Tag Archives: Investigative Journalism

Media Awards — With a Difference

18 May

Journalists Protest against rising violence during march in Mexico CityWhat do a documentary film called The Bengali Detective, a 20-something Somali-born model and Indonesian artesanal tin miners have in common?

 

They were all featured in one way or another at what was for me an unusual awards ceremony in London earlier this month, a combination of top-end cocktail party and thought-provoking look at a few of the multitude of fascinating stories from the developing world British viewers are offered on a regular basis by their national media. The annual event is put on by One World Media, a non-profit that promotes and supports media coverage of, to put it broadly, developing world issues.

 

The Bengali Detective, from Native Voice films, is about a team of detectives, actually, who investigate crimes in Kolkata, and attempt to win a talent show with their Bollywood dancing. The model, Samira Hashi, took part in a documentary made by BBC Current Affairs, visiting a refugee camp in Somalia, from which her parents fled when she was a baby. And the tin miners were the subject of the winner of One World’s Press category, an article called Death Metal by The Guardian’s Kate Hodal.

Inside Voladora Radio

For me, personally, the work of both nominees and winners, from journalism students to field-seasoned documentary producers, brought a mixture of admiration (for the dozens of examples of excellent reporting), jealousy (as I couldn’t help recall the many times my article ideas here were met with the ever irritating ‘but-what’s-the-Canadian-angle?’ response), curiosity (to know more about the many fascinating stories to which we in the audience were briefly introduced) and a recognition of the way our nations and cultures the world over are woven together in a vast web of strange, comic, tragic and compelling situations.

That we can only scratch the surface of these worlds through such stories about them is frustrating yet challenging. There is so much going on, so many characters — from Josephat Torner, an albino man in Tanzania who tries to counter the terrible superstitions that have lead to the murders of people with albinism, to former Afghan member of parliament Azita Rahfat, who decides dress one of her four daughters as a boy to gain social respect — and so many struggles in the world around us. Why would we not want to know about these things?

Yet in a recent podcast put out by the Center for Global Development in Washington, Nicolas Kristoff said he was “deeply concerned about the collapse in coverage of global news,” particularly in television.

“Your average news consumer is much less exposed to international stories, and those that they are exposed to are particular, segment stories,” he says. “It tends not to be development stories and I think this is going to be a real blind spot in the US and also, to some degree, globally.”

The contradiction here of course is that we are better able to access global stories and news more easily than ever. We are more avid than ever for information that should help us make better decisions socially and politically. Average people are more aware than ever that we live in an inter-connected world.

Yet national media are more convinced than ever, it sometimes seems to me, that domestic audiences are turned off by anything that is not local and trivial. It is easier to inform ourselves about the Kardashians than Kazakhstan, Kolkata or Cairo. We are encouraged to skim and peruse, to flip through pages, keep our brains on stand-by mode, rather than glue our attention to stories that are factual, compelling and meaningful.

One World Media and its annual awards go a long way to countering the inanity, just as their fellowships and student programs help younger journalists to both learn about and take on reporting in the developing world.

Like the super educated scientists who must spend their days working for Big Pharma searching for weight-loss remedies instead of a cure for malaria, I am sure that most smart journalists would rather be chasing unique and amazing real stories than providing free publicity to people who don’t need it. I have always believed that the whole point of being a journalist is to discover and write about the interesting aspects of reality, to be lucky enough to find curious stories that reveal more than first thought — like my article from Mexico about obligatory literature classes for beat officers to try to combat police corruption — and to give a voice, as many of the winners’ speeches noted, to the voiceless. It should be about explaining the world and shedding a light on its injustices as much as informing the public.

This is not the first time, I know, that I have written about this. But as can be seen in my earlier post ‘From Underdogs to Watchdogs,’ a short article about Ayiti Kale Je, or Haiti Grassroots Watch, what One World Media also suggests is that independent, investigative journalism can also, in its own words, “contribute to international development worldwide.”

In a world where ignorance is a tool in the hands of governments, big corporations and the global elite in general, independent information is one of the few arms with which people can fight back. So there is a thread here that is not hard to follow. What we write and what we read, what we film and what we watch, all matter. How we support independent media in nations wracked with poverty, inequality and corrupt governments matters even more.

