Western-based journalists often advise fellow journalists to be fearless when researching and reporting. In Africa and the Middle-East, where journalists face totalitarian regimes and physical threats, the situation is more complex.
At the academic track on Saturday, Azhagan Chenganna from Mauritius, George Nsorani Mwita from Tanzania, and Ali Almania, a lecturer at Saudi Arabia’s Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn University, gave presentations on the challenges investigative reporters face in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
In 2000, Saudi newspaper Al-Riyadh published a three-part investigation into foreign-born children. It had a big social impact and led to changes in laws concerning marrying abroad.
After the stories came out, the government established a committee that helps children become residents in Saudi Arabia and reunites families.
Despite this landmark case, Ali Almania, a lecturer at Saudi Arabia’s Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn University, said Saudi reporters face many challenges.
In his study, he asked three questions of three editors in chief of Saudi newspapers.
- What is the status of investigative journalism in Saudi Arabia?
- What are the challenges investigative journalism encounters?
- How does the political system influence the practice of investigative journalism.
“The political factor is the most important factor influencing the practice of investigative journalism,” Almania said. “There is a lack of clarity in the media systems which has led to the presence of a state of fear among officials and editors.”
“Saudi press laws do not encourage the practice of investigative journalism and journalists have a low level of freedom,” he said. “Newspaper editors seek the permission of the authorities before publishing investigative reports.”
According to Almania, the political changes that have happened since the Arab Spring movements have restricted journalists more.
Along with that, Saudi culture does not like provocation, and there are legal limits to research, and the media landscape is not encouraging for journalists.
Almania finished his presentation with five recommendations.
- There is a need to develop media laws in order to make it more transparent and clear.
- Grant mass media the independence to perform their roles freely.
- Establish independent sections for investigative journalism and giving journalists the qualification needed to practice investigative journalism
- Work with higher education institutions to offer qualifications for journalists who want tp specialize in investigative journalism.
- Set up a private institution for investigative journalism.
Azhagan Chenganna, an experienced journalist and lecturer at the University of Mauritius, presented research into the influence of citizen journalism on investigative reporting in Mauritius.
“While Mauritius is known as a beacon of democracy, the model has a lot of dark spots,” said Chenganna, an experienced journalist and lecturer at the University of Mauritius.
Three recent investigations in Mauritius were based on leaked information that was obtained by citizens.
First is the bal kouler, which means color bag, affair where a citizen secretly recorded a conversation between a businessman and the former minister of environment.
In the recording, the former minister tried to get compensation from the businessman in exchange for an Environmental Impact Assessment license.
After being leaked to a journalist, the conversation was broadcast on radio and the minister had to step down from his position. The former minister is currently facing criminal prosecution.
The second is the case where leaked banking documents showed how a minister of finance had obtained a loan of €1.1 million ($1,297,000) from a bank that fell under the responsibility of his ministry.
After an investigation into the loan, the minister was transferred to the ministry of foreign affairs.
The third investigation Chenganna mentioned was based on leaked WhatsApp messages wherein a businessman mentions how he had regular meetings with a senior minister and that he provided the minister with about $30,000.
“When the Sunday Times published this story, all the copies were bought up by a group of people who looked suspicious,” Chenganna said. “I think what they tried to do is buy all the copies so there would be no circulation of the journal.”
The Sunday Times editor in chief was called in for police interrogation.
These stories served as the springboard for Chenganna’s study into the overall situation of investigative journalism in Mauritius.
“These three stories have leaked material and impactful journalism,” Chenganna said. “For our study, we interviewed three journalists about these stories.”
All three journalists; Axel Chenney of La Sentinelle, Yaasin Pohrun of Le Defi and Zahirah Radha who is the editor in chief at the Sunday Times, testified to the difficulties of doing investigative journalism in Mauritius.
“It is very difficult to do investigative journalism because there is no Freedom of Information Act,” Chenganna said. “There is colonial law which has a secrecy act that prevents officials from disclosing information to the public.”
The journalists Chenganna interviewed confirmed that there had been a revolution by way of mobile phones being used to gather data.
Chenganna took away six points from his interviews concerning the future of investigative journalism in Mauritius:
- Do not fall into the traps of political factions, which are engaged in a battle of leaks.
- Be skeptical about the leaked information and doubtful about the credibility of the whistleblower.
- Be methodical and corroborate as much as possible to verify the accuracy and the truth of the information.
- Confront the parties in the story, especially the ones who stand accused.
- Ascertain whether the leaked information has a public interest.
- Be loyal to your readers. They will be your supporters, especially on social media.
In Tanzania, journalists can face violent backlash to uncovering secrets. While the number of independent media houses had grown since the 1980s, the number of investigative stories had decreased, said George Nsorani Mwita, monitoring and evaluation manager at the Tanzania Media Foundation.
“If investigative reporting reveals a scandal, those people who committed the scandals will continue fighting you and do so using all possible means,” Mwita said. “They are going to be very brutal and make sure you are kidnapped, tortured, imprisoned, exiled or, worse still, they could kill you.
Recent legislative acts have made it harder for Tanzanian journalists to obtain information and work independently, he said.
The Cybercrimes Act of 2015 states that any person who receives unauthorized information can be penalized with a minimum sentence of three years in prison and fined 5 million Tanzanian shillings, which is around $2,200.
The main problem with this act is that it is under-defined, which allows the government to apply it whenever they feel it necessary.
“The question is: What is unauthorized information?” Mwita said. “It is the prerogative of the interpreter to define that.”
The 2015 Statistics Act states that journalists can only use statistics provided by the government. It therefore prohibits the use of statistics gathered independently.
In 2016, the government instituted the Access to Information Act, which “has been criticized for limiting access to information and falling short of standards of the African Model Law on Access to Information,” Chenganna’s slides said.
The Media Services Act, which was also initiated in 2016, gives government officials the power to decide which journalists receive licenses, requires journalists to have licenses, and criminalizes defamation and sedition.
According to Mwita, the solution lies in convincing the government that freedom of the press will in the end benefit society and government officials.
One way to lobby is to, when exposing tax evasion, take a copy of the story to government officials, so they will be convinced that an independent press can also help the government financially.
Mwita lays out nine types of actions to achieve a free and independent press.
- Journalists and activists need to lobby and influence the government through official channels.
- Support investigative training conferences.
- Need to increase financial support of investigative journalism programs.
- Create more synergistic efforts with other media development organizations
- Think long term: to improve investigative journalism in Africa requires sustained support over years, not weekend workshops. On-the-ground trainers working closely with committed local media can produce dramatic results.
- Encourage global networking to increase journalists’ access to reporting, databases, training materials, and other resources and further cross-border collaboration among them.
- Provide legal training to journalists: media institutions and universities should consider including more courses on legal issues for the journalists so they know how to write and publish stories without necessarily rubbing the government up the wrong way.
- Training on new technologies.
- Establish partnerships and collaborations.
“Let us move from these conferences and take lessons home,” Nosorani said. “We must now take what we learned to the ground and ensure that every media house has an investigative desk.”
Jelter Meers is a Belgian investigative reporter who works for the Investigative Journalism Education Consortium based at the University of Illinois. He helped coordinate the academic track and has worked on topics ranging from the agrichemical business to human trafficking.