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REPORT: Africa-China Journalists Forum, 30 October 2019

The Africa-China Reporting Project (ACRP or the Project) hosted its Africa-China Journalists Forum (the Forum) on 30 October 2019, which this year formed part of Wits Journalism’s African Investigative Journalism Conference (AIJC). The Forum is the annual gathering of journalists discussing their Africa-China investigations and reports from the field, from facilitation and capacity building provided by the Project. This year marks a decade of Africa-China journalism supported by the Project from its founding in 2009.

Concurrently with the Forum, the Project was also running a 4-day Digital Identity, Data and Technology Training Workshop involving selected journalists from Benin, Malawi, Cameroon, Nigeria, Kenya, China and Zambia, who were also in attendance at the Forum and AIJC.

This year the Forum featured journalists and media professionals from Nigeria, China, Kenya and South Africa who were discussing topics including:

  • The use of digital tools in environmental reporting, with reference to bauxite mining in rain forests in Ghana
  • The Chinese-built railway in Kenya
  • The Alibaba eFounders Fellowship and African entrepreneurship
  • Reflections on selected Project workshops and panels of 2019, namely the Wildlife Poaching & Trafficking Workshop and the African Women in Media Conference
  • Book discussion: China, Africa and the Future of the Internet, by Iginio Gagliardone  
  • A roundtable discussion on the future of Africa-China journalism moderated by Yu-Shan Wu, Project Research Associate

Session 1: Reports from the field

The first speaker, Nosmot Gbadamosi, freelance journalist from Nigeria, gave a presentation on the use of digital tools in environmental reporting related to bauxite mining in rain forests in Ghana. Nosmot traveled to Ghana to investigate the mining and the production of bauxite and its implications on the local environment and communities.

In 2017, Nosmot stated, Ghana signed a US$1.2 billion deal with the Chinese company Sinohydro to produce bauxite, and to pay for infrastructure deals from refined bauxite in Ghana. She added that Sinohydro wanted Ghana to set up an offshore account of their (Sinohydro) choosing for the infrastructure projects in Ghana.

Nosmot’s investigation used drone technology to observe the deforestation that had already occurred in the region, and to observe the competition for land and the relevant mines in the Awaso region and Atewa forest. The region was experiencing great deforestation, water drainage and pollution, and the drone footage was crucial in confirming the claims of stakeholders.

Awaso and Atewa are part of the upper Guinean Forest, which is very critical to Africa, and is often described as ‘the lungs of Africa’ as it contains huge carbon deposits. But 80% of the forest is already felled with cocoa, palm oil and poaching pressures.

Nosmot added that there has been increasing pressure against the mining in Ghana as it has great implications on climate change and human rights.

Nosmot’s full publication is available here.

The next speaker was Tunicia Phillips, anchor and journalist at Kaya FM 95.9. Tunicia presented on the Wildlife Poaching & Trafficking Journalism Training Workshop that was held in Hoedspruit on the border of the Kruger National Park in July 2019, in which she participated. The workshop was organised by the Project and Khetha (WWF) and VukaNow (USAID).

Tunicia stated that some of the challenges facing wildlife journalists are

  • Lack of resources
  • Safety
  • Making this appealing to newsrooms
  • Access to funding, sources, communities, data, information on organised crime, and experts

The impact of the workshop on the participating journalists, however, was to provide them access to

  • Networks
  • Information and knowledge sharing
  • Fact checking
  • Open source intelligence
  • Cross-border collaboration
  • Shared interests
  • Access to sources and resources
  • Impact reporting

Another crucial benefit of the workshop for the journalists was to contextualize the Asian market and demand for wildlife products.

Chinese sources needed to counter one sided views for local integration, language and culture barriers.

Bringing conservation back to the people was an added advantage and outcome of the workshop, and Tunicia appreciated the importance of developing multi-layered stories that bring the true complexities of wildlife crime, of uncovