Investigative Reporting Can Make African Leaders Accountable

INTERVIEW by Misbabu Bashir  with Margaret Renn who co-organizes the annual African Investigative Journalism Conference in conjunction with the Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR). In this interview, she said investigative reporting can make African governments accountable.

Daily Trust (Nigeria) 17 November 2013

How have you been organizing the African Investigative Journalism Conference (Power Reporting)?

It involves a lot of hard work. You start by thinking about who might be invited as a speaker and about the need of African investigative journalists and what skills they might need. So it really takes time working on the programme.

I am now working on the programme for next year. The other side of it is the practical organization and that is a lot of hard work.

We have got a lot of people flying in from all over the place. People need to have hotels, to have beds, to have food. We need to make the programme, we need to advertise, we need to raise money and all of that takes several months.

What about the challenges?

There are some general challenges, because this is Africa. But the major one is the internet problem we are facing in the building where the conference in taking place at the University of Witwatersrand because whoever redesigned the building forgot to provide where people can plug their laptops. The other challenge is the electricity problem.

You have about 250 journalists attending, they need to be online at same time. This morning I tried to get on the internet and got one tiny little bar. We have laid internet cable and it was an incredible work.

The event overall is a challenge because we have to meet certain standard, we have to get the best speakers and we need to have good programme. The internet problem can only be fixed by the South African government.

What factors do you take into account before getting your speakers?

The most important thing is to get speakers who are interesting, topical and are good at conveying what they are talking about.

So, you could be really a good speaker and good investigative journalist but not very good in talking about it. I have had some issues over the years, but this year, there were speakers such as Alex and David who did beautiful sessions. Also the ‘data journalism’ team we pulled together is African.

This year, the conference paid more attention to data journalism because there were different sessions on data journalism, why?

If you had been to the previous conferences, you will see that there were several speakers on data journalism because it is a transferable skill such that you come and sit down with your computer for an hour and someone can teach you something. It is easy to put into practice what you have learned.

Do you think African journalists are left behind in terms of data journalism?

No, they are catching up. I have seen a distinct shift in South Africa and a huge shift in Kenya and I think we have strong people in those countries. We can assist in other places. Last year we had a group of journalists who came from Brazil and did a presentation about a huge investigation they did which lasted for a couple of years and eventually, brought down their provincial government.

It had to do with the data they gathered without any database. They collected piece of paper by piece of paper which went into a huge data spreadsheet with about 40,000 items on it. That was their mode of fact gathering and then they told the story. They didn’t have anything online and so, if you can do it in Brazil, you can do it in Africa.

People there don’t have database. If you ask some people questions, you will get data because you will get answers. The other thing is that a lot of people think that data journalism deals with mathematics, figures and sums. Data means information and if you get the data, it will provide you with a story.

What is your opinion on the state of investigative journalism in Africa?

At this conference, you probably met the best or some of the best investigative journalists in Africa. I worked in the UK with probably the best investigative journalists. There, they never called themselves investigative journalists and they only say I am doing my job. I see journalists coming to this conference having a lot of potentials.

Are they facing challenges?

African journalists generally face a lot of challenges. In some countries there are issues of safety and the issue of management in such a way that a reporter starts work on investigative journalism and his editor tells him to shut it down due to some pressure.

A lot of journalists are being attacked and killed especially in Somalia. What is the way forward?

Well, I don’t know the solutions to that. Probably, what we need to do is to make information about the attacks public and journalists need to defend their colleagues in whatever way they can. There are organizations such as ‘Reporters without Borders’ and a lot of NGOs that are important in that context. I can’t imagine being a journalist in Somalia, I am not in that situation and I have never been in that situation. I have never been threatened. When I listened to some people this morning that just came back from DRC and Central African Republic and were talking about what they did, how they dodged the direction of the bombs, I found it hard to imagine.

But people are very good in adapting to the circumstances in which they find themselves and when it is your own country, you understand what the limits are and what the restrictions are.

Do you think investigative journalism can make African governments transparent?

It can help in holding government and all manner of officials to account. We can make them change over time. You know the case of the journalist in Mozambique, Carlos Cardoso, who was initially a supporter of the FRELIMO government but fell out with them. His murder in 2000 followed his newspaper’s investigation into corruption in the privatization of Mozambique’s biggest bank.

I think it is not different from Europe, where I come from. But in the end we have to defend the freedom of the press.

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