19 October 2021

By Anton Harber – Wits University Professor of Journalism 

When I started in journalism in 1980, you had to be able to type, take notes at great speed, keep a tie in your desk in case you had to pretend to be respectable and dictate a coherent story from your notes on deadline while feeding coins into the “tickey-box”. It helped if you could hold your drink when you went to the bar before updating your story for second edition.

If you made a mistake, your editor would swear at you across the newsroom, tell you how worthless you were and do all they could to humiliate you in the hope you were shamed into not doing it again too often.

A few things have changed. Some of the skills journalists now use include things like OSINT, digital forensics, geo- and chrono-location, social media sleuthing and sophisticated verification tools. You need to know how to keep yourself and your data secure. How to shoot video and still pictures. Handle social media. How to deal with vast amounts of data and find the stories hidden in it. How to work across borders and collaborate with a range of experts on arcane topics. And some human resource skills are useful because you can no longer just rely on systematic humiliation as a workplace methodology.

And that is where the African Investigative Journalism Conference comes in. This year (AIJC2021), in its 17th iteration, is a hybrid (part face-to-face, part virtual), five-day gathering, hosted simultaneously in five African cities. Having started as a small local conference, it has grown into the largest annual gathering of working journalists on the continent. And for the second time, we have Absa coming on board to support the hosting of yet another conference, but this time around, in five cities across the continent. We expect at least 500 participants from about 30 countries who will choose between about 50 sessions with a total of 160 speakers.

The conference highlights African work, hopefully challenging the simplistic and ignorant view that not much interesting work is coming out of Africa. Our biggest challenge is how much there is to fit into a tight programme, and we are constantly surprised by the range and quality of work that comes to light from across the continent.

We also encourage cross-border collaboration and train journalists in the use of the array of powerful digital tools and other information resources which are now available on the internet. These skills are invaluable for stories like the recent Pandora Papers. To find and verify the stories in this vast trove of leaked documents took enormous technical skill, as did the ability to find and generate the stories hidden in them.

The Pandora Papers story was a powerful demonstration of the importance of investigative journalism to the economy. The Papers exposed not only the use of off-shore trusts and shell companies, often to hide or launder money or evade tax, but that the very people whose role it is to prevent such activity – such as lawmakers – are among those who make use of them.

In a continent where the powerful often operate with a sense of impunity, and the institutions of accountability (like the law) do not always operate effectively, investigative journalists are more important than ever to expose wrongdoing and hold the powerful to account. But to do so, they have to be skilled, resourced and independent – and the AIJC plays a key role in this.

*Harber is the Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wit University, and convenor of the conference.