New technologies can help investigative journalism

Eric Mwamba

It would be very premature to say that new technologies would not be a solution for press freedom and the emergence of quality journalism. I say prematurely because all media are in the process of reinventing themselves precisely through the Internet.

Today, it is no longer necessary to be a journalist to gather and disseminate news widely. Any person, regardless of social status or level of education can do it. This means that journalists, -real journalists who want to continue doing their work-, must add value. They must strengthen their capacity and commitment to the principles of ethics and professional conduct by being realistic about the evolution – revolution of new technologies. They must apply a different editorial strategy from what happens in a traditional writing. In particular, they must give a voice to the poor who are deprived of their right to speak and who are victims of decisions by authorities.

An online medium can not survive if it treats the information in the same way as traditional media. The public activities of the authorities are well-covered by major news agencies, state media and the entire cohort of so-called independent media, who are often mere loudspeakers for VIP’s and businesses with few scruples. People are also tired of hearing the same ‘experts’ day after day. The Internet can be an innovation for those who live with the consequences of government decisions on a daily basis. There are people among them who are educated, intelligent, witnesses and -themselves- victims. Their analysis is enriched by original evidence. They explain their own situation better than specialists who live in conditions far removed from daily realities.

I do not agree with the assertion that Africans have no access to the Internet. I’ve had the chance to travel to several African countries where people face problems of poverty. Internet cafe’s are plenty in African capitals and many young people spend their time online. One in ten has an e-mail and almost everyone has a cell phone. In some parts of Africa today, mobile phones are also used for Internet access. The important question is not so much about access, but rather what people read or do on the Internet. If people go online and do not read articles by journalists, that is, in part, for the same reason they do not read newspapers: the lack of trust in journalists and journalism.

Last year, my article on the trafficking of young African footballers published December 15, 2009 by the Ivorian daily “Le Jour Plus”, sold in one day 15,000 copies of a newspaper, that ordinarily sells between 5000 and 7,000 copies. This was the first time since its inception in 1994, that in this great political daily, an item appeared that was not about a political issue raised by a politician.

This example shows that all that African people want is to read quality articles, whether they are printed in newspapers or online. For a very long time in France, the investigative Le Canard Enchainé, that has caused ministers to lose their jobs, has been doing well. Its journalists are among the best paid in Europe. Why can’t we emulate this in Africa? There are enough stories that will attract the public interest. Last week, a young Congolese man of 20 years, with permanent residence in France, died in Côte d’Ivoire because the border police had refused to allow him to fly to Abidjan airport and back to Paris because, according to the police, the Congolese authorities have issued instructions that travel is not allowed for people who do not have a biometric passport. This, even though the young man had a (non-biometric) passport that was issued by the same authorities and was valid until 2011. This story is very important and people would definitely be interested in reading it. Sadly, the online articles that I found on this subject did not meet good standards of journalism. There was no balance, objectivity, or any use of credible sources. The real debate here should therefore be on how to provide quality information to the African public.

The editors of the journal “Africa Intelligence,” which is among the best online sales is based in Paris. It coordinates a network of journalists in Africa and publishes articles of good quality, which are sold very well. If, as Sage Gayala says, an editorial bureau in Ottawa was unable to ensure that its staff in Congo was not immune from corruption, there was clearly a management challenge.

The internet ensures the future of information, guarantees a global readership and multiplies sources of funding. But again, this is a new form of media that should be carefully studied before we all embark upon it. The new communication law in France has been recognized by editors, media owners, online journals as well as the traditional press, but the press is yet to meet the challenges of quality, also because information is read and purchased at different prices for different categories of readers.

An online journal can publish good articles, videos and even audio messages. Someone can become a major player by posting a comment after reading something and raising a debate. This may cause an interaction between the public and writing and even people cited in the article. All these are advantages that the traditional press do not have, and that can only strengthen democracy and development.

Ultimately, I would say we can not sing the requiem on a new press medium while it is at its birth. The important question is whether our people, especially youth, need information and if they are truly interested. If the answer is yes, then we, as journalists, should not take online publishing as a fad but as a chance for our future. All we need to do is to manage it responsibly.

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