When big brother watches the watchdog

‘They said they listen to my phone calls, you hear a click – and then some time later I heard such clicks,’ says a colleague, looking worried. Another informs him that he was, most likely, a victim of ‘spooking’: ‘they could only have done that to make you afraid. With nowadays technology, you won’t hear a thing if they listen in. Sometimes you are even so happy with your connection, because it seems very clear.’ – Report on ICT’s for investigative journalism: FAIR conference in Dakar, April 2012.

At least three of the twenty-five West African investigative journalists meeting in Dakar, Senegal, at the FAIR West African regional conference (16-18 April 2012) have been a victim of internet-related threats, bullying, spying and,  when they could not be ‘turned’ to work with the authorities,  physical violence.  As a result, the conversation on the use of new internet communication technologies (‘ICT tools for better investigative journalism’, is the conference’s theme), is quickly extended to include its opposite: the threat of technological and cyber-surveillance of journalists.

The lessons imparted by FAIR’s partner in this conference,  Dakar-based ICT / media training institute E-jicom (www.e-jicom.com), which has adopted a pan-African and pro-active approach to educating journalists on ICT’s-,  are clear: there is no safe internet communication, emailing or websurfing. ‘You always leave a footprint’.  And, physically safer, but sometimes more deadly, you can be tricked by neat-looking websites to rely on their information, only to find that it was false and your reputation lies in tatters. Manipulation and disinformation are old names of new internet-based games.

“Journalism credibility is threatened by the proliferation of online content,” says Hamadou Tidiane Sy, director of E-jicom. “Therefore alone it is imperative for the journalist to refine knowledge and mastery of Internet technology. Only in this way can he/she authenticate the information available online.”

Tidiane Sy (left) and Gerard Guedegbe (right)

There are also ways to stay a step ahead of ‘Big Brother’, and E-jicom informs the conference of all the tricks of this new trade. Conclusion: ICT tools –the internet, facebook, skype- help the journalist to get information and be a better watchdog over authorities, but there are also pitfalls, and if one is not careful, one falls hard.

FAIR Chairman Gerard Guèdègbé has already stressed the need to learn to navigate these waters in his opening address to the conference. “Using ICT, nowadays, is a requirement for quality. “We believe that we cannot neglect the importance of ICT during Investigative Journalism. Using them, and using them well, is a requirement for quality nowadays”, he said.

A FAIR subcommittee of ICT-veterans as well as beginners is established to map the traps and obstacles, and to provide helpful solutions. It is to report at FAIR’s continental African Investigative Journalism Conference, to be held in South Africa in October 2012.

How many eggs for one fish and how much is that in flour?

Also to be presented at the AIJC, if it is up to this gathering: investigations into the return of barter trade, and a (temporary) goodbye to the monetary economy  in Cameroon, where poverty is now so widespread that in most rural areas money has become useless. How many eggs should one trade for one fish, and how much is that again in flour, are the questions of the day, reports colleague Chief Bisong Etahoben of Weekly Post.  Research question: how is such increasing poverty possible in an oil-producing country?

Chief Bisong

“But how bad is such barter trade, actually?”, asks a participant. “Can’t people get by that way?” Interestingly, it’s the female colleagues who take him on. “Come on, how are we ever going to develop without money”, asks one. “This is hand-to-foot-existence”. Adds another woman: ‘there can be no growth without investment, and no investment without capital, and no capital without money.”  Most Westafrican women know about setting up a business, and these ones, though journalists, are clearly no exception.

One of the two respondents on the barter trade presentation also presents her own investigation, into the stubborn persistence of the practice of female genital mutilation in Liberia. “We have a law against it, but our government needs the votes of the traditional communities that still practice it. They also cannot support it openly, because the world would object. So they prefer to pretend it does not exist, and they shoot the messenger”.

A health issue that poses danger

Eva Flomo

Sometimes literally.  Often regarded as a ‘safe’ subject in the field of health issues, FGM reporting has become dangerous in Liberia. Reports of real cases, real culprits and real economic power, paid ‘cultural’ lobbying and syndicate-type structures behind the practice, are suppressed and reporters attempting to expose these are threatened. One such reporter, Mae Azango, is still in hiding.

Says Azango’s colleague Eva Flomo  at the conference: “We are three who do these stories. And we have moved into advocacy and campaigning as well, because it has to stop.” The remark causes lively debate. Should journalists be activists? What does that mean for objectivity? Flomo: “I cannot really be objective about FGM. It happened to me and it pisses me off.” And she challenges the respondents: “ How about you?”  The debate ends in general acknowledgement that investigative journalists do tend to expose issues of social injustice, and a journalist should feel passion in this regard.

On the other hand, as Nigerian Musikilu Mojeed puts it: ‘There are different methodologies. To unearth something, you use investigative methodology. Campaigning is another thing.” “But activists and investigative journalists can work together”, FAIR director Abdullah Vawda concludes.

Out of the debate grows a common interest, that soon translates into a new Transnational Investigation idea: harmful traditional practices. There isn’t only FGM, there’s also traffic in human organs (from dead bodies, and cemeteries are vandalized to get these, reports colleague Christophe Assogba from Benin, to which Senegalese colleagues add that people are still murdered for ‘organ harvesting’ as well), and, here and there, crazy beliefs in the ‘bewitchedness’ of albino’s or disabled infants persist. Ghana’s Anas Aremeyaw Anas has just shown us a video he shot in Tanzania, of albino children with amputated limbs.

At this point the conference looks at Chief Bisong Etahoben, who is both: a traditional leader and an investigative journalist and editor. “I do try to start and encourage public debates about things that aren’t right’, he says, well aware that, in common discourse, ‘if you are in my position, you are Chief of all bad things”. ‘Female genital mutilation and these other things are wrong”, he says. “But I am often met with silence.” To make matters worse, traditional leaders are sworn to secrecy when it comes to divulging information about real cases, and individuals engaged in such practices.  Perhaps similarly to catholic priests, and therapists, a chief can help with expertise but cannot point fingers. Chief Bisong is immediately appointed ‘expert advisor’ to the new Transnational Investigative project.

Fool’s gold

One of the most exciting, finalized investigations presented, is Anas Aremeyaw Anas’s investigation for Al Jazeera:  Fools’gold. Anas’ famous hidden camera shows how mafiosi paint brass bricks gold, and sell them off to greedy investors as ‘real’.  As a consequence, investor confidence in Ghana may be damaged, explains Anas. The video ends with the arrest of the fraudsters by Ghanaian police, alerted by Anas and his crew.

No prizes for guessing what kind of lively debate ensures after this one. “A journalist working with the police?” Whilst many of us are desperate to duck bribes, threats, offers, attempts to turn us into informers, by the police? “We were under pressure to give them our documents about corrupt oil officials, says Nigeria’s Mojeed. “But we couldn’t. We are journalists, not police agents.”

Anas responds: “If our societies were working well, if I could trust that our police force would diligently investigate crimes exposed by journalists, I would not do this. Now, I know that my duty as an investigative journalist and Ghanaian citizen is not just to film wrongdoing. I also have a civic duty to help build the institutions that are meant to protect victims of crime and injustice.”

He adds that he never just phones ‘the’ police, since it wouldn’t help and could even make matters worse. “Normally, if police follow up on your story at all, it only takes one bribe from the criminals to make the case go away.  I have established relations with serious police officers, who are concerned about corruption in their own ranks. I want to work with them. I am all for it, at least at this stage of developments in Ghana.”  On ICT’s:  Anas is a prime rolemodel for working with advanced technology. He follows, checks out, tapes and films.  At the same time, he knows that those who feel inconvenienced by his work are also photographing, stalking and taping him.  “You just have to be smart and careful”, he says.

Unfair trade

Perhaps the most surprising investigation, finished in Ivory Coast but still to take place in the other West African countries, is the one conducted by Ivorian colleague Selay Kouassi. ‘Fair trade’ cocoa in Ivory Coast is, it turns out, actually not fair at all. Kouassi investigated social conditions at dozens of plantations and smallholdings in his country, and found that the main beneficiaries of the heavily-NGO-supported ‘fair trade’ arrangements are not the small farmers, but the big landowners: they who exploit  farm workers and provide strangulating competition for the small farmers that fair trade’s PR claims to support. To top it all, the current global market price for cocoa is higher than the ‘fair trade’ minimum price, Kouassi says.

