People Power Truth

People Power Truth

Human Rights, Civil Society & the Media in sub-Saharan Africa

An anthology by the Consortium to Promote Human Rights, Civic Freedoms and Media Development (CHARM) Africa

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Should journalists do advocacy?

Murray Hunter is a media consultant and digital rights advocate; he was previously a coordinator of the Right2Know Campaign in South Africa, and the author of a children’s book about digital surveillance. Hunter writes here for the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, where he was acting advocacy coordinator in February and March 2020.

There is no doubt that an investigative media outfit with an advocacy programme may raise eyebrows. But amaBhungane has scored major wins for transparency and free speech.

In early March 2020, halfway through a two-month ‘caretaker’ stint as the advocacy coordinator for the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, I received a wonderful document in an email from our lawyers. It was a two-page court order – the details of which I’ll come to, because they tell an important story about amaBhungane’s advocacy work.

AmaBhungane is known for its long-form investigations of money, politics, and abuse of power in South Africa. This dogged approach – taking weeks, months or even years to chase down a story – has resulted in major exposés over the years, and more than a few awards. In 2019 for example, the group was part of a consortium of news organisations that received the Global Shining Light Award for the #GuptaLeaks investigation into the sprawling network of corruption surrounding South Africa’s former president.

(Photo: amaBhungane/ Centre for Investigative Journalism)

What many people don’t realise is that the organisation also hosts an advocacy programme, which adopts the same tenacious approach to slowly push for reforms in policy and law in order to improve the climate for journalism itself. Through its unique approach to advocacy, a staff member – part researcher, part policy wonk, part campaigner – works (mostly on a parallel track to amaBhungane’s investigators) to secure the information rights that are the lifeblood of investigative journalism.

In South Africa, access to information and freedom of expression are to a large extent protected in law; but bureaucrats, politicians, and private firms often flout the rules all the same.

Over the years, amaBhugane’s programme has blossomed into an impressive portfolio of work, including submissions on legislative amendments (four last year), access-to-information requests (13 in 2019) and share-register inquiries (more than 40 last year), as well as strategic litigation on media-freedom issues (four active cases at the moment). You can access our advocacy work and our legal documents via our Virtual Library.

Revelations of corruption sparked national protests for the removal of Jacob Zuma in 2017 when he was president of South Africa. Thousands gathered in Cape Town on April 07, 2017 demanding his resignation. (Photo: Xabiso Mkhabela/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

It is also important to understand what the programme isn’t: amaBhungane does not do ‘advocacy journalism’ , or advocacy about its journalism. Many who read amaBhungane’s investigations into the corruption of former president Jacob Zuma organised protest marches calling for his resignation – but amaBhungane did not join them.

The slow road to transparency

Much of the programme’s work is as unglamorous as the creature for which amaBhungane is named – ibhungane, the dung beetle.

Like many of their global counterparts, amaBhungane’s journalists use freedom of information requests as part of their investigative toolkit. But in a climate where close to two-thirds of information requests are refused or simply ignored, many requests drag on long after any story has been filed.

Someone has to follow that process, to work the phones, to ensure recalcitrant officials eventually file a response; and should the response not be positive, someone must draft the appeal. By having a designated advocacy coordinator who is not tied to conventional newsroom duties, amaBhungane is able to pursue information requests not only in service to a story, but in pursuit of the principle of transparency itself.

This brings me back to the court order that landed in my inbox in March. Since 2015, amaBhungane has been trying to get details about coal-mining rights nationally. It started with an information request, which was refused. AmaBhungane filed an administrative appeal, which succeeded; but the documents never arrived.

In 2017 a court ordered that amaBhungane should get the documents. Still they didn’t come. Finally, in late 2019, a judge ruled that the officials responsible were in contempt of court. At long last, in March, our lawyers received a copy of that contempt order, which directed those two officials to hand over the documents or pay R100 000 in fines. Personally.

The outbreak of Covid-19 may have bought those officials just a bit more time; and perhaps if those documents eventually arrive, they won’t ever make it into a story. But the next journalist who calls up the mining department asking for information may find a much more thoughtful official on the other end of the phone. It took five years to happen, but like I said: long-form.

