African Investigative Journalism

By Anton Harber, Caxton Professor of Journalism (Adjunct), Wits Journalism

What do we mean when we talk about investigative journalism? Journalists often say that all their work should be investigative and investigative journalism just means good reporting. But that is far from the truth. Covering a press conference, a government announcement or a soccer game is straightforward reporting. It is important to do and even to use the opportunity to ask tough questions, but it is quite different from the approach of the dedicated investigative journalist.


In classic global terms, investigative journalism has two critical characteristics: It is about using investigative techniques and uncovering something that would otherwise remain hidden. It is sometimes called enterprise reporting, because it most often arises from the initiative of curious journalists rather than out of an event or an announcement. It is also called accountability or watchdog reporting, in that it serves the purpose of the media as the Fourth Estate, the institution that keeps an eye on the three branches of democratic government (GIJN: Defining the Craft).


More recently it has also been called the journalism of outrage, because it often arises out of anger about a social issue or problem. Investigative journalists do not want to just reflect the world, they often want to change it. It is disruptive journalism, and investigative journalists are those who break away from the media pack to do their own probing work, usually in the public interest.


This is a traditional definition, though, that comes from the Global North. It does not always fit the needs of the South.

I and some colleagues have been working on anthologies of investigative reporting from the South. So far, we have produced a trilogy:

Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Journalism from Around the World, documenting investigative journalism from many parts of the Global South 
African Muckraking: 75 Years of Investigative Journalism from Africa, and most recently 
Southern African Muckraking: 300 years of investigative journalism which has shaped the region

What have we learned in this exercise so far? It has become clear that investigative journalism has a rich but largely hidden history in Africa. We are in the process of trying to dig it out and foreground it, so that our view of investigative journalism – and our teaching and practice – are informed by the needs of our own history, even while being enriched by a global perspective.


We also learnt that we cannot just absorb the definitions, categories and canon from the North. What I have described so far is based on a classic Western definition, arising out of the needs and histories of those countries. Our needs and histories, largely shaped by the colonial era, differ, so we need a more flexible definition.


In Africa investigative journalism has often had to be done under other guises, rather than by professional journalists. This was because local people were excluded from fully participating in the colonial media, or did so under restrictive conditions, and it was sometimes done under the cloak of institutions such as churches or research bodies. Two examples in our anthology are the 1977 exposé of the Rhodesian army’s ‘protected villages’ by Sister Janice McLaughlin (see Southern African Muckraking, p. 125), a Catholic nun who used her church access to get into these forced camps and report on them in a London church newsletter; and the 2006 report on corruption in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, published by the Transformation Resource Centre.

This is still the practice in some places, particularly since there are few traditional outlets that can afford to do lengthy and risky investigations. A recent example is the work done by journalist Estacio Valoi and others on illicit logging in Mozambique, published by Verite, a non-profit campaigning organisation.


The work is also often not written in the form of a classic investigation, but elliptically and defensively, and certainly not in the traditional inverted triangle of news-writing. This is usually to protect the authors. Sometimes it even plays down the big exposé, to avoid drawing too much unwanted attention. An excellent example of this in Southern African Muckraking is the work of John Dube of the isiZulu newspaper Ilanga, reporting on Impi Yamakhanda (the War of the Heads i.e. the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906) (see Southern African Muckraking, p. 24).


Other reports appear not in traditional news outlets but in pamphlets, research reports or other non-journalistic outlets.


African investigative journalists have also sometimes embraced different practices and ethics from their Western counterparts, particularly a different notion of independence and objectivity.

Perhaps the best example is Anas Aremeyaw Anas of Ghana, whose view is that his work is not just to expose but to get the culprits jailed – whatever it takes. He will not hesitate to use deception and entrapment and is happy to work with the authorities, such as police, which is anathema to many journalistic traditionalists. African journalists, though, frustrated that the crooks they expose do not get prosecuted, cannot always afford the purity of the Western journalist. “Name, shame and jail” is Anas’ motto, and he has had great, though controversial, success with it.


Much of the work we highlight in our books show a mutually beneficial working relationship with NGOs, non-profits and even campaigning organisations. Most American journalists for example, would find this ethically dubious, but in Africa it is a frequent and fruitful practice, largely because of different circumstances that compel a different approach if the work is going to get done and published.

