African Investigative Journalists Say Threats Mounting — from Near and Far
Anonymous threats. Police harassment. Hostile officials. The constant, hovering cloud of self-censorship, social exclusion and forced exile. And to top it all off: low pay.
Welcome to the life of a typical African investigative journalist.
In recent years, intrepid African reporters have played a key role in uncovering corruption, human rights abuses, gang violence, drug and wildlife crimes, and other unsavory dealings; but, says South African journalism professor Anton Harber, that’s come at a cost.
“There’s a tale of repression, assassination, harassment, jailing,” he told VOA. “It’s pretty rough out there.”
Each year since 2004, the professor has hosted a conference that brings hundreds of African investigative journalists to Johannesburg to talk about the business and make connections. Even among the hardcore crowd, Muno Gedi stands out.
She’s an investigative journalist in what is possibly the world’s toughest dateline: Mogadishu, Somalia’s unstable capital. Gedi writes about topics like the traditional practice of female genital mutilation, the sale of international food aid in refugee camps, and the ongoing, relentless conflict between Somali clans and militant groups.
Gedi says she often receives threats, many of them anonymous.
“I think the investigative journalism in the world is always risky, especially Somalia; it is a risky area,” she said. “So when you work for the investigative journalism in Somalia, it’s not easy.”
Reporters without Borders says Somalia is the deadliest country for reporters in sub-Saharan Africa, with two journalists killed this year in connection with their work.
In Tanzania, the Committee to Protect Journalists says the government has in the last three years implemented harsh legislation and harassed journalists and bloggers.
Newspaper journalist Kelvin Matandiko says he feels that every day.
“It’s a shock to different journalists who were experienced in working in free areas like Tanzania,” he told VOA. “But the current political regime has come with new changes and I don’t know what is the reason behind this, but we believe that this is to kill our media industry.”
It all comes down to integrity, says Premium Times publisher Dapo Olorunyomi. And in his notoriously corrupt country of Nigeria, Olorunyomi says that sometimes means shining a light on the threats that come from within journalism itself. He pointed to the recent terminations or proposed dismissals of 15 VOA Hausa service employees after an investigation found they had accepted improper payments from a top Nigerian official.
He says that’s what makes investigative journalism so hard: The truth trumps all, even when the truth hurts.
“Nigerians are really very upset about that, I must let you know,” he told VOA. “Especially for those who are doing their jobs daily, trying to hold public officials accountable in Nigeria. That’s a difficult job in itself, not to add this kind of embarrassing situation to it. So we are generally upset about it, but I think VOA management has also done what it must do. It was the right thing to do.”
Journalism professor Harber said one of the most worrying threats to journalism lies far beyond Africa’s borders. Just this week, U.S. President Donald Trump described what he called the “fake news media” as the “true enemy of the people.” American and international media houses have widely refuted and condemned these statements.
Harber says these words resonate globally. “There’s no question that dictators or potential dictators here cite things being said in places like Washington to support the view that things need to be done about the media and the way they behave.”
Gedi, Matandiko and Olorunyomi laughed when VOA asked why they like such difficult, thankless work. But then they all paused, and gave some version of the same answer: Because, they said, people deserve the truth.