June 21, 2012

Why “Institutes of Excellence” Won’t Address Africa’s Information Needs

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“Normal” media don’t do investigative journalism anymore. That is why we need non-profit institutions, specially geared and equipped to investigate public interest issues. They will fill the gap.

This position, taken by many in the Global Investigative Journalism Network, sounds so logical: if “normal” media won’t do it, then, of course, a small team of investigative “journopreneurs” must. They will mostly still be dependent on media donor foundations, but will increasingly sell their specialized and socially healthy services to “normal” media, or pioneer subscription structures, engaging directly with an interested audience. The excellent Audience Development and Distribution Strategies report, by the US-based Investigative News Network, gives advice on how to become sustainable in this regard.

But there is a problem with this understanding of the global investigative journalism situation. The problem is that it applies only to a developed media context. It presupposes a media environment where commercial media are concerned about attracting audiences and where these media will pay for a service that brings extra quality that they can “score” with. It also presupposes that at least a significant number of for-profit media would be engaged in “normal standard” journalism — do general reporting, interview people, ask them questions, highlight problematic issues, and exercise some independent judgment regarding the public interest. Such media would indeed often, if not willing to have investigative journalists on staff, pay an individual free-lancer or a “centre of excellence” to buy such extra quality. Lastly, when it comes to subscription services, this paradigm presupposes that money can be made from paying audiences. All the above, however, are features of a Western-style developed-media context.

Take Africa. Here, audiences don’t have money –especially not the audiences that public interest-journalism would be interested in. The victims of budget theft, bad management and bad leadership are all too poor to pay for content-for-sale. Media, even those media that are quite well-to-do, know that these audiences cannot pay –not even for stuff that brings good advertising income; hence, they ignore them too. They don’t send reporters outside the capital, or take initiatives to report on pressing social justice issues, or really interrogate, in a hard interview, a person of power, or, in many cases, even ask a set of easy questions. Though some of the bigger media could afford to do all that, it is rarely done –simply because there is no incentive to. Enough columns and slots can be filled with summaries of reports by international institutes, stenography of press conferences in town, op-eds on political rows debated in hotel bars. The situation is a bit like the situation of African governments: since they don’t depend on the approval of the people, but rather on that of paymasters, they will operate to please paymasters. In the case of governments, it’s business allies, western governments and donors; in the case of media, it’s a government, a Western developmental fund, an opposition party, a business tycoon, or a church leader.

Where does this leave journalists? The short answer is: decimated. As someone who can write a halfway decent article, you earn your money from the entity whose view you present. Your salary from the media houses is low, but attending press conferences from your paymasters, or their business allies, or local NGOs, gives you extra “per diems” in brown envelopes. NGOs have become the new paymasters on the scene: write your 50th story about how important it is to be aware of HIV/Aids-stroke-gender violence-stroke-human traffic-stroke-climate change, and you have complied with the “workshop assignment” that earned you, over a week, US$200 in per diems, and a lot of roast beef. (Note to media development donors: there is not a person over 10 years old in Africa who does not know how you get AIDS.)

Some of these NGOs are media NGOs that purport to be training you in journalism, but they don’t teach you how to ask questions. “Basically they tell you what to write, what the right view is,” says a journalist I know, who was trained in “environmental reporting” and found himself tasked to explain, in yet another workshop, to yet another group of journos with per diems, what the right issues were and how they should be written to “raise awareness” among the public. (This particular workshop resulted in a newspaper article that lambasted peasants for residing and cultivating crops in a nature reserve, without asking even one peasant the question of what he was doing there.)

This situation affects both salaried journalists and free-lancers. All are faced with the pressure of the paymaster-mode. In some countries, the situation is extreme: in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a journalist must pay to have his article published. The system expects you to have been paid by your source, usually the politician, or NGO, or local leader whose PR you are putting out; the media house is nothing more than a vehicle for advertorials. In other countries, like Tanzania, you know that you will have to foot your own expense bill if you want to report on an issue outside the capital –unless it will be a great ruling-party-pleaser.

