What American journalists can learn from their African colleagues

Anya Schiffrin, Director of Technology, Media, and Communications at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs

The president’s security service issued a cease-and-desist order to the investigative reporter and his publisher. Any further publication of the exposé must stop immediately. The book detailed the dark inner workings of the government, and outed loyalists who used their positions to erode federal agencies and enrich themselves. And it was flying off the shelves.

Donald Trump? No, Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa. The book? The President’s Keepers: Those Keeping Zuma in Power and Out of Prisonby legendary South African journalist Jacques Pauw, who came out of retirement to report the scorching account of cronyism and corruption in the Zuma government.

TRENDING: Spain’s most famous paper stumbles amid Catalonia independence crisis

Zuma sent that cease-and-desist letter last November, just a few weeks before Trump sent his own attempting to ban Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Unlike Trump, Zuma left office, forced from power, on February14.

Pauw’s work, and all the other reporting that paved the way for Zuma’s downfall, is just a recent example of long history of African investigative journalism—a history that can be a source of inspiration to those of us in US media. Despite tremendous obstacles, including threats of imprisonment, legal battles, and death, African reporters have not only weathered decades of legal restrictions and an extremely difficult economic climate, but have repeatedly published important works that have shed light on everything from political corruption and corporate malfeasance to genital cutting and environmental disaster. Some of the best examples of African investigative reporting appear in a volume called African Muckraking: 100 Years of African Investigative Journalism.

Anya Schiffrin, who edited the volume and is the director of the Technology, Media, and Communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs, spoke with CJR about the legacy of investigative reporting on the continent, the challenges faced and overcome by journalists there, and what Americans can learn from their African colleagues. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

 

Why this book and why now?

We all know about the great American muckrakers like Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, and Jacob Riis, journalists who wrote about the evils of the huge trusts, Standard Oil, health and safety problems, and the dangerous conditions in Chicago meatpacking factories. I began to be interested in what I call “Global Muckraking,” the investigative journalists in the Global South who have not received much attention. After publishing Global Muckraking:100 Years of Investigative Reporting from Around the World in 2014, South African journalist and professor Anton Harber suggested I edit an African muckraking book, and Ugandan media development expert George Lugalambi agreed to help. This is the first collection of African investigative journalism—written by Africans, about Africa—so the response has been tremendous, particularly on the continent.

 

How far back does African muckraking go, and what has it accomplished?

After much digging for stories, we came up with 41 pieces of journalism from Africa over the last 75 years. Each piece includes an introduction by a journalist, scholar, or activist explaining how the piece came to be and why it mattered. Some of the highlights include: feminist writing from Tunisia in the 1930s, hair-raising exposes of the secret tactics planned by the South African government during apartheid, Richard Mgamba’s searing description of albino brothers in Tanzania who fear for the lives, and the piece by Liberian journalist Mae Azango on genital cutting, which forced her to go into hiding. Drum’s investigative reporter Henry Nxumalo, who went undercover in South Africa to write about labor conditions on the notorious potato farms of Bethal, has a piece in the book, as does Nigerian novelist Okey Ndibe, which describes Chinua Achebe’s passionate writing on the war with Biafra.

Some of the pieces generated outrage and had an impact, others did not change the course of history. What’s important about the book is that it documents and preserves the stories, many of which had been forgotten.

 

American journalists should study African journalism so that Americans can understand their own future.

 

Have African journalists had to deal with accusations of “fake news,” and if so, how did they handle it and what can we learn from them?

African journalists have faced jail time, killing, and attacks for decades and have certainly been accused of peddling untruths and sensationalistic reporting. In part, this was because of government or political party control of much of the media in the post-colonial period, which meant reporting was often subject to soft censorship and ended up being biased and partisan. At the same time, lack of revenue led to sensationalistic reporting that boosted newsstand sales. Related to the question of trust is media credibility, and we recently finished a report on organizations around the world that try to build media trust.

 

What can muckraking in Africa teach journalists on other continents?

I’ve been saying for years that American journalists should study African journalism so that Americans can understand their own future. African journalists have long had to face tremendous financial difficulties. Historically there was very little advertising, except for government advertising, and low subscription rates, too. Many outlets do not pay salaries to journalists, so they have to fend for themselves, often resorting to unethical practices. But what is most important is the unbelievable persistence, grit, and bravery shown by these African journalists who faced tremendous dangers and hardship, and kept reporting.

 

What are some of the most compelling investigative pieces to have come out of Africa?

The book is divided into the categories that are true to what can be found in African newspapers historically, so we include passionate writing about the evils of colonialism, reporting on the position of women in society, coverage of famine and disaster. There are plenty of stories about corruption, and those resonate with African audiences because it’s a topic that is often discussed. For me, some of the pieces that stand out are the ones from the apartheid era about the dirty tricks, surveillance, and violence of the South African government. Time has passed since the end of the apartheid era and memories dim. It’s important not to forget.

 

Is muckraking in Africa the province of larger, well-funded media outlets, or have small, modestly funded news organizations been able to undertake hard-hitting investigations?

Interestingly, in many parts of the world, hard-hitting reporting has been done by journalists working outside the mainstream outlets. Some of the bravest journalists who devoted their lives to reporting hard-hitting stories were people working more or less on their own. Carlos Cardoso in Mozambique left a cushy job with state-owned media to set up a faxed newsletter that covered government corruption and the banking sector. He was killed in suspicious circumstances in 2000. Rafael Marques has his own outlet in Angola and covers the damage done by mining. He has been put on trial a number of times. Then there are people like Musikilu Mojeed in Nigeria, who have worked for prestigious papers and had fellowships and support but also launched their own outlets.

ICYMI: Meet the journalism student who found out she won a Pulitzer in class

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Andrea Gurwitt is a freelance editor and award-winning multimedia journalist. She co-produced Anya Schiffrin’s online course on global muckraking. She has also covered the environment, the workplace, and poverty, served on the editorial board of The Record in New Jersey, and was editor of an online education magazine.