And so another West African Transnational Investigation is born. There is ‘fair trade’ cocoa in Ghana too, and there is ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’ cocoa in Nigeria. Christophe Assogba asks for attention for the pineapple sector in Benin: so many government and NGO programmes, so little result.  Investigative questions: are the problems with ‘fair trade’ merely hiccups, to be corrected as the projects mature?  Can there be a different, real, ‘fair’ trade?  Why are there no farmworkers’ unions in West Africa, by the way?

It is another subject that forces the journalists to tread carefully.  ‘Fair trade’ may sound like a ‘soft’ issue, but the interests in the cocoa sector in Ivory Coast are immense. Three journalists investigating the cocoa mafia have disappeared, and have probably been murdered, in the past ten years. Selay Kouassi has been threatened too, and has had to go into hiding for a while.

War on terror and bumperstickers

The most risky subject matter, however, is the issue of terrorism and the war on same. Ahmad Salkida has been in hiding, but was found and beaten up last week.  The Nigerian reports faces the classic catch 22- situation of being targeted by both sides:  the violent Islamic fundamentalists of Boko Haram, and the Nigerian army and police fighting them. “If I would anger Boko Haram they could kill my entire family”, he says. “On the other hand, the police harass me and try to turn me into their agent.” “And there are human rights violations by the Nigerian authorities too”, adds colleage Peter Nkanga. ‘You only have to be pointed as a terrorist and you can be victimised terribly’.

Both Salkida and Nkanga only want to do what journalists do: find out what the facts are and report them. “But fact checking alone is a nightmare”, says Salkida. “Everything that happens is illegal or a state secret, so where do you start?” Later, after the conference relaxing with a softdrink, Salkida confesses that what a reporter in his situation most needs, is ‘a friend’. “When you are perceived to be in trouble, people are even scared to associate with you. Most journalists want to stay safe and don’t do ‘troublesome’ subjects.  I started as a development journalist. I only got into this because things were happening in front of me. But now I am not so sure, can a lone journalist do this without support?”

Though the Nigerian FAIR members are all acquainted with one another, the Dakar conference is the first opportunity they have for a real exchange. Additionally, there are link-ups with colleagues in Senegal, and through these and others, with new colleagues in Mali and Niger. After two days, Salkida feels strengthened. “We should impress on the powers-that-be in our countries that we are part of an international network. Couldn’t FAIR issue bumper stickers?”

Guest presentations by the Panos West Africa  institute (PIWA), that subsidizes and assists story production in some Senegalese newsrooms, and the West African Journalists’ Association WAJA shed a completely different light on journalism structures. Both PIWA and WAJA confess that, for projects involving journalists, they have to choose ‘story themes’ that are favoured by donors. “It has to be on mining, or pollution, or land grabbing”, the PIWA representative says, but adds that ‘within those themes, nobody interferes with the story content.”  Donor ‘hobby’ subjects, and the problems they present to press freedom are discussed as a result of the presentations. The conference decides that journalists, and particularly FAIR, should raise the issue of free story subject choice as a priority in media and –in as far as journalistic projects are supported by donors- vis a vis donors.

WAJA representative, Ndey Tapha, is in for some criticism directed at journalism unions in West Africa. “It’s not about you, it’s about your member organisations”, say participants, many from countries where journalists do not take a stand for ethics, best practice, or against such ills as ‘brown envelope’ journalism and other systemic corruption in the media industry. “But we are there to support the journalists as workers”, says Tapha.  Another colleague, himself a leader of the journalists’ union in Senegal: ‘You can only change things from within. Where are you?  Come to say what you want within our organisations!” In the end, the WAJA representative agrees that, perhaps, journalists’ unions do have a role to play when it comes to setting and maintaining standards for the profession. But the end of this debate is not yet in sight.