It is, in short, an absolute miracle that the Forum for African Investigative Reporters has a network of 75 active, working, investigative journalists in 38 African countries. They are, like it says in the INN report, “hard-working journalists who (are dedicated to investigative journalism) not for personal aggrandizement or gain, but solely because of their rock-solid belief in the importance of an informed populace.” They are free-lancers and salaried journalists; they are often forced to supplement their income by doing some PR here and there, because they would otherwise starve; they produce, nevertheless, often at their own cost and at great risk, the insightful and sometimes Earth-shatteringly explosive reports that have become the trademark of FAIR.

How would starting an African non-profit newsroom, or a number of regional or national African non-profit newsrooms, help them? The answer is: not much. Funding would not be enough to employ all 75, whereas 75 is obviously still too little to serve the whole of Africa. One nonprofit per country? Where would we get the start-up funding for that? And even then, many countries, with their linguistic and provincial characteristics, would need more than one team. Never mind that media would still not buy their stuff, although they would place it for free, as long as it wouldn’t make any of the paymasters angry. Eric Mwamba is now trying the third DRC-based paper with his article about uranium-poisoning and deaths of miners and birth defects in mining populations in Katanga. Such centres, if funded at all, would remain dependent on outside funding for the foreseeable future.

The argument that the mere existence of a centre of excellence, or a small number of these, would inspire the rest of the African media profession to “dig deeper and aim higher,” seems too optimistic, in view of that fact that there would be no incentive for this. Outside of the centres, all would remain the same, but now, without any hope to also become an investigative journalist. All available non-profit jobs would be taken. Your own employers would still not be interested in you doing any investigative journalism.

This is why FAIR is a membership association. It tries to be useful to all journalists who aspire to perform an accountability service to audiences who are desperately in need of this. FAIR unites Reece Adanwenon, who has indeed resorted to paying to get her stuff published, in her efforts to end quack medical cabinets that kill people in Benin, with Kassim Mohamed, who has put pirates and the reasons for piracy in Somali firmly within the international debate, and with Musikilu Mojeed, whose Premium Times in Nigeria is flooded with investigative requests from an audience that may be economically poor, but makes up for it in passion to end corrupt and abusive rule in their country. Adanwenon is a free-lancer; Mohamed works fulltime for a radio station; Mojeed is an editor in a business that is, in the most definite sense of the word, non-profit.

There are, as said above, 75 of such journalists–at least. They all need the services of a membership association that strives for excellence and vets members on excellence. To be “excellent” and to be recognized as such is what they aspire to. FAIR offers them a platform, a network, peer-to peer- assistance, professional conferences, expert advice, connections to international sources, and if all goes well, the occasional grant from its grant fund.

FAIR does its own transnational investigations, too, and is in that sense itself a non-profit centre of excellence. FAIR is, however, always mindful that opportunities to participate in its investigative teams are advertised among the membership, that the subjects are “crowdsourced” from the membership, and that journalists remain active within the media they already work for. The aim is to produce work that is relevant to African audiences (and not separately inspired by such things as trendy subjects favored by donors) and to have it published (and hopefully even paid for) by existing media. We hope, in this way, also to assist the development of African media as audience-geared entities. How better to do this than from within, with, and through the very journalists in the newsrooms?

If FAIR was only a non-profit institute, instead of the membership-based hybrid that it is, it would take a portion of the best journalists away from African newsrooms and abandon the rest. Money that now pays for members’ investigations within their own contexts and in engagement with their own audiences would be consumed by one single team. Who would decide what to investigate? In the absence of a harvest from a membership that is actually in touch with their audiences, it would likely be something to do with HIV/AIDS.

Evelyn Groenink is adviser and former director of the Forum for African Investigative Reporters. She wrote this in her personal capacity.

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