Policy fights big and small

Some of amaBhungane’s advocacy work is the stuff of major, history-making, precedent. Its current Constitutional Court challenge to South Africa’s surveillance law, for example, seeks to overturn years of abuse and secrecy in the state’s spying machinery, after the revelation that state spies had bugged the phone of Sam Sole, one of our managing partners.

If the organisation can uphold the landmark victory it won in the lower courts, it will result in major privacy reforms to protect investigative reporters and the public at large.

But most of amaBhungane’s advocacy work takes place out of sight, and without fanfare – wonkish submissions to policy processes in Parliament, asking for a secrecy clause to be struck from an energy bill, say, or proposing better transparency provisions in party-funding regulation.

All this is done without compromising its journalism. The advocacy work and the investigative work run parallel to each other, though there is not the hard ‘firewall’ that one hears about at the news and opinions operations at The New York Times, for example. We talk and keep one another updated.

In the very early days of amaBhungane, the advocacy work was a part-time role; our first advocacy coordinator split her time between advocacy and reporting. It was an unhappy arrangement which worked to the detriment of both.

By having a dedicated advocacy coordinator, the organisation can ring fence both the work (so that amaBhungane’s journalists do not have to involve themselves in lobbying and campaigning) and the workload (so that the journalists can get on with, well… journalism).

But the organisation and its journalists are especially sensitive to the risk of being seen as partisan – even more so after the emergence of coordinated disinformation and smear campaigns against amaBhungane and other media organisations, which started in the lead-up to the #GuptaLeaks reports and never really went away.

It’s ironic that amaBhungane, with its declared advocacy programme, could be seen as partisan and campaigning, when many of South Africa’s commercial newsrooms appear to have been drawn into messy factional wars that have led to an industry-wide ethics inquiry.

I’ve worked alongside amaBhungane’s advocacy programme for nearly a decade as an information-rights activist, and have seen the organisation prove its integrity over and over again.

If anything, my sense is that the organisation’s reluctance to be seen as ‘crusading’ creates a silence about its advocacy work, in which Twitter trolls are more than happy to craft their own narratives.

Covid-19 clampdowns

The global crises sparked by Covid-19 suggest that advocacy for journalism is more important than ever. For starters, the pandemic has brought new obstacles to the flow of information.

For example, despite strong legal protections for the principle of open justice, the pandemic has led to serious transparency challenges in South Africa’s court systems. Access to court records was unreliable even before Covid-19 restriction; now, it is even more so.

As court hearings have moved to video call platforms, Cherese Thakur (who succeeded me as amaBhungane’s advocacy coordinator) has been haunting the phones and inboxes of court officials to try and get the schedules of court hearings published online ahead of time, as a basic condition for ensuring court processes remain open.

Out in the streets, in the chaotic weeks following South Africa’s ‘lockdown’, journalists documented appalling brutality by police and soldiers sent out to enforce it; and in several instances were harassed, stopped from filming, and even fired at with rubber bullets.

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But surely the greatest crisis for journalism in this moment is economic; and media advocacy to address the economic devastation being felt in newsrooms is needed urgently. Though many have risen to meet the reporting challenge of our time, many may not survive it.

Even before the pandemic, it already seemed unlikely that mainstream journalistic outlets would ‘innovate’ their way out of the harsh financial climate without major regulatory interventions: to provide public grants to media organisations, give tax credits to companies that buy ads or levy taxes off the tech giants, or any manner of other policy response.

AmaBhungane’s advocacy work has yet to venture into this space – although SANEF, the South African National Editors’ Forum, has initiated research into the policy questions in recent years.

If ever there was a role for advocacy work in support of journalism, this is it.

Traditional investigative journalism has sought to keep advocacy out of the newsroom. But this is a time in which doing journalism is not enough to secure journalism’s future. Now more than ever, journalism must be able to fight for itself. And amaBhungane’s unique advocacy model allows the group to do just that.


On Thursday, 4 February 2021, the Constitutional Court handed down a decision in South Africa which has already received worldwide acclaim. It found in favour of amaBhungane in a landmark case involving the collision between the right to privacy and the right of the state to engage in surveillance.

The court ruled that the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (Rica) is unconstitutional because it did not provide sufficient safeguards to protect the privacy of citizens. It also confirmed that bulk surveillance is unlawful in South Africa.

Edward Snowden responded to the high court judgment in this case in a tweet, simply saying “Wow”.