SPI Demonstrators on September 24

SPI Demonstrators on September 24

From Underdogs to Watch Dogs

25 Jun

Now that a couple of watertight deadlines have passed, I’m free to start thinking about restocking the (sadly neglected) shelves of the Global Kiosk. I am also back to reading about Haiti and thinking about something that struck me as often overlooked when it comes to a nation’s ability to decide its own destiny.

And that is the role of journalism — that’s right, my own profession. (Admittedly one I sort of fell into and took awhile to actually embrace.)

So I am dedicating this first post after a rather long hiatus to a small organization called Haiti Grassroots Watch, or Ayiti Kale Je (which means Haiti Eyes Peeled in Creole, a language full of interesting metaphors!)

HGW is an online news partnership. It works with journalism students and with community radio stations — a major if not the major source of news in Haiti — to go after the stories no one else is telling.

People in affluent countries may take investigative journalism for granted sometimes. But I don’t think there is any doubt that the examples of mayhem and malfeasance unearthed by news investigations give us a better understanding of what our politicians and corporations get up to. We can use that information to decide how we want to vote, or whether we want to avoid patronizing unethical companies (see PfizerBedford Biofuels, Suncor, Cargill, etc ), or even to campaign for change.  It is also true that people might not care about such scandals and what they imply, but at least we can’t complain that we don’t know what’s going on.

But think about what it is like in a small, poor country where the truth is hard to divine. Where information is power — and also a luxury. It not only means that the road you need to bring your produce to market is never fixed because the maintenance funds have gone into someone’s Swiss bank account. It also means that a particular class can live in a world apart from those they govern, whether politically or economically. And it creates a vicious circle: as media and media workers (usually very poorly paid) don’t bother keeping their “eyes peeled’ and exposing corruption or bad decisions, average people remain uninformed and unable to demand accountability. And the more people are uninformed, the easier it is for lazy media owners and complacent journalists to keep on ignoring the hard truths.

I touched on the problem in my last post, on the unethical and partisan nature of Mexico’s largest television networks. But Haiti is another, even better example, perhaps, of a country where so much shit happens and so little of it ever hits the fan. Mendacity and demagoguery can often seem like the matrix in which everyone is swimming around.

There have been valiant attempts in the past to speak truth to power as they say, most notably by Jean Dominique and his Radio Haiti-Inter. But Jean Dominique was killed in 2000, and instead of a culture of investigative journalism prevailing in Haiti these days, one finds in its place a culture of mediocrity and resignation.

Recently, for example, Nuria Piera, a journalist from the Dominican Republic, exposed a criminal deal through which a wealthy Dominican politician named Felix Bautista won post-earthquake reconstruction contracts worth more than $343 million by providing kick-backs to Haitian president Michel Martelly. And while Dominican authorities are apparently now investigating Bautista, in Haiti, not many people are even aware of the president’s pocketing of more than $2.5 million while refusing to tender the jobs and allowing Haitian firms to compete.

There are plenty more examples of shady dealings in Haiti, and that’s why I encourage readers to check out Haiti Grassroots Watch. They will find all kinds of interesting material on its website about how earthquake relief money is being spent — or not, as the case may be. International NGOs keep talking about how important it is for the recipients of aid to demonstrate capacity, to know how to properly use the money these NGOs have to donate. But if at the same time those so-called recipients are kept purposefully and unfairly in the dark, how can they develop any “capacity” for accountability?

Readers of HGW will also get a far more nuanced version of the recent news about the discovery of gold, silver and copper deposits in the north of Haiti. Business articles are, of course, enthusiastically predicting untold wealth for the impoverished country now that foreign mining companies are planning on exploiting those reserves. But, of course, the people of Haiti are unlikely to see any of the resulting proceeds. The mining companies will take most of it, and corrupt governors the rest.

Probably one of the best aspects of the entire project, however, is the fact that it not just training and encouraging young journalists in the difficult art of uncovering scandals and crime; it also provides them with a platform for text, audio and visual material — and all with a budget best described as miniscule. Why aren’t the big INGOs helping Haiti Kale Je out?

One of the most useful ends to which money can be put, not only in Haiti but in other poor and oppressed countries around the world, is in funding investigative journalism.

Because without a watch-dog press, the underdogs will always remain voiceless and powerless.