African investigative journalists navigate unchartered waters, often between rocks and other hard places.

African investigative journalists have it rough. Much unloved they are by the powers that be. Not so much because they are sent to jail, or attacked, or killed, though that happens too. No, the biggest and most widespread problem is not being able to actually do your job.

For starters, they can close your media house. The Premium Times team in Nigeria faced bankruptcy when the government told its business associates in the elite no longer to grace the medium with adverts. The Weekly Post in Cameroon succumbed when the Paul Biya regime simply put in place new inaccessible credit regulations and costly print license costs.

With such threats in place, they make sure your media house toes the line. Kenyan national broadcasting managers routinely ask the government if they can air something before it does. If the answer is no, it’s no. The first chairman of the Forum for African Investigative Reporters, Hilary Mbobe, was confined to a lowly paid minion’s job at the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation whilst he used his own time and money to do investigative reports. He saw others, who simply reported the masters’ voice, being promoted.  Until his untimely death in 2008, he never was.

Pro- and anti-Mugabe

And governments are not the only problem. Opposition can trouble just as much. At times when the UK and USA were giving large budgets to media in Zimbabwe who opposed Mugabe, journalists threw all fact checking to the wind and just churned out anti-Mugabe stories. Media paid by the regime were writing that Mugabe was great; media paid by the opposition kept repeating how awful he was (is). As if the man wasn’t bad enough already, reporters were now finding ‘mass graves’ where there weren’t any. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s citizens were starved of real information or answers to their questions; professional journalists could not find anybody interested in their work. Journalism is only just recovering in that country.

There are no slaves on the cocoa farms in West Africa

Then there are the NGO’s, who need to prove to donors that they are worth the money they are receiving for their noble work. Nothing wrong with that, except that they now become paymasters of journalists, too. In West Africa, western NGO’s on a quest to denounce the phenomenon of ‘child slaves’ on the cocoa farms employed local journalists as fixers to find these ‘slaves’ and interview them about their ‘trafficking’ and ‘forced labour’.

What is a journalist to do, when he finds that nobody wants to know truth, but rather, he is offered money for giving the people the story that they want? There are no child slaves on cocoa farms in West Africa. The true picture involves children who work on their parents’ farms to help make ends meet (the majority), as well as children from further away, send by their desperately poor families to see if they can get to a farm and find the living that is lacking back home. The story is one of the same economic conditions that forced the parents of Hansel and Gretl, in the old tale, to send their children into the woods. It is a complex story that asks for investigation, in-depth analysis and accountability of local authorities. But that is not the story the NGO wants to tell, and consequently, the world is offered a neat simplistic tale of evil slave traders and heroic NGO’s.

Interviewing the wrong farmers

The NGO narrative is a powerful one. It can prevail even when journalists manage to raise funds with no strings attached, to investigate an issue properly and in-depth. The rage that was unleashed on journalists when they, -after interviewing close to a hundred west African farmers who all concurred that FairTrade was not actually much use to them-, dared to write this truth, was truly a sight to behold. The FairTrade machinery came down on them like a ton of bricks. The journalists were not educated, they didn’t know what they were talking about, they had interviewed the wrong farmers, they did not know the statistics. Piles of research reports and annual reports and figures and white and green and yellow papers flew around.  Had they seen this? And this? And this? The admission that, no, they hadn’t read all FairTrade’s own papers, they had only interviewed a hundred farmers, was seen as proof that, shame, the poor Africans really needed better journalism training.

I have experienced more examples of this than I care to remember. The pattern is always the same. If an African journalist confirms a narrative that is popular in the western world and that validates initiatives coming from ‘the west’, great. The development aid machinery will see him or her as a great ‘awareness raiser’ of their own people. Yay for the Liberian journalist who explains that villagers, desperately scared of dying of ebola and feeling threatened by foreigners in Hazmat suits, are ‘superstitious’. Or the Beninois who, in the name of an NGO, sternly admonishes locals to stop cutting mangrove for firewood, without questioning what people, then, should use for cooking.

They don't believe Somali women can emancipate on their own

Yay, too, for the Somali reporter who agrees that a new form of female circumcision, much less invasive and damaging than the old ‘cut’, is really no improvement at all, much less a victory for the younger female generation. If she notes that Somali women seem to be emancipating at their own pace, she clearly doesn’t understand what FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION is all about, which, presumably, is that NGO’s must continue to rake in millions of dollars to raise some more awareness, including her own.

Western NGO’s even lauded Franck Ngyke Kangundu, journalist-for-sale in the DRC, as a hero of the press. Ngyke Kangundu, -a real reporter found this out-, usually sold his services to the highest bidder, whichever these were: NGO’s, political conspirators or the government. He got shot and killed, together with his wife and in front of their children, after he had tried to sell the same ‘intelligence’ to opposing parties. The murder was a savage and horrible crime, but a hero of the free press the man was clearly not. Yet, he is remembered by press freedom NGO’s who put him on a poster and conducted many money-spinning campaigns around the world. As a contrast, the journalist who investigated Kangundu’s case had to leave the country. His story remains unpublished.

