Editor’s note: This is an abridged excerpt from the book “Investigative Journalism in Africa: A Practical Manual,” written by the award-winning Ghanaian investigative journalist, Manasseh Azure Awuni. It is republished with permission and has been edited for style.
In 2007, two reporters of The Washington Post, Dana Priest and Anne Hull, investigated and comprehensively reported how bureaucracy and administrative lapses at the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre resulted in the poor treatment of soldiers who returned from the war in Iraq. Just a day after the first part of the investigative series was published, the army started cleaning up the mess. Before President George W. Bush set up a commission of inquiry to probe the issues further, the commander of Walter Reed, the Secretary of the Army, and the Surgeon General of the Army were all fired.
“The Walter Reed stuff landed with a ferocious wallop,” Hull told the Poynter Institute later. “Washington, Congress, the Pentagon, White House — all reacted in a dramatic fashion. It was a reminder to everyone in the Post newsroom that journalism is still this mighty tool for good.”
In many of the countries in Africa, this would have been a different story. A series of denials from the facility would have left the journalists frustrated. At best, a committee would be set up and the next series of publications on the subject would feature calls by civil society organizations for the government to either release the committee’s report or act on its findings. There is an ocean of difference between how the governments and the people in places like Europe or North America and Africa react to investigative stories.
The action taken on investigations or journalistic output is not the only difference between investigative journalism in countries such as the United States and African countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, or Kenya. There are many dissimilarities between the practice of investigative journalism in the established democracies of developed countries and in poor and badly governed countries, many of which are in Africa. Some of these differences are discussed below.
Access to Information
The first major distinction is openness and access to information. Dana Priest and Anne Hull spoke to dozens of soldiers and health workers at Walter Reed. If they had been journalists in Ghana, Uganda, or Rwanda, getting interviews with wounded soldiers would have been almost impossible. For fear of victimization, they would not talk about their predicament.
Go to a school in Ghana to do a story about poor infrastructure and the head of the school would tell you that he or she needs permission from the district education office to speak to you. When you go to the district education office, you are most likely to be directed to the regional office, which may also direct you to the national headquarters.
When your camera and recorders are off, they would tell you that writing the story would help the school but cast the government in a bad light, and those who cooperate with the reporter would be victimized in several ways. This self-imposed “culture of silence” has strangely infected journalists too.
Some African countries have grudgingly passed access to information laws, but the truth is, laws in weak democracies hardly work. Right-to-information (RTI) laws hardly work, especially when the request is for information about wrongdoing in the government.
In August 2020, I wrote to the Ministry of Education in Ghana, using the RTI law to request information on the cost and other details of Ghana’s COVID-19 spraying and disinfection of schools across the country. After many follow-up visits and personal appeals to the minister and officials of the ministry, I got a response of sorts only a year later, in August 2021. But that response did not have the information I requested. The letter, signed by the minister, said the contracts for the exercise had been handled by a committee set up by the Office of the President so the presidency, not the ministry, could give me that information.
When I wrote to the Office of the President for the information, I did not receive any response. After 14 days, I wrote an appeal to the president of Ghana, as stipulated by the RTI law. The law requires an internal appeal to the head of the institution from which the information is requested.
When the president failed to respond, I wrote an appeal to the RTI Commission, which had been set up to adjudicate disputes or misunderstandings that may arise from RTI requests. The Commission wrote to the office of the president and copied me in. Two weeks later, I received what appeared like a backdated response from the Office of the President, saying the information I was requesting was not with the office of the president. The letter said the Ghana Education Service (GES) had handled the contracts so I should go there, which I did.
Interestingly, the Ghana Education Service is an agency under the Ministry of Education, which directed me to the Office of the President. I am finalizing this manuscript in February 2023, and I am yet to get the information I requested using the RTI law in August 2020. Not even a fine slapped on the GES by the RTI Commission for refusing me the information has yielded the needed result. According to the law, I should have received that information within 14 days.