We should all have the same reaction to the decision of the Constitutional Court. At last, the country’s surveillance laws will have to take privacy rights seriously.

1 March 2021

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Seeing African women in media

Dr Yemisi Akinbobola is the co-founder of African Women in Media, and a senior lecturer at Birmingham City University. She holds a PhD in Media and Cultural Studies, and has a research interest in Gender, Media and African Feminism(s). She is an award-winning journalist with experience in communications management roles for charities.

Their stories demonstrated to me the varying levels of impact and contribution African women continuously make towards peace and development on the continent. They also demonstrated how little we know of these stories, and the extent to which narratives about conflict in Africa are skewed towards a perspective that Africa and its people lack the agency to successfully silence the guns.

The stories of these heroines demonstrated varying levels of individual, community and collective strength, resilience and determination towards transformative change in their communities, in a way that both international and local media are yet to capture fully. And therefore, these women – the 20 featured in the book, and so many others – remain largely invisible in stories around peacebuilding and conflict resolution in Africa.

My first task as editorial consultant on She Stands for Peace: 20 Years, 20 Journeys was to find the women who had been nominated to be featured – and it was hard. They were not visible on all the usual platforms with which you would expect a researcher to start their research: Google, news websites and social media.

I recall the story of a woman in Libya, who had been so instrumental in claiming peace in her community through her bravery. Inspired by her story, I dug deep into my network, reaching out to local journalists, fixers and networks in the region, people with extensive sources and networks; and in the end, despite all our efforts, we were never able to find this woman so that she could tell her story. She therefore never made it into the book. Just consider for a moment how many such stories are dropped from publications and documentation because of this lack of visibility?

It is this kind of invisibility that my non-governmental organisation, African Women in Media (AWiM), sought to address with its aptly named Visibility Project: a project developed in partnership with Wikimedia Nigeria Foundation. The objectives of the Visibility Project are simple: to increase the number of African women visible on Wikipedia, and the number of African women who are Wikimedia editors.

Two young Sudanese women breaking gender stereotypes as small appliances mechanics in Khartoum, Sudan. (Photo from She Stands for Peace: 20 Years, 20 Journeys © SIHA Network.)

Prior to the launch of the Visibility Project in July 2019, the statistics for women representation on Wikipedia were not good – just 17% of Wikipedia profiles were those of women. In Nigeria, for example, only 2 000 Wikipedia profiles existed for Nigerian women. Across the three Wikimedia trainings and editathons that we did in 2020 under the Visibility Project, 300 women journalists were trained as Wikipedia editors, and 598 new profiles of African women were created.

The next time someone does a Google search about African women during Covid-19, African women in media, or African women and labour migration in Africa – among other topics we covered in the editathons – some of these women will surely come up!

The politics of visibility of women is important in the media discourse of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda (WPS) – both in terms of the representational voices of women survivors of conflict and for ensuring their perspectives are visible, but also in considering the role women in media can play in ensuring this visibility. However, in order for us to consider the role women in media might play in the WPS agenda, we must also consider how both the media and the state treat them. It is not just a
question of whether women journalists should be playing a more active role in the WPS agenda, considering the central role women play in peacebuilding as recognised by UNSCR 1325.

The fact is, women journalists are playing a role. We just need to be better at capturing their lived experiences, and the extent to which the environment is enabling for them or otherwise.

At the annual African Women in Media conference on 7 December 2020, multi-award-winning Sudanese journalist Amal Habbani pointed out that many women journalists covering peace and security in Sudan do so anonymously, and on poor pay – some earning as little as $20 a month. These women journalists also do not use their bylines, for fear of retribution – something that Amal is well aware of, having been detained by Sudanese authorities 15 times herself.

The African Union’s Agenda 2063 Aspiration 4 aspires to a “peaceful and secure Africa”. Recognising the central role women play in conflict prevention and mediation efforts in Africa, the AU established FemWise Africa (Network of African Women in Conflict Prevention and Mediation). Similarly, there is a commitment to change the narrative of Africa and build the Africa we want.

So when we speak of media in relation to peace and development, and ask if Africa is on the right track, I question the extent to which the narratives constructed in media – both on the continent and internationally – are truly making the invisible visible, as opposed to the repeated use of the same narratives and the same voices. When we speak of the role African women journalists should play in this, I question the extent to which gender biases and stereotyping in the workplace disempower women journalists from simply being able to do their jobs in the first place.

