“We don’t need competition on a continent like ours”

Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) is an international association of journalism organisations that provides tools, resources and training to investigative and data journalists worldwide. The organisation has grown quickly the over last years as investigative journalists have increasingly seen the value of sharing knowledge, collaborating and networking across the globe. The last Global Investigative Journalism Conference in 2019 gathered 1,700 journalists from 130 countries.

We met GIJN’s regional editors Benon Herbert Oluka, Africa Editor, and Maxime Domegni, Francophone Africa Editor, joining a videocall from Kampala and Dakar respectively to talk about investigative journalism on the continent.

What do your roles as regional editors for GIJN involve?
Benon Oluka (BO): The editor acts as a point person for GIJN in Africa. We have members that are non-profit investigative journalism centres from South Africa through Tanzania to Ghana and Nigeria all the way to Liberia. The editors help support those organisations with any resources we can develop or share that will be useful for their work. We also manage the social media activity of GIJN, in my case the English platforms for GIJN Africa on Twitter and Facebook and a WhatsApp group. The English group has 188 members from all over the continent where journalists can reach out. For example, if they need to find a contact in another country, we are very quickly able to find someone to collaborate with. They share stories, grant opportunities, and opportunities for collaboration within the group and have discussions. We share guides or tools, or connect them to an expert able to work with them. We have a network of experts all over the world. That’s the beauty – helping journalists in Africa access some of the best tools available around the world.

Maxime Domegni (MD): I think you’ve said it all. We also try to monitor the needs of the journalists on the ground and point them out to adapt trainings and resources.

What type of needs do you currently see?
MD: In Africa, investigative journalism is under more threat than in some other parts of the world. Recently a journalist from Cameroon investigating environmental issues was arrested. Safety issues are a priority of investigative journalism and one of the reasons many journalists are scared of it. Three years ago, a collaborator in Ghana was shot dead in Accra. And that’s in Ghana, which is seen as one of most democratic countries in the region.

How does GIJN support with safety?
BO: One of the things we did was develop an Africa section for the website where we share resources on safety and security for journalists, for instance, Media Defence in the UK which supports journalists in trouble. In the last three months, we have supported Hopewell Chin’ono in Zimbabwe by linking him to Media Defence who offered funding and supported a lawyer to defend him. We’ve done the same in Rwanda, in Uganda. That’s the first thing. When in need of help, GIJN looks at its network and asks which organisations can support the journalists and we connect them. We also do courses on safety and security: how to secure yourself online, when going to the field, a warzone, or volatile situations. We also have a newsletter where we share threats and reports with journalists to point to where there are safety challenges so they can be on the lookout.

Beyond security, what are the challenges for investigative journalism in the region?
BO: Many difficulties evolve around tools. People commit all kinds of crimes in Africa, and they are doing it at an international level. There are stories journalists in Africa can’t do because they lack resources to comb or access the data. Take wildlife trafficking for example. It’s difficult to go to China to track down what’s happening, so we look for tools that can help journalists do investigations. The next best option is to do collaborative journalism, but finding partners outside of Africa to follow through is difficult.

MD: One challenge investigative journalists face is that they cannot publish their stories because the media is not independent. Most commercial media rely on advertisement provided by the powerful, so journalists who do investigations may not be able to publish in their own country because the editors won’t let them. That’s one reason we need non-profits that can dive into those stories.

BO: One advantage of our network is that where journalists are not able to publish in their own country because of threats to their life, they can reach out to GIJN and find a member who can publish the story. We link them up with a member, they exclude their name, publish it in another county, and the media back in the original country can quote the story from foreign media so the journalist doesn’t face the same kind of threat.

How often would you say investigations are published this way?
BO: It’s a growing trend and way of doing collaborations. If you look in Southern Africa amaBhungane are supporting others in the region to make sure their stories get published. They have published stories of partners in Malawi, Botswana, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe. When they face threats, they reach out. Recently they’ve even tried to formalise it, by setting up Investigative Journalism Hub, an organisation that brings together partners in the region to collaborate on story publication and development. They send reporters from one country to another if they need to be in South Africa [where amaBhungane is based] to stay safe. Junior reporters also do internships there and return home. It’s more than just sharing stories, but networking and collaborating at a bigger level.