The last day of the conference is dedicated to a fairly recent hard internet skill:  crowd-sourcing, an investigative technique that surveys many people to dig into a question. It is defined by the Poynter Institute as ‘taking a task traditionally accomplished by a professional journalist and includes outsourcing to a large group through an open call.’

Musikilu Mojeed, FAIR member from Nigeria’s Premium Times explains: “Limited resources and shrinking newsroom budgets make that journalists aren’t everywhere. Crowd members are often closer to the news. Also, the fact of asking the audience makes people take ownership of the issues we report about. This can translate to more copy sales or more visits to websites; Crowd members can even be better experts on some issues.”

Mojeed speaks about crowd-submission tools on websites as “community platforms that encourage readers to participate. The consultative feedback leads to better reporting.” Items delivered by audiences include video’s, texts, audio clips, pictures, data, comments, further sources suggestions and analysis. To obtain these, his website sends out email blasts or newsletters requesting help from crowds. Addtionally, he says, “you can use twitter, facebook, myspace; the submission tools and community platforms on the website; announcements on radio, TV, and the website itself, and even phonecalls”.

An example of a crowd-sourcing project given by Mojeed is Ushahidi in Kenya, probably Africa’s most widely known crowdsourcing project. The Ushahidi Engine is a platform that allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualize it on a map or timeline. The idea behind the linked ‘Huduma’ (the Swahili word for service) website is that people can send – by text, email or Twitter – reports on the performance of services in their district. These are mapped on the Huduma site and the responsible authority is identified.

The second example given is one of Mojeed’s own crowd-sourcing websites, Nigeria Police Watch (www.nigeriapolicewatch.com). This website includes a reward system for contributors, which was later integrated at Nigeria Premium Times online.   

Way forward  

The final day of the conference gathers draft resolutions for adoption at the next FAIR AGM in October 2012, and household information regarding FAIR’s membership rules and projects: Transnational Investigations, small grants, conferences and others. FAIR and E-jicom express their mutual desire to continue the cooperation. E-jicom students, a dozen of whom sat in at the conference, come and shake hands. Three professional colleagues, present at a FAIR event for the first time, become FAIR members.

FAIR moves on to the East African IJ conference, the southern African IJ conference and, in October, the continental and global AIJC.  If all goes well, we will have two, no three, TI’s to present from West Africa! If the input from Dakar is matched by Nairobi and Lusaka, we will be in for a riveting AIJC –and GIJC in Rio de Janeiro, next year- indeed.

Draft resolutions from the FAIR west Africa conference 

  1. Arrange AIJC workshop sessions on ‘ethics and best practice’ in fragile state environments, and ‘how to authenticate information using ICTs’.
  2. Compile resource manual on “IC tools and safety”.
  3. Guidance and tipsheets on technology usage by journalists should be developed through FAIR sub-committee on ICTs.  The team should be led by Mojeed, Assogba and Bisong, who would update members on progress at the next  AGM.
  4. Debate ‘citizen journalism’ issues, explain the differences between activism and journalism, and define the values of both.
  5. New IJ Manual chapter on ‘systemic fight against corruption’.
  6. Stronger support against ‘privacy violations’, including clear guidleines on how to ensure privacy of both journalists and bystanders are protected.
  7. New TI on “Land grabs in Africa”.
  8. More cross-border investigations into FGM and other harmful traditional practices.
  9. The “War on Terror in Africa” – investigations must be combined to produce a TI, and presented at the AIJC 2012.
  10. Investigate the issues of ‘Fake drugs and medicines in Africa’, and role of complicit governments.
  11. Issues of ‘China in Africa’ must be explored.
  12. Strengthen our efforts in West Africa through training and partnerships with University and other development institutions based in Dakar.
  13. Investigate the progress of MDGs ahead of the 2015 target. In order to pre-empt leaders from issuing false figures, and to verify the information on the ground, to explore each country’s efforts such as Millennium villages in Nigeria, Senegal, Mozambique, etc.
  14. Explore the efforts and progress of ECOWAS regional trading bloc.
* This report was compiled by Evelyn Groenink and Abdullah Vawda. FAIR would like to acknowledge support from the Open Society Foundation.

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