Do not glorify police, investigative journalists warned

By Jenipher Changwanda

As the #EndSARS protests intensified in Nigeria, resulting in loss of lives, journalists attending the virtual Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) webinar, co-organised with the African Investigative Journalism Conference 2020 (AIJC2020), have been urged not to glorify the police – but dig deeper in their drive to uncover police brutality.

Amal El Mekki, a freelance journalist and editor of Innsane, a storytelling platform she co-founded in 2020, who presented a paper on how to investigate cases of official misconduct said journalists must get to the root of police misconduct by paying attention to detail.

She said covering and investigating official misconduct, corruption and aggression had its challenges and that journalists often are deliberately frustrated by state agents as they expose such ills.

“Therefore, it is important not glorify the police but fact check government reports and documents when investigating state inflicted atrocities. Also, key is the issue of partnerships. These could be with non-governmental organisations who make sure that human rights are not violated in the name of fighting extremism. This is the case in Tunisia where we have had a state of emergency,” said El Mekki.

The Issane co-founder’s work focuses on human rights and her investigation, “S17: Victims of the Ministry of Interior’s Whim” revealed how the Tunisian Interior Ministry’s illegal border practices prevented thousands of Tunisians from traveling abroad.

Urging journalists to report without fear, she said: “Don’t be afraid to be accused of ‘breaching terrorism or disturbing the public tranquility’. A good story always makes controversy.”

Daneel Knoetze, founder and editor of Viewfinder, an accountability journalism nonprofit organisation in South Africa revealed how police brutality has exposed weak established system failures.

Knoetze, whose reporting focuses on police criminality and failure of police oversight mechanisms in South Africa, depicted how innocent citizens have been victims of officers acting out of line.

“System failure is responsible for suspects dying in police custody, violation of rights of convicts and police brutality. There is need to improve systems especially when you consider the fact that there are clearly defined rules, roles and responsibilities of institutions. We have legislation, regulation, procedures and standing orders in place,” he said.

He said experience has shown that while system failure seems to have taken root, there are always inside “sources and people who are willing to talk on the wrongs in institutions such as the police.”

Knoetze urged journalists to build relationships with sources that would help each time they delve deeper into investigative stories.

He said civil society activism can also help improve system failures and that investigative journalists should engage with such sources to expose the rot such as police brutality and deliberate fundamental flaws in the deliverance of justice.

Haley Willis, a Visual Investigations reporter from the New York Times video team, where she combines traditional reporting with more advanced digital forensics, shared tips on how they cracked one of the biggest stories of police brutality in our recent times.

She revealed how using different pieces of evidence helped to pin down the police officers who were responsible for the death of George Floyd in the US.

Also on the panel was Malachy Browne, a senior story producer on the Visual Investigations team at The New York Times, where he recently conducted a series of investigations on race and policing. Browne was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for international reporting for coverage of Russian culpability in crimes around the world.

In his session Browne talked about how he and his team have been investigating police misconduct by synchronising videos taken using phones, CCTV cameras and other tracing tools.

“These have helped a lot in examining police actions against set guidelines and rules,” he said.

About the author:

Jenipher Changwanda is a Malawian journalist working with Radio Maria. She is also a news contributor for Gender Links News Services and a member of Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) and an AIJC2020 Fellow.