I wrote in the preface to Southern African Muckraking: 


If we were to confine ourselves only to the [conventional notion of investigative reporting] …we would be excluding a number of important exposés that break from these conventional patterns and arise out of the particular conditions and circumstances of this subcontinent. There has been work by non-profit organisations, activists and lawyers, or even commissioned by political organisations; some published in pamphlets, reports or official submissions – the kind of material that would be unlikely to be included in a northern hemisphere collection because they fall outside of the traditional Western journalism canon


Yet history shows the important role that our investigative journalists have played. In African Muckraking Anya Shiffrin described it well:
[African investigative journalism] was a key component of the struggles against corruption from Nigeria to Kenya and from Egypt to South Africa, and has influenced the thinking on the continent about environmental degradation, citizenship, war, women’s rights, human rights and democracy.

It is not a coincidence that in South Africa and other countries many of the important leaders of the liberation movements came from journalistic backgrounds: John Dube and Sol Plaatje, the first president and secretary general of the African National Congress (ANC) being just two examples.


In many post-colonial countries, though, investigative journalism receded after independence when the view that prevailed (or was imposed from above) was that journalism best served development and independence by softening or even stifling criticism.


There was a resurgence in the 1990s with the arrival in many countries of multiparty democracy, which created a more plural and open media that allowed (in at least some places) for a new wave of investigative reporting. In some countries it has flourished, in others it has had occasional flourishes, and there are others were it was quickly suppressed, sometimes brutally. In all of them, it has been and continues to be a long, hard struggle to find our place, voice and audience as investigative journalists.

Current and emerging themes of investigative reporting

African Muckraking highlighted a few themes that ran through the investigative reporting, namely corruption and other financial shenanigans, big oil, mining and labour abuses. These themes are still high on the journalists’ agendas, and they feature every year in our conference. But other issues of importance have also emerged:

A growing presence

The growing presence of China in Africa, which has drawn a range of different coverage and rich debate. The ACRP has played a valuable role in promoting more informed, less stereotyped coverage of this issue. See amaBhungane’s work on Chinese involvement in the corruption of Transnet and Nosmot Gbadamosi’s work on ‘Ghana’s bauxite boom’

Environmental issues

Wildlife trafficking and other environmental issues. See the work of the ACRP on pangolins, Oxpeckers on shark fins, and Julian Rademeyer on rhino poaching

Illicit financial flows

Illicit financial flows, a specific kind of corruption. See the work of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) such as West African Leaks, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) on the venality of the Angolan elite, and Finance Uncovered


Most recently foreign military action in Africa has been getting increasing attention, for example OCCRP’s work on private US military contractors in East African anti-terrorism operations; the Mail & Guardian’s look at the secret world of US commandos in Africa; and African Arguments on Israeli mercenaries in Cameroon.

New trends: Collaboration, specialisation, philanthropy support, digital tools, open source forensics

Some of this work illustrates another important trend, namely the move to more collaborative journalism. Gone are the days of the lone investigative journalist chasing sources, as most of these are team rather than individual projects.


There is often collaboration with international organisations like the BBC’s Africa Eye programme and Al Jazeera, both of whom have done well in working with African journalists on some major exposés. This will make some people uncomfortable given the long history of foreign correspondent exploitation of local journalists and stereotyping of Africa’s people, but I think we have seen that, if handled properly, it can bring resources to this kind of work, give it an international audience and allow for material to be broadcast that cannot always be broadcast or published at home.


There is also more collaborative work being undertaken among African journalists, particularly cross-border work, reflecting the increased internationalisation of business, finance and corruption. African journalists have been involved in the big international bulk data exposés of recent years like the Panama Papers, Luanda Leaks and the West Africa Leaks mentioned above.

Most of this work is done outside of mainstream, conventional newsrooms by the new non-profit specialist units which have proliferated in recent years, for example: 

The INK Centre in Botswana

CIJM in Malawi

MMM in Lesotho

amaBhungane in South Africa, which was responsible for one of the biggest stories of recent years, i.e. the GuptaLeaks exposé which helped end the presidency of Jacob Zuma

The Cenozo Centre in West Africa, based in Burkina Faso and operating across 15 countries, and

The InfoNile project, one which combines many of the trends mentioned here. It is a collaborative, non-profit organisation, based in Uganda but working across borders and doing geo-data journalism on environmental issues

When traditional media can no longer afford to do this work, philanthropy and foundation support has kept a lot of it going, or even allowed it to prosper in places where it was not doing so before. These operations are all small, driven by extraordinarily dedicated individuals who are risking their livelihoods and sometimes their lives to do this kind of work, but many of them punch well above their weight.