Recent research (2020) by AWiM and Fojo Media Institute, which surveyed 125 journalists across 17 African countries, found that the allocation of roles and resources in newsrooms is often gendered, thus impacting on the ability of African women journalists to report on topics such as politics. Additionally, I question the extent to which partisanship and ethnic divides in media ownership in some countries – and their impositions on press freedom – disempower journalists from being fully able to be active mediators of peace and development; the danger here being that when we are not objective or unbiased in our reporting, we unwittingly interfere with conflict resolution processes.

It is important that the media is able to successfully document, monitor and report on continental and national mechanisms put in place to promote peace, security, and development on the continent. And creating enabling environments for press freedom and for women journalists constitutes a reliable tool for monitoring how well African countries comply with the treaties they sign up to, and for monitoring their progress in achieving Aspiration 4, and also serves as a means to obtaining data that will support journalists in performing their functions. In this, therefore, the safety of journalists is paramount.

Lastly, I’d like to come back to the visibility of African women in peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Their stories matter – not just because they deserve the visibility, but because understanding the lived experiences of female victims and survivors of conflict can guide the expansion of campaigns geared towards the creation of enabling environments where gender-based violence can be prevented.

AWiM launched its niche news publication AWiMNews in 2020. AWiMNews produces news and analysis on ‘African women and media’; thus, it promotes African women’s voices and issues, and aims to increase media discourse on the issues of African women.

1 March 2021

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Is it feasible?

Joseph Kabiru is the Advocacy and Communications Officer, I4C (Innovation for Change) – Africa Hub.

In May 2000, The Economist magazine splashed a damning headline across its pages, indicting the African continent as having failed – politically, economically, and socially. “Hopeless Africa,” screamed the headline of the 11 May edition. The article focused on Sierra Leone, which was engulfed in a never-ending dreadful civil war.

“Indeed, since the difficulties of helping Sierra Leone seemed so intractable, and since Sierra Leone seemed to epitomise so much of the rest of Africa, it began to look as though the world might just give up on the entire continent,” noted the article.

The symbolism of Sierra Leone could not escape the attention of the average reader. Former slaves from the Americas birthed the country; and by the 19th century, the West African nation was touted as a beacon of hope.

In May 2002, Sierra Leone steadfastly began its journey towards a democratic country. It held its second democratic elections after a peace settlement had been reached, ushering in a new dispensation. Indeed, in 2018 we witnessed a peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another.

The Economist article might have been harsh, to say the least; but what it missed was the 1990s renaissance that set the stage for the opening of the civic space, as evidenced by the multipartyism wave that swept across the continent.

The 1990s saw the media, citizens, women’s groups, civil society organisations and opposition groups clamouring for change and urging governments to open up civic space and respect human rights, freedom of expression, and association, among a litany of other civil liberties.
Pressure from the international community also forced authoritarian leaders to abolish obstructionist government policies and start opening up the civic space.

Niger, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Cameroon, Benin, Togo and Mali are some of the sub-Saharan African countries that ushered in multipartyism, following pressure mounted by civil society organisations and the media, among others. And 11 February 1990 will remain a memorable day for Africa, as former South African leader Nelson Mandela was released from prison. One year later, the Africa National Congress won an electoral majority in the country’s first free elections, and Mandela was elected South Africa’s president. Activists, the media, and many other players helped in toppling South Africa’s racist system of apartheid.
And in 2011, The Economist ran a cover story under the banner “Africa Rises,” which noted that the continent’s economic exploits were on the upswing, with improved governance.

February 11, 1990 will always remain a memorable day for Africa, as former South African leader Nelson Mandela was released from prison. (Photo: Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

The long road

How had this come about? The 1960s marked the end of colonialism for many African countries. Over the decades since, the media and civil society organisations have proved to be critical actors in ensuring that Africa’s civic space is safeguarded. They have played an essential part in connecting government institutions, policymakers and the general public, and have played the critical role of watchdog when accountability is needed.

These two key players – the media and CSOs – played a significant part in the push for reform. The latter provided a narrative, while the former delivered a channel for the narrative. And they continue to do so: for example, they ensure that necessary checks and balances are imposed on the government or powerful ruling elite; and they promote social and economic growth and democracy, promote freedom of speech, and protect and strengthen civic space and participation, among other goals.

