East Africa Conference: Going beyond the veil of secrecy using public data

Investigative journalism distinguishes itself from regular journalism by its depth and by a rigorous research process that never merely describes issues or events, but seeks to better serve the public by getting answers to the key questions of ‘why?’ and ‘how?’By Abdullah Vawda, FAIR Executive Director, 17/09/2012 Nairobi (Kenya)

For this reason, its subject matter often involves crime, political corruption or corporate wrongdoing. Thus, investigative journalism can make a vital contribution to a country’s governance by keeping corporations and governments accountable.

In the East African region, the political, social and economic environments present specific challenges for investigative journalists, including increased security measures, secrecy and militarization. More than 40 journalists, editors and media representatives gathered in Kenya during September 2012 to discuss issues around ‘War on Terror in East Africa: security, elections and transparency. 

The conference programme, which combined national case study presentations with technical skills training, was organized by the Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR) with support from the Open Society Institute East Africa (OSIEA), the Kenya Media Programme (KMP), the Tanzania Media Fund (TMF) and the Great Lakes Media Institute (GLMI, Rwanda & US).

As an association of African investigative journalists, FAIR’s mission is to improve investigative reporting and facilitate publication of social justice issues by media in Africa.  The Nairobi meeting follows regional investigative journalism conferences in Senegal and Zambia, which explored investigative methodologies and strengthened FAIR’s network of media professionals earlier in the year.

The opening address by Charles Mwanguhya, Uganda Monitor and FAIR Board member, looked at ways of tracking money during election campaign financing, and how to bring political actors into the spotlight using credible sources. Sample stories of in-depth election coverage by The Monitor were presented by Barbara Among, who encouraged colleagues in Kenya to investigate and probe their own leaders in the context of upcoming elections.

‘Not only governments issue brown envelopes’

The response by participants was animated, and included feedback on cases of bribery and censorship that journalists in the region had encountered. “How do we prevent suppression of the story?” asked one delegate. FAIR’s Kassim Mohamed (2012 winner of the Knight Award for his work in Somalia and Kenya) advised fellow journalists that bribery when following a lead could come from all players involved in the story -not just governments.

The complexities of both government and media censorship was highlighted during a presentation titled ‘The whistleblower in Tanzania’ by Richard Mgamba (Tanzania Guardian) and Maxence Melo, developer of Jamii Forums, a home-grown social networking service. Noting that some cases of media ownership have led to censorship, Jamii Forums seeks to help journalists work under secure environments and to publish online.

However the risks of going beyond the surface included ‘death threats, terrorism charges and a fake Jamii website’, related Melo, who nevertheless plans to expand coverage into the east Africa region next year.

‘DRC most under-reported story in 2012’

Sally Stapleton of the Great Lakes Media Institute (Rwanda and U.S.) led a discussion around ‘Warlords and looting: reporting conflict in the DRC/Kivu region’ and specifically the role of Rwanda media in covering the strife inside refugee border camps. Participants concurred that investigations in the DRC cannot be conducted in traditional ways, particularly so since armed forces will not hesitate to shoot at the media.

Wanjohi Kabukuru (New African and GLMI Board member) encouraged journalists and media houses to lead the way on initiatives to publish inter-border complexities. “The DRC, which holds approximately 24 trillion US Dollars of natural mineral wealth, should not be ignored by the continent’s media, since many regional governments have a stake in how these resources are transported through neighbouring countries” concluded Kabukuru.

Fred Mwasa cited examples of travel to DRC border regions, with the Rwanda News Agency, and the serious safety risks, as well as the risk of being provided with wrong information. “This does not mean the story cannot be told”, said Mwasa, who advised his peers to collaborate with local journalists to get around the obstacles.

The afternoon session by Ron Nixon (New York Times and founder of the Ujima project) provided insight on ‘how to follow government spending through public information’. There is data on African state spending freely available on the internet, such as US department databases, service contracts, legal documents and US aid agency websites. Although termed ‘classified’ by some Ministries, data on government programmes can be obtained via the US Freedom of Information Act, for example.

The selection of websites and documents presented by Nixon was meant to enable investigative journalists to dig deeper using various tools and sources without getting into trouble. The discussion concluded that data from the US can be used by African journalists to expose forms of secret lobbying and foreign aid that do not help development.

The conference will end on Wednesday 19 September, and is expected to set the stage for new cross-border investigations, capacity building programmes and national stories during 2013.

Follow updates on twitter @fairreporters

* For more information contact Abdullah Vawda, FAIR Executive Director, director[at]fairreporters.org, +2711 482 8493 


1. Media houses to establish investigative journalism desks.
2. Security for journalists must be provided by media houses.
3. To explore possibilities of a Tanzanian and Rwandan chapters of FAIR.
4. Extractive Industry investigations must be prioritised and covered by media in the region.
5. News organisations should find ways to become economically sustainable.
6. Find ways of providing financial support to journalists working in dangerous areas.
7. Find solidarity from other journalists worldwide, to support journalists in east Africa.
8. Explore ways of getting more grants funding for journalists in east Africa.
9. Include ‘security and other experts’ to share knowledge at regional events.
10. Integrate DRC journalists during east Africa programmes.
11. Special focus on eastern Congo only, to be led by journalists in east Africa.
12. Protection of Somali journalists through special media fund and local partnerships.
13. More training on ‘security issues’ for journalists going into the field.
14. Improve professional standards of Somali journalists with skills training.
15. Liaise with colleagues in other countries to provide broader outlook of the issues.
16. Make efforts to sustain the networking and partnerships following this conference.
17. Media owners in Somalia must be held accountable for safety of their journalists.
18. Include specific timelines on Transnational Investigations.
19. Linkages with Editors, trainers and media managers to improve investigative journalism.
20. Encourage more Editors and producers in EA to work with FAIR and IJ projects.
21. Build capacity of freelance journalists, in grants funding, skills training and mentoring.
22. More business investigative stories to be produced in east Africa region.
23. Investigate issues of health, HIV, etc which affect communities in east Africa border regions.

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