Investigative journalism in a dystopian present
By Thabo Twala
Despite the growing range of threats to the execution of quality in-depth journalism, media firms in South Africa are not doing enough to guarantee the well-being of their staff and sources. In this piece, Thabo Twala reflects on lessons he took from the 14th Africa Investigative Journalism Conference (AIJC).
Investigative journalism tests the ethics of the profession and is often the site for needed adaptations in our ethical systems. Moreover, in Africa, it is a field that breeds a spirit of ingenuity given the fact that most newsrooms on the continent must make do with regularly shrinking budgets.
I attended the 14th AIJC hosted at the Wits Science Stadium in October. The conference brought together researchers, journalists and tech innovators who shared the ways in which they have managed to navigate the ethical minefields and bypass a lack of resources in their collective quest to expose corruption, human rights violations and misinformation.
Editor of Channel 4 News, Ben de Pear, broke the Cambridge Analytica story through the British public broadcaster. De Pear, along with his team, detailed how the Cambridge Analytica firm had invaded social media platforms to harvest individual user data in order to help clients from countries as varied as USA, Ghana, Trinidad and Nigeria to target their political campaign messaging to secure the confidence of vulnerable voters.
For me, the manner in which de Pear and his colleagues conducted the undercover investigation blew open a world of possibilities regarding the ethics of journalism. This approach was premised on the ethics of prudence; an ability to weigh particulars against universals in terms of the interests which should be prioritised in ethical decision-making. I understand that this does not mean that we should normalise lies and deception in our research.
Instead, it does set a precedent which I feel should form a greater part of the core curriculum of undergraduate journalism degrees because that precedent is the outcome of the technological changes which have shaped the contexts in which we practise our craft. That context is one where legislation regarding cyber-rights is unable to anticipate technological changes which culminated in the establishment of a firm such as Cambridge Analytica. In this context, it is data-literate journalists who are the last line of defence in securing the rights and safety of citizens whose fears are the primary target of new age tech giants who have no compass outside of their desire for profit.
While de Pear’s own story relied on traditional sources of information such as official sources and expert analysis, journalists from Nigerian-based Premium Times were able to harvest the full potential of crowd-sourcing.
Emmanuel Mayah and the editorial team at the Premium Times were able to prove that the Nigerian army had conducted extra-judicial killings in the country’s South-Eastern regions to quell protests by the separatist movement the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). To do this, the paper used photographic evidence gathered from the families and friends of those individuals killed as a result of the actions of the Nigerian military.
Additional sources were groups of people called “scavengers” who scavenge dumpsites for valuables which may be re-sold at a later date. These scavengers happened on a mass grave and captured what they saw with their personal cell phones. This initiative kick-started an investigation which would culminate in an Amnesty International report which corroborated the news report published by the Premium Times.
This particular case study represented a microcosm of the conditions in which we African journalists need to function. It is an environment in which the migration of advertisers to visual and online mediums has drained the bulk of the resources available to print mediums which have conventionally been the bastion of investigative and in-depth coverage. To conduct such a thorough investigation that Amnesty International was prompted to conduct its own investigation into those extra-judicial killings, the Premium Times also had to leverage the benefits of the cyberspace to curate a compelling case based on crowd-sourcing.
However, in addition to this observation I did come away from the conference with a sense that the media scape, if it is to continue to serve the public interest of citizens, needs to be characterised more by collaboration than by competition.
Despite these advances in the field of investigative journalism to push the boundaries of infiltration an additional aspect of these developments is that journalists and their sources are exposed to greater risks in undertaking the task of exposing corruption, human rights violations and misinformation. There are great dangers for sources who want to blow the whistle on evil and there are greater dangers for journalists who want to expose evil by confronting it directly.
While crowd-sourcing apps such as the Salama app developed by Jorge Luis Sierra have helped to mitigate the danger somewhat by providing tips from more senior practitioners who have covered equally risky assignments, media firms themselves are lagging in their ability to protect their journalists and sources. Former South African Police Services Investigative Psychology Unit Head Dr Gerard Labuschagne’s firm, Labuschagne & Stollarz, is the first threat detection and threat management firm in South Africa. It has been receiving more support from members of the financial services sector than the media sector despite training packages available at affordable rates. It illustrates a trend in which journalists are vulnerable to harm as a direct result of their occupation, yet their employers are unwilling to invest in mechanisms and policies to mitigate that threat.
These lessons highlighted above illustrate some of the key conversations which seem to be lacking in the current South African mediascape. These are the same lessons which a conference such as the AIJC are crucial to underlining by bringing together a diverse range of speakers and patrons to contribute to a sustainable and inclusive solution.