We have also seen the new digital tools and techniques used by these specialist investigators. When we started the African Investigative Journalism Conference (AIJC) about 15 years ago, one of the main aims was to bring the new skills of data journalism to South Africa. We brought in international trainers for this purpose, but within a few years we did not need those trainers anymore as we had our own journalists doing ground-breaking data journalism.

More recently a new wave of open source forensic analysis could be observed in many places, for example: 

The use of satellites, such as the INK Centre’s use of this technique to prove the abuse of government resources to build the private home of former president Ian Khama

Sensors, such as Code4Africa’s work on Nairobi air quality

Social media analysis, such as Pauli van Wyk of Daily Maverick’s matching of credit card and social media data to pin disputed expenditures on politicians

Geo-location, such as Oxpeckers’ tracking of mining and trafficking data, and

Video authentication and analysis, such as BBC Africa Eye’s Anatomy of a Killing in Cameroon

There has in 2020 also been a number of very striking Covid-19-related stories such as the undercover reporting of Anas Aremeyaw Anas that showed health officials selling Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) out of Ghanaian hospitals, and NBC of Uganda’s work on politicians who splurged Covid-19 emergency funds on themselves.


It is clear from these few examples that there is a great deal of very interesting, ground-breaking and valuable work being done across the continent. The material mentioned above is only a small sample of this work.

Investigative journalism hubs in Africa and obstacles to further work

The Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) has 17 member associations in Africa from 11 countries (10% of their global membership of 180), an indication that there are some countries where investigative journalism is alive and kicking, and others where lack of resources and repression have proven to be great hindrances.


Wits Journalism, partnering with the international NGO Civicus and Victor Bwire in Kenya as the principal researcher, is currently undertaking research into investigative journalism hubs in sub-Saharan Africa to see where interesting work is being undertaken. We have identified 51 such ‘hubs’ in sub-Saharan from initial analysis of the data collected so far; that is an average of almost one per country. The majority are in three countries, Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya; but there is also notable activity, for example, in Ghana, and bursts of activity in places like Mozambique and Malawi. There are other countries, however, where journalists are finding it very difficult to get going.


Two issues emerge when we enquired about the biggest hurdles to the work of investigative journalists. Government repression is one of them, along with harassment generally by officials or others. That is no surprise. But the most frequently mentioned issue is the lack of resources and too much reliance on grant funding. In many African countries there are dedicated individuals or groups eager and able to do the work, but who don’t have the necessary resources. This factor is cited again and again.

It is no coincidence that there is a correlation between the most economically vibrant countries and those with the most vibrant investigative journalism. We can speculate about what is cause and what is effect, but the correlation is there. Thank goodness for those funders, foundations and philanthropists who support and seed such work. While we place a huge value on this, there are also concerns and issues around this funding that we must face up to with honesty, especially in terms of these three areas:

Some funders are there precisely because they want to push an agenda. It may be a positive and progressive agenda, and they may be open and honest about it, but it can distort what gets covered and what does not. And it can make journalists vulnerable to charges that they are following a foreign, imposed agenda. Even those funders who are generously hands-off want to fund certain kinds of investigations and not others, and that can create restraints for journalists

There is a concern about quick-hit NGOs and funders, i.e. those who are not in it for the long haul by building the skills, space and resources to sustain investigative reporting. Fortunately there are also a large number of funders who don’t view it this way, and we should gravitate to them rather than those whose horizons are short and narrow

Journalists are forced to spend most of their time raising money and reporting on how it is expended rather than doing their primary job

Let me add that all kinds of funding and business models have their issues, so I am not suggesting there is a better option. It is ironic that it is the philanthropic model that currently seems the most sustainable, and the commercial for-profit model the least sustainable. But we do need to face up to the potential issues that arise out of this.


We must remind ourselves of how important it is to keep this work going. In South Africa we know how important the GuptaLeaks story was to exposing a corrupt president and driving him and his team out of office. It is put quite eloquently in the introduction to African Muckrakers:

In today’s maelstrom of 24-hour satellite, clickbait, financially struggling newspapers, Twitter hot takes, and ‘fake news’, we can sometimes lose sight of journalism’s foundational role in a properly functioning society…Investigative journalists have made brave and essential contributions to safeguarding rights and social and political change when the other institutions of democracy have failed.