In January 2019, Ahmed Hussein-Suale, a Ghanaian undercover journalist, was shot and killed by unknown gunmen while leaving his family’s house at night. Hussein-Suale had worked with Anas Aremeyaw Anas, the renowned Ghanaian investigative journalist, on many projects. The last investigation they published before his killing was on corruption in football administration and football refereeing in Ghana and other parts of Africa. A sitting member of parliament and leading member of the governing New Patriotic Party (NPP), Kennedy Agyapong, put the undercover journalist’s photograph on national television and told his audience where the journalist lived. He then instructed whoever saw Suale to attack him and that he (the MP) would bear the consequences. When Suale was shot and killed, nothing happened to the MP. After that, he was appointed chairman of the Defence and Interior Committee of parliament, which has oversight over the police service in Ghana. He is currently running to be elected the governing party’s flagbearer so he can contest the presidency of the Republic of Ghana.
In July 2019, armed National Security operatives raided the offices of Modern Ghana, an online media outlet in Ghana. They seized computers and phones. They also arrested, detained, and allegedly tortured two journalists of the media outlet who had been taken into custody. The journalists said the security operatives were demanding to know the sources of negative publications the portal had made about the Minister for National Security. To date, the National Security Ministry has not been able to tell Ghanaians what crime or wrong the journalists committed even though it released a statement at the time of their arrest and detention to say the ministry would provide evidence.
In April 2022, the police in Malawi detained investigative journalist Gregory Gondwe. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the “privately owned news website Platform for Investigative Journalism, where Gondwe works as the managing director, published an article alleging that the country’s attorney general had approved payments to a businessman for contracts that were previously canceled due to alleged fraud.” The police arrested and detained Gregory after he refused to name the sources that gave his outlet the information to publish the story. It took pressure from media advocacy groups in Africa and beyond to get him released.
Draconian Laws Against Media Freedom
Award-winning Zimbabwean investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono is no stranger to arrests and detentions in what many believe is the government’s determination to silence him. After his release [from detention] in January 2021, Hopewell said: “In the past six months, I have spent 80 days behind that filthy prison on trumped-up charges, simply because I am talking about corruption, simply because I am making citizens understand the impact of corruption and how it is related to their suffering: to the failure by the government to put drugs in hospitals, to fix roads, to deliver water in people’s homes.”
The offense of publishing false news, the charge that sent Hopewell Chin’ono into detention and could see him in jail for 20 years if found guilty, is widely used in Africa to target and silence critical journalists. Ghana, for instance, repealed the Criminal Libel Law in 2001, but in 2022, a journalist was detained when he alleged that the wives of Ghana’s president and vice president were corrupt. Another civil society actor was detained and charged when he alleged that the president’s family had used the presidential jet for shopping in London.
Ghana has widely been hailed as the beacon of democracy in Africa. It has, over the years, been celebrated as one of the best countries in the world for the practice of journalism. In 2018, Ghana ranked first in Africa and 23rd globally in the Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). In the 2022 ranking, Ghana placed 10th in Africa and 60th in the world, confirming the deterioration in press freedom and safety of journalists in the country. If things are this bad in Ghana, then one could imagine what happens in countries that are traditionally notorious for press freedom violations. If the shining lights of Africa’s democracy are intolerant of critical journalism, then one could imagine what happens in the worst of democracies and autocracies in the region.
When I went to Burkina Faso to investigate the president’s Ford bribery saga, a story some believe influenced Ghana’s 2016 election, I traveled alone. I was the reporter and cameraman and producer. I had to look for my own interpreter, for I couldn’t speak French. Back home, I carried out all the legwork, research, requests for information, and follow-ups alone. The situation was not different from the other reports I did, apart from the camera operator and video editor who worked on the final product at the editing bench. But I was lucky that my media house was able to fund my trip to Burkina Faso to do a story. It is rare in many newsrooms in Africa.
The budgets for investigations in many newsrooms in Africa are extremely lean, and many media owners are not committed to funding investigative projects even if they have the means. For this reason, the investigative journalist must perform “magic” to be able to produce a story. Certain details and angles that need to be added to make the report more complete may have to, sometimes, be shelved because of cost implications. Working under these constraints requires the investigative journalist in Africa to be extra diligent, work extra hard, and be prepared to go solo on projects that require many hands. Newsrooms here are lean, and investigative reporters are expected to take part in the day-to-day running of the newsroom in addition to their special beats.
The Cultural Context and Power Distance Index
A typical African country has a high Power Distance Index. Politicians, top government officials, traditional rulers, and pastors are almost worshipped. A minister of state or member of parliament is hardly addressed without the title “honorable.” The president is identified as “His Excellency” or “Her Excellency.” It is considered rude to call people who are older than you by their first names, and it is an abomination to contemplate calling top political officeholders by their first names.
