Female investigative journalists struggle to break through

While the days of women being excluded from male dominated spaces owing to their gender are long gone, female investigative journalists continue to grapple with gender dynamics and discrimination. They struggle to find acceptance and acknowledgement.

These were sentiments of Sandrine Sawadoga, one of Africa’s leading female investigative journalists and one of the speakers featured in the African Investigative Journalism Conference 2020 (AIJC2020).

Sawadoga shared her sterling investigative work in Burkina Faso during the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) panel discussion where they shared their latest collaborative work on the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) files, held on October, 07, 2020, the second day of the virtual conference.

During the 16th edition of the AIJC2020 virtual conference, Sawadoga spoke about her investigations as part of the FinCEN files project where she uncovered the illicit flow of money between Burkina Faso and Serbia.

While the transaction was flagged as “suspicious” by FinCEN, she tried to find reasons why it had been flagged as there was no further information on it from the Suspicious Activity Reports (SAR’s). She had to rely on the societies where the illicit activities were taking place and it took her six months to gather information about the two societies involved and a year to complete the investigation, she revealed.

Her findings, she explained, revealed that the illicit flow of money began in Burkina Faso, and moved to the USA, Germany and then Serbia, with a total of four banks involved and that these financial transactions were not just an illicit flow of money, but an arms deal exchange.

Being a member of ICIJ helped Sawadoga to connect with a fellow female investigative journalist, Dragana Peco, who is based in Serbia, whom she collaborated with in the investigation and forged a great working relationship. The French-speaking Sawadoga revealed that in the beginning, communication with Peco was a great challenge and she had to learn English for ease of communication.

“But the determination I put in my work proved that no language barrier could stop what I wanted to achieve,” she said.

Sawadoga has been a journalist for 11 years, with seven years of those as an investigative journalist, and is the only female investigative journalist in Burkina Faso who is a member of International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

“I am doing my best to represent all female investigative journalists in my country, I am flying the flag high and hopefully other female journalists will help me to even lift it higher,” said Sawadoga.

The support from Norbert Zongo Cell for Investigative Journalism in West Africa (CENOZO) and ICIJ gave her protection during her FinCen files and West Leaks investigations.  Since 2019, she has been receiving training from CENOZO, facilitated by Ghana’s investigative journalism, Anas Aremeyaw Anas, who helped her with security training.

She explained that a lot of questions are asked when it is a female doing an investigation.

Her first foray into investigative journalism was in 2014 while investigating an unequal treatment among local and international employees at a gold mine in Burkina Faso. Her focus was to unearth the inequalities in a company that had two employees who were doing the same job but were paid different salaries. Since then, she has published six investigative stories, four of them completed.

Sawadoga said one of the most challenging parts of her job was gaining trust from her sources.

“Gaining trust from sources is hard. For a new investigative story, one has to be persuasive and creative and also make sure they (sources) are protected in order to have all the information one needs,” explained Sawadoga.

Due to the Covid-19 outbreak and the lockdown, her work became even more challenging because some of her sources feared contracting the virus. “I communicated with them through various modes and it cost me a lot,” she said.

However, the lockdown also proved to be a blessing to her, allowing her time to spend with her family. She revealed that she was able to celebrate her husband’s birthday, something she could not do for six years due to her inability to balance her career and family.

“I sometimes work long hours at the office and often do not have a social life. I am often forced to attend to my work and neglect my child’s needs to the extent that I missed her birthday last year. Sometimes I just cry,” she said.

Her advice to aspiring female investigative journalists is that they should not be superheros, but undertake work that results in social change and has an impact in the society they live in.

“This is no different from any other jobs. You can be hurt or even killed. As an investigative journalist you are alone, with no friends or relatives. The best way to complete a story is to be ultra-confidential,” added Sawadoga.

Besides the FinCEN files project, Sawadoga had worked on Fatal Extraction, the Thomson Reuters Foundation mining project. She is currently working on a confidential project.

Featured image: International Consortium of Investigative Journalists 

About the author

Dianah Chiyangwa is a Zimbabwean born photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her work focuses on women and children, migration, health, and environmental issues.

Chiyangwa is a regular contributor t the European Pressphoto Agenc (EPA) and is an AIJC2020 Fellow.