Patronisation and paternalism

And that is the biggest problem for African investigative journalists. Never mind that they miss out on promotions. Forget that they often finance bus tickets from their own pockets, take unpaid leave to dig deeper, and face unmeasurable pressures from powers all around them, including their own media houses and most bizarrely, even from media NGO’s. The real injury added to the insult is that their stories, when they tell them, meet with objection from the very ‘western’ media they hope will publish them.

“We don’t want to confirm clichés about Africans”

“We don’t want to confirm clichés about Africans”, the foreign editor of a Swiss weekly said when Tobore Ovuorie presented her undercover report from a human traffic transport, during which she had almost lost her life. Ovuorie had discovered, not only that the ‘innocent girl who thinks she is going to be a waitress’- narrative of many human traffic NGO’s didn’t hold water, but also that the trafficking mafia had merged with a voodoo syndicate that ritually murdered trafficked individuals, and that influential people were customers for the ‘powerful magic’ that seemed attributed to human organs ‘harvested’ in this way.

They were shocking and traumatic discoveries. Ovuorie herself is still suffering from post-traumatic stress as a result. But the least she expected after going through this ordeal, and still managing to write the story, was to be published, and to be published internationally, since publishing in Nigeria itself is often of little consequence. That very international exposure she had hoped for was denied her by colleagues in ‘the West’, out of a concern for ‘Africans’. Talking about clichés, one might ask: is white patronisation and paternalism not one? After all she had experienced, it seemed a bit late to start protecting Tobore Ovuorie from herself.

The editor already knew everything about rhinos

A much less sinister, but equally newsworthy, story was refused by a Dutch daily newspaper (a big one). It was explained to the editor in charge that, whilst much attention had been going out to rhino poaching in the Kruger Park bordering South Africa and Mozambique, no international news outlet had noted the fact that in recent years three hundred and sixty three poaching suspects had been executed on the spot in the same Kruger Park. In quite a few cases, these suspects had been unarmed and might just as well have been ordinary migrants. “We already do a lot about rhinos and we have a rhino protection specialist”, was the answer of the editor who, even after having been informed of the news angle, clearly felt no need to even consider leaving the pre-set, exclusively ‘protect the rhino’, frame of reporting. I must admit I forgot to ask if he wasn’t concerned about confirming clichés about rhinos.

The single message

Likewise, the riveting stories by Nigerian journalists on the complex universe of the Niger Delta, with its government neglect, local big men, illegal oil refineries, gangs and vandalism, continue to get overtaken by simple messages that give no agency to any local individual, leader or group, but merely denounce Shell and other multinational companies for their oil exploration in that region. Nigerian journalists who have exposed the hellish free for all of the Delta stand by in amazement when they see that the media discourse in Shell’s home base, the Netherlands, is dominated by the single anti-Shell message that is put out by the editor of ‘Inside Niger Delta’, (who is also the one-man-NGO called the ‘Hope for Niger Delta Campaign’) Nigerian ‘comrade’ Sunny Ofehe.

Ofehe continues to rake in support for himself on this basis, whilst simultaneously also placing advertorials for Shell and other oil companies in his magazine. He may admit, as he did in an interview with ZAM Chronicle, that the Niger Delta is as our Nigerian colleagues described it, and not the way he puts it out to be, but he continues to spread the same message nevertheless. Because it pays.

Dominant narratives and parallel universes

Fighting against all these ‘dominant narratives’ is not the intention of the journalists who write these stories: it is the result. Dominant narratives crumble when the stories emerge from the depths of the world they live in. The journalists are part of that world just as much as western journalists are part of ‘the west’. It is a world where not much is written down, or captured in data, or even clearly verbalized. Power is distributed on a nudge and a wink, there is fear to contradict, fear to show up authority, fear to commit acts or intentions to paper.

So the journalists use undercover methods. One merges with the masses (rhino poaching villagers, sex workers, clients of witch doctors, people at risk of contracting Ebola, cocoa farmers, oil business employees, whatever the case may be) to find out what they experience and one works from there. Often, one is, already, part of these masses. The Fair Trade story was started by Selay Kouassi, who comes from a family of cocoa farmers. Tobore Ovuorie was a model –that is how she could infiltrate circles of pretty girls who trade on their looks. Lazaro Mabunda, the Mozambican colleague who wrote about the rhino poachers, comes from Gaza, where poaching is a way of life for many.

We were asked how aware we were of HIV-Aids

African investigative journalists want to tell their stories to the world because they are the stories of their world, and because that world often does not conform to the pre-set narratives and wishful thinking that is projected on it by the outside. African investigative journalists live their stories. Hilary Mbobe, who initiated the transnational FAIR investigation into availability of medicines –particularly anti-retrovirals-  in Africa, died of Aids not long afterwards. Fellow investigative team member Zakeus Chibaya died of the same illness during it.

The difference between the world of African investigative journalists and the world that is imagined by ‘the West’ is so vast that I sometimes feel we might as well be talking about parallel universes. The best example to illustrate this is the question the Western sponsor of the ‘medicines’ investigation asked us to answer in our report. It was: “Please outline how aware your organisation is of the issues of HIV-Aids.”

Evelyn Groenink is ZAM Chronicle’s investigations editor