It is no wonder that journalists and activists suffer the most in the fight to open up civic space in Africa. On the verge of holding its presidential elections, Uganda is an excellent example of this.

But there are many examples of the power of journalism and activism. In Kenya, for instance, the agitation of political pluralism began in earnest in the 1980s. In 1991 the late Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi capitulated and forced the repeal of Section 2A, paving the way for the first multiparty elections in 1992. This constitutional change also allowed the introduction of term limits for the Presidency.

How did this happen? Following the abortive 1982 coup, Moi had tightened his grip on government, and launched a massive crackdown on government critics and dissidents. He undermined the rule of law and respect for human rights in Kenya and completely stifled the civic space, eventually becoming a ruthless dictator.

But ad hoc social movements were cobbled together, made up of the opposition, the clergy, media intellectuals, CSOs, and academia. They applied pressure on the government to open up the civic space.

One such successful coalition was the Ufungamano Initiative, a powerful movement involved in the push for constitutional reforms between 1999 and 2005. The media, activists and the clergy were at the forefront of this initiative. It ushered in a new era, which saw civic spaces opening up for democratic engagement in the constitutional reform process. Kenya’s 2010 Constitution is now considered among the most progressive constitutions in the world in terms of guaranteeing basic human rights.

The media and CSOs played a critical role in the constitution-making process. But despite their massive success, such coalitions always have limitations; the Ufungamano Initiative saw most of its leading lights co-opted by the government.

The 1960s marked the end of colonialism for many African countries. Over the decades since, the media and civil society organisations have proved to be critical actors in ensuring that Africa’s civic space is safeguarded.

In his 2012 thesis titled ‘The power and limits of social movements in promoting political and constitutional change: the case of the Ufungamano Initiative in Kenya (1999-2005)’, Jacob Mwathi Mati, a senior lecturer at Sol Plaatje University, aptly notes: “While holding so much power and promise, movements are limited in their ability to affect fundamental changes in society. Even after substantial gains in challenging the state, the Ufungamano Initiative was vulnerable and agreed to enter a ̳coerced merger with the state-led process in 2001. The merger dissipated the Ufungamano Initiative’s energy.”

From this account, one can safely deduce that the media and CSOs only coalesce when their interests are threatened. Indeed, the media and CSOs view each other with suspicion; each accuses the other of pursuing different agendas, partly because of their business models.

While externally funded CSOs may advocate for the opening up of civic space, the media care about the bottom line. Secondly, the media always accuses CSOs of advancing a foreign agenda. The CSOs, on the other hand, blame the media for not clearly understanding their role in the CSO ecosystem.

It gets even more complex: the majority of the media houses are owned by the political class, further undermining the impact of such media houses in fighting for or safeguarding the civic space.

What works

But despite these challenges, all hope is not lost. The advent of social media has seen the emergence of people journalism, or citizen journalism. A good example is how social media played a part in the recent ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings: the fall of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak were attributed mainly to Facebook and Twitter. Networks formed online were crucial in organising a core group of activists, specifically in Egypt.

However, traditional or legacy media still has some advantages over the new media; fact-checking remains the most significant.

The Innovation for Change (I4C) Africa Hub’s vision is to protect, respect, strengthen, expand, and recover civil society space. The Hub’s vision for success is to build a support and referrals system that is more demand-driven, from the field and the various organisations, individuals, and groups – whether they are community-based, networks, grassroots or technical organisations – who might require specific support or services.
The Africa Hub has begun a collaborative initiative of working closely with media across the continent. This strategic partnership encompasses a range of initiatives – such as facilitating media data festivals, which involve journalists training on how to harness data in their work and how to combat fake news during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2020, despite the pandemic’s challenges, we encouraged journalists to participate in the thematic webinars we facilitated across the continent, and to participate as partners. We are also planning to facilitate interviews with leading human rights activists across the continent’s five major regions. As we advance in our mandate, we are in the process of identifying areas of more resonant and meaningful collaboration.

The partnership may be amorphous; however, we feel that in the future these nascent steps may help to define a well-organised and structured coalition.

In conclusion, there is still an opportunity for the media and CSOs to coalesce and pursue common interests. it should not escape us that the two together are a central pillar of a country’s civic space. They still research, advocate in the public interest, and speak out regarding civic threats.

1 March 2021

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