‘Good jour­nal­ism in­te­gral to democ­racy’

Lesotho Times - - Big Interview -

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.

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