MD: There is a difference between English and French; there are fewer centres like amaBhugane in the francophone countries. There are some examples like Inkyfada in Tunisia, Twala in Algeria, The Museba Project in central Africa, Data Cameroon, Le Media Citoyen in Côte d’Ivoire, but the huge majority are commercial media, so the trend of creating non-profits has not yet caught on.

OB: We are seeing a lot more investigative journalism done my non-profits who are able to source for funding not tied to profit. They can dedicate more time to investigations. But also profit media companies are opening non-profit organisations to prop up their investigative arm. One of our members is Premium Times in Nigeria, which is the biggest media organisation in the country. It opened a non-profit arm, the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism.

MD: Journalists in commercial media houses can still publish some stories, but as soon as they investigative a company that advertises with the media or that is connected to the manager it is less likely to be published. That’s why I think the trend of independent non-profits needs to keep growing. For now, investigative journalism in the region is still working in commercial media but this limits them.

How do you adapt to the regional context?
BO: We have a series called How They Did It, where we speak to journalists in different parts of the world about investigations they did. In the past, there wasn’t much footprint in Africa. Now, as much as possible we bring in journalists in African contexts, using uniquely African tools and resources. And for example, experience of doing investigations in environments that are autocratic. We are getting to know so many innovations coming out of the continent.

What are some strengths in your regions you think the rest of the world can learn from?
BO: It used to be that everything came to Africa from the rest of the world. Now we are beginning to work both ways. One of our members, Oxpeckers, developed tools for tracking the sale of ivory from where animals are killed in parts of Africa to China. They track court cases involving wildlife traffickers and rhino horn killings. Very specific niche investigations are the kind of things journalists in Africa are beginning to develop tools for, which are beginning to be used by journalists in Europe and Asia.

MD: I want to underline that my first goal is not to show journalists outside of Africa what African journalists are doing. This is great. But the priority is to create the possibility for African journalists to share tips between one another. What works somewhere else might not work on the continent. Sometimes it’s more helpful getting tips from someone living in the same environment, who knows what works there. For example, we have some resources on investigating police by using CCTV footages, but in Africa you don’t have access to CCTV in the public domain in many countries.

You both have a background as journalists, how was the change to becoming a GIJN editor?
MD: I wanted to help spread the good news of investigative journalism in francophone Africa. I know how complicated it is to do and before joining GIJN I used to discuss with friends how we can do more, do better, and enlarge investigative journalism in this region. That’s why when I saw the call, I was like “let me go for this”. Many people didn’t understand why I should leave where I was – with BBC – for an NGO, but I feel comfortable with it. I think my work will have more impact where I am now than previously because there is a real need and I know what is happening and what is needed. Even before I saw the call for GIJN, I was thinking of writing a book on investigative journalism in francophone Africa, just to let you know how I felt about it.

BO: When you have worked as a reporter in your country you see first-hand the challenges that make doing investigative journalism hard. When I was doing reporting and wanted to go somewhere and do an investigation for five days, the newsroom leader would say we don’t have the resources. I was looking for alternatives: how else can one do investigate reporting? I landed on the model of non-profit centres and eventually started one. We did some good investigations and tried to support other journalists through fellowship programmes. I left for a master’s, and when I came back, I thought this can be done at a bigger level. Around then GIJN was headhunting for someone who would fit in the role and my friend recommended it to me.

There is a stereotype that journalists are quite competitive. Not least when it comes to breaking a big story first. As an organisation that is all about cooperation, is this ever a challenge?
MD: I think we don’t need competition because the criminals we are investigating are connected. That’s why we need cooperation and cross-border collaboration. We don’t need competition on a continent like ours, where newsrooms have fewer resources to put in complicated or long-run investigative stories. I often tell people, one way to be safe doing stories is to share with other media organisations. This is a method we employ, if something is sensitive, we call another reliable organisation and ask if they’d like to work on it with us. The day the story is out, you are not the only target. So, my belief is that mainly in Africa – in Europe media organisations have resources to do things on their own – but in Africa where resources are few and limited, we don’t need competition.

Through the Consortium to Promote Human Rights, Civic Freedoms, and Media Development in Sub-Saharan Africa (CHARM-AFRICA), Fojo Media Institute is helping GIJN to strengthen its presence in Africa by supporting the regional editor posts.

This article was first published by the Fojo Media Institute. It is published here with permission.