could be because ZAM stories are not much good, and maybe there is much to be criticised in what we do. We are constantly working on our standards and presentation. But we suspect there is also more to it than that. We know of others with similar experiences; others who have managed to publish great works and even write books; but somehow, cannot get their African stories published in Western media if they deviate from the accepted, NGO-, do-gooder-framed narrative. Or from accepted expertise: a main news daily editor responded, without even listening, ‘our head of African news is an expert on rhinos’ to our offer of a story by Lazaro Mabunda on extrajudicial executions of Mozambicans in the Kruger Park.
African-led transnational investigations
We feel therefore extremely lucky to have secured some seed funding (13) to do a total of seven Transnational Investigations as the AIPC and ZAM this year. What these TI’s have in common is that they all originate from the African counterpart and that they are geared to be of interest both in the West and in Africa. The subjects range from witchcraft mafias to malaria programmes; from the fight against corrupt syndicates in state bureaucracies to peacekeeping efforts that turn into war-profiteering businesses; from criminal networks running entire regions in some countries to the growth of terrorism and its causes. In each case we have taken care that there are both Western and African angles: but new kinds of angles. And we are again very lucky that we have found media houses that will be willing to publish the work.
Our process in getting these TI’s going has been as follows.
- We looked for professional journalists in African countries. In Africa, the former FAIR network is of course a great asset; many of these veterans have now also migrated to the AIPC, precisely out of a desire to put their stories out internationally. The existence of this network helped us in ZAM-AIPC to avoid journalists who might, unbeknownst to outsiders, be also working as PR persons for politicians or NGOs.
- In the West, we avoided the ‘fly in’ correspondents, journalists who only travel to other continents when there is a disaster or a special event to do with their home country such as a government visit. We focused on free-lancers with a long history of travelling in Africa. Often, these free-lancers shared our same concerns about NGO-industry and do-gooder paradigms. In the end we set up a Facebook group to share experiences in this regard. The name ‘dominant narratives’ was given. Additionally, because most dominant narratives members came from our own circles in the Netherlands and we found that a bit narrow, we made contact with the CIJ in the UK, where we found very sweet and eager colleagues willing to work with us (two of seven TI’s now count CIJ members –thanks GIJN!)
- We asked the AIPC network to suggest topics.
- We presented these topics to the ‘dominant narratives’ group and to the CIJ and discussed them, also with a view to develop hopefully marketable Western angles.
- We matched people from both networks with the topics they were interested in and mapped out what each side could contribute. The African side would usually have a hard time getting documents, but could use the form of a data-gathering mini survey among communities with relative ease. The Western side was often –no, always- much better at getting decision makers on the phone and obtaining documents from West-based institutions.
- Skype sessions took place on each TI; there would still be more Skype sessions and email round robins regularly at later stages; then we would work with Google Docs and Document Cloud.
- We had to have ZAM involved at all times, to kick-start again whenever a TI hit an obstacle, or there was a break in communication (everybody being free-lance, people went to do other things and then checked in again every now and then –or not; this would make the other side anxious, especially when left in Volta without money or in Geneva at the Global Fund without any case studies or mini surveys to base questions on). Trust is easily questioned when journalist partners have never even met one another, so there had to be continuous ZAM dialogue with both sides: no, this one hasn’t published yet without you, no, this other one has not forgotten what he was supposed to do, his mother has malaria/has been arrested/needs advice before he goes off to infiltrate the witches shrine community. And so on.
- We had to market our stories really strongly to media in the West, for all the above mentioned reasons on paradigms and frames; we got used to asking why news media seemed to be so afraid of NEWS; in the end we got a really nice cooperation with an online news outlet (one that is quite respected and actually pays), where the people agreed to a series of ‘unexpected truths about Africa’. This was a big breakthrough.
- We got the commitment from the AIPC partners to publish on their side, AND
- The commitment from ZAM to help edit on both sides. On the African side according to angle, style and narrative demands in the respective countries (for example, in the DRC, that would mean ZAM help with French-English and English-French translating; this actually already starts at the point where the francophone DRC partner needs help with documents that international institutions only offer in English); and the commitment from ZAM to help edit on the Western side in accordance with their angle, narrative and style demands.
Based on our experiences so far, it is highly unlikely that a true cross border story Africa-Europe with equal input from both sides could materialise without match making and due concern for level playing fields. Without such match making and ‘editing in the middle’, it would be all too easy to fall back on the usual modus operandi, whereby the Western partner thinks of the topic, creates the hypothesis, obtains a letter of intent, finds funding and only then seeks a partner in the targeted African country -who will, because of the fact that the story is practically conceived before he is even approached, be little more than a fixer.
Again, we are not saying that this is wrong in principle. It is one way of looking for answers to very relevant questions and often a very good way. It is just that the ‘unknown unknowns’ are infinitely more fascinating to us.
But, besides matchmaking, a constant dialogue and two-way-editing, something else is needed: a foundation. These projects can’t be run as single events. In order to come up with a topic alone, there needs to be a constant flow of ideas between the African and European (or other) networks: a continuous natural dialogue. You can’t just ask somebody to tell you some ‘unknown unknowns.’ They won’t know what you mean, because they don’t know what you don’t know.
These things -like many inventions- are discovered by chance. You mean your Sorbonne-educated PRESIDENT drinks witches potions with body parts in it? Wait –you say most women in Mogadishu are not circumcised nowadays? But I just read that Unicef… Then you read almost in an aside in an article that farming militias are fighting with heavily armed gorilla protectors in the Virunga reserve and you really fall out of your chair, because you just saw the Virunga movie and you cried so much for the gorillas and the nice locals who love them so much.
That foundation, besides running projects, needs money. We don’t have that. We don’t get money from media projects because if it has to do with Africa, it is about development; and we don’t get money from the development aid world because –this is only an assumption- we don’t do advocacy and instead we tell them all the time how useless they are, so I guess that serves us right. Still, they should fund us because we try to speak some truth, I guess, but as we found at a seminar with Mark Hunter in Paris some years ago, no one actually likes to pay for truth. But they should. I leave that here. Please call.
A last remark. This is not about having the right opinion. It is about having opinions that change with new information. This is about journalism in its truest form: the journalism that looks for news; that surprises, that amazes, that shakes. ZAM and the AIPC experience it every day. This is why we work at listening to each other, find out things from each other and why we work even harder at trying to publish what we find. It is all just so great.
- From OxfamNovib. Yay for OxfamNovib! Please do fund us again (see above).