Rwandan journalists join East African colleagues for investigative reporting forum in Nairobi

In the East African region, the political, social and economic environments present specific challenges for investigative journalists, including increased security measures, secrecy and militarization. More than 40 journalists, editors and media representatives gathered in Kenya during September 2012 to discuss issues around ‘War on Terror in East Africa: security, elections and
transparency.”The conference programme, which combined national case study presentations with technical skills training, was organized by the Forum for African Investigative Reporters, (FAIR), with support from the Open Society Institute East Africa, the Kenya Media Programme, the Tanzania Media Fund and the Great Lakes Media Institute, (GLMI).

The opening address by Charles Mwanguhya, Uganda Monitor and FAIR board member, looked at ways of tracking money during election campaign financing, and how to bring political actors into the spotlight using credible sources. Sample stories of in-depth election coverage by The Monitor were presented by Barbara Among, who encouraged colleagues in Kenya to investigate and probe their own leaders in the context of upcoming elections.

‘Not only governments issue brown envelopes’
The response by participants was animated, and included feedback on cases of bribery and censorship that journalists in the region had encountered. “How do we prevent suppression of the story?” asked one
delegate. FAIR’s Kassim Mohamed, (2012 winner of the Knight Award for his work in Somalia and Kenya). advised fellow journalists that bribery when following a lead could come from all players involved in the
story -not just from governments.

The complexities of both government and media censorship were highlighted during a presentation titled ‘The whistleblower in Tanzania’ by Richard Mgamba, (Tanzania Guardian), and Maxence Melo, developer of Jamii Forums, a home-grown social networking service. Noting that some cases of media ownership have led to censorship, Jamii Forums seeks to help journalists work under secure environments and to publish online.

However the risks of going beyond the surface included ‘death threats, terrorism charges and a fake Jamii website’, related Melo, who nevertheless plans to expand coverage into the East Africa region next year.

‘DRC most under-reported story in 2012′
Sally Stapleton of the Great Lakes Media Institute led a discussion around ‘Warlords and looting: reporting conflict in the DRC/Kivu region’ and specifically the role of Rwanda media in covering the strife inside refugee border camps. Participants concurred that investigations in the DRC cannot be conducted in traditional ways, particularly so since armed forces will not hesitate to shoot at the media.

Wanjohi Kabukuru (New African and GLMI board member) encouraged journalists and media houses to lead the way on initiatives to publish inter-border complexities. “The DRC, which holds approximately 24 trillion US Dollars of natural mineral wealth, should not be ignored by the continent’s media, since many regional governments have a stake in how these resources are transported through neighboring countries,” concluded Kabukuru.

Fred Mwasa cited examples of travel to DRC border regions, with the Rwanda News Agency, and the serious safety risks, as well as the risk of being provided with wrong information. “This does not mean the story cannot be told”, said Mwasa, who advised his peers to collaborate with local journalists to get around the obstacles.

Following government spending through public information
The afternoon session by Ron Nixon, (The New York Times, founder of The Ujima Project and a GLMI board member), provided insight on ‘how to follow government spending through public information.’ There is data on African state spending freely available on the internet, such as US State Department databases,
service contracts, legal documents and US aid agency websites.
Although termed ‘classified’ by some government entities, data on government programs can be obtained via the US Freedom of Information Act, for example.The selection of websites and documents presented by Nixon was meant to enable investigative journalists to dig deeper using various tools and sources without getting into trouble. The discussion concluded that data from the US can be used by African journalists to expose forms of their own country’s secret lobbying initiatives and foreign aid that does not produce development results.

* By Abdullah Vawda, the Executive Director of FAIR, based in Johannesburg, South Africa.