The reverence for titles extends beyond politicians. Traditional rulers wield a lot of influence and, in a continent where many people owe stronger allegiances to their ethnicities than their countries, journalists are often advised to treat chieftaincy as a sacred topic.
This affects journalism in general. Investigative journalists are often careful when taking on a powerful person. Coincidentally, these are the categories of persons who invariably become the targets of investigative reports. Sometimes, loyalists of a powerful person attack journalists without the blessing of the person they are fighting for.
In 2017, the Ghana International Bank in the UK dismissed a staff member for accepting a cash deposit amounting to US$350,000 from the revered traditional ruler of the Asante people in Ghana, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II. When the news broke in the UK, the Ghanaian media exercised a lot of self-censorship in the reportage. The spirited discussion that could have followed such a revelation was muted. The few media houses that reported on the issue were verbally and physically attacked. A youth group in Kumasi, for instance, disrupted work at the Daily Guide newspaper by locking up the newspaper’s office. They threatened to close down the office permanently if the editors did not retract the publication about their ruler.
Investigative Journalism and Activism
Another major difference between the work of typical African investigative journalists and their counterparts with The Washington Post is that the African investigative journalist invariably assumes a more active responsibility to push for action after the investigation is published. In advanced democracies, state institutions often take over when the journalist’s work is done.
In Africa, an investigative journalist cannot publish a story and move on and expect results. The journalist invariably becomes a crusader and must add advocacy to the business of investigating and publishing. Most journalism textbooks frown on this approach — considered as stepping beyond the boundaries of journalism — but in most cases in Africa, publishing and moving on to another story does not get results, especially when it is about politically exposed or connected persons.
Anas Aremeyaw Anas has stated that his journalism is aimed at “naming, shaming, and jailing.” In some of his investigations, he petitioned state institutions and other international bodies to investigate and punish culprits after his journalistic works were published.
“I name and shame, and what I do may not be necessary in the West, maybe because they have institutions that are strong, which is not the case in Africa where our institutions are weak, and what I have done is take one step forward to help law enforcement institutions to arrest and punish the bad guys,” Anas, who has received global recognition for his groundbreaking investigative works, told the New African magazine in 2016.
The textbook definition of what journalism should be may vary from one jurisdiction to the other. Anas was, in a way, echoing Chinua Achebe’s response to the call for neutrality among writers in his book “There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra.” In that book, Achebe writes:
“There are some who believe that the writer has no role in politics and the social upheaval of his or her day. Some of my friends say, ‘No, it is too rough there. A writer has no business being where it is so rough. The writer should be on the sidelines with his notepad and pen, where he can observe with objectivity.’ I believe the African writer who steps aside can only write footnotes or a glossary when the event is over. He or she will become like the contemporary intellectual of futility in many other places, asking questions like: ‘Who am I? What is the meaning of my existence?’
“My own assessment of the role of the writer is not a rigid position and depends to some extent on the state of health of his or her society. In other words, if a society is ill, the writer has the responsibility to point it out. If the society is healthier, the writer’s job is different.”
From Achebe and Anas, one would learn that the nature of one’s society has a say in the kind of journalism that is suitable and how it should be done. The two see writing and journalism beyond neutrality. Just telling the story and leaving it may not achieve the needed results here. That may be ideal in the West, for instance, where institutions can be trusted to take over from the journalist.
In Ghana and most parts of Africa, the results The Washington Post got with the Walter Reed story would be an exception to the rule. That notwithstanding, investigative journalists in Africa must exercise moderation and caution. They must be measured in their expectations of the impact they can make. They should know their limitations and act within them in order not to abandon their core mandate of storytelling to become full-time crusaders or advocates. They ought to form strategic alliances with credible groups and civil society organizations that can push for results while they concentrate on the next big story.
Manasseh Azure Awuni is an award-winning Ghanaian journalist and writer. He is the founding editor-in-chief of The Fourth Estate, a nonprofit investigative journalism project of the Media Foundation for West Africa. A winner of the Ghana Journalist of the Year and West African Journalist of the Year awards, Azure Awuni will be a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 2023-24.