‘Good journalism integral to democracy’
THE Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) – Lesotho recently collaborated with the South African investigative journalism organisation, Ama Bhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, in a two-day investigative journalism seminar for 22 Basotho journalists. The training which was held from 1 – 2 September 2016 in Maseru was facilitated by Ama Bhungane Associate Partner, Andrew Forrest.
Mr Forrest, known in media circles simply as Drew, is an experienced journalist and editor whose career in the South African media industry spans over 35 years with stints at The Star and Mail & guardian among other prominent South African publications. Mr Forrest also worked as the business editor at Times of Swaziland.
In this wide-ranging interview with the Lesotho Times ( LT) reporter, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, Mr Forrest touches on the training, his views on the state of the media in Lesotho and Amabhungane’s relationship with the local media among other issues.
LT: You have just completed a twoday investigative journalism training course for 22 Basotho journalists. What has been your general observation from the responses you got from the participants?
Forrest: I was very pleased by the responses. People seem to be very interested in the subject. The problem, though, is what scope there is for journalists who are actually doing investigation because the impression I get is that people are working in small newsrooms where there are shortages of staff meaning they have to chase daily stories. And the whole point about investigative journalism is that it’s long ranged. Sometimes it takes weeks or months to carry out the investigation and make sure what you are publishing is accurate. I don’t know how easy it will be for people working in small pressurised newsrooms, where they have to produce many stories on a daily basis, to do the investigations.
But I am hoping that media owners and management will come to see that good investigative stories are the kind of stories that ordinary Basotho would want to read. If they encourage investigative journalism and give reporters scope, time and resources to go and investigate a story, that will have a positive effect on circulation of the newspaper. I am also hoping that some of the journalists who have investigative ideas will approach their editors for their support and cooperation.
LT: Why and how important is it for media practitioners in developing countries like Lesotho to carry out investigative journalism?
Forrest: I think it is very important because the basic purpose of an investigative journalist, unlike daily journalism, is that we write stories about deep processes on issues affecting society. The idea is that you are informing ordinary citizens about what is going on in their country, which they wouldn’t necessarily know about.
It’s about the empowerment of citizens. Informed citizens are more empowered than those that lack knowledge. The other point is that investigations focus on people that exercise power in society. These are politicians, government officials, church leaders, trade unionists, leaders in different fields and of course anybody in society who could be a public figure or attract public interest.
Also, investigations often examine governments’ records of delivery in areas such as health services, good education or what is happening in terms of supporting farmers or small businesses for improvement of the economy.
What I am saying is that the importance of investigative journalism lies in the fact that it holds people who exercise power within the society to account. We have got various insti- tutions in the democratic system that hold people in power to account. They include parliament, churches, trade unions and the media also plays that role more than the others through investigations.
LT: Some authorities don’t appreciate investigative journalism because it sometimes exposes them. How can investigative journalism help a country like Lesotho to develop?
Forrest: I don’t think that people who exercise power in society will ever enjoy investigative journalism. It doesn’t matter what you are writing about. This is a problem even in the developed world.
People just don’t want to be held accountable especially by the media. But you have got to look at it from the point of view of society and the strength of the democracy. If you are really concerned about establishing a strong and vigorous democracy where all people have a voice and can influence the behaviour of their rulers, then you need investigations.
LT: From what you have gathered from comments of the participants and other officials since you came to Lesotho, what do you think are the major challenges facing the media in the country?
Forrest: Obviously, at the moment, the political situation in Lesotho is very tense; which seems to be a problem for journalists to report freely. They are also commercial pressures that journalists are subjected to. For instance, newspapers have to survive commercially and that seems to lead to situation where journalists are expected produce stories in quantity rather than quality. There isn’t much emphasis on the quality of stories they are expected to churn out. Sometimes, the challenge is that journalists lack skills and need training. They are not familiar with professional standards. For example, I was told that in some radio stations journalists are operating without any kind of editorial control. In other words, there are no editors to exercise oversight over what goes to broadcast and what is not supposed to be aired. For example, the radio presenter is not supposed to repeat any allegations without verifying them.
It’s dangerous to write stories based on single unnamed sources. You must crosscheck the allegations by looking for other people who can corroborate those claims. It is very important to always get the comments of everybody who is affected by your story, not just in the interest of fairness and good journalistic ethics, but for accuracy too. The impression I get is that, although not always, there is a problem with professional standards in the media industry in Lesotho. That needs to be remedied through training and proper editorial guidance.
It is also suggested that sometimes stories are not published because newspapers are trying to survive commercially. They come under pressure from advertisers and that makes it difficult for them to publish stories that could damage the image of the advertisers. I understand there are big advertisers that are a no-go area and can’t be written about in negative terms. This problem cuts across the entire region. It’s not just confined to Lesotho. In Zambia, for instance, we have had experiences where most newspapers are aligned to certain political parties and journalists come under pressure to report positive things about a certain party and to attack the party’s opponent. Basically, journalists are not free to write the truth as they see it, or report in an unbiased way because the newspapers are aligned to certain political parties.
LT: To what extent is Ama Bhungane committed to assisting journalists in Lesotho? Is this your last training session in this country?
Forrest: We are certainly committed. We are a funded organisation. Our ability to support journalists in Lesotho depends on whether we are able to source funding. So we would like to continue supporting journalists in Lesotho and hold trainings like this one. I think it will be very useful to give training to journalists in Lesotho on the use of the internet as a source of information for investigations, given the trends of journalism in the region and the world. We are also committed to offering internships at our offices in Johannesburg, South Africa to journalists from Lesotho. But it will depend on whether we get the funding.
Obviously, at the moment, the political situation in Lesotho is very tense; which seems to be a problem for journalists to report freely. They are also commercial pressures that journalists are subjected to
Amabhungane Associate Partner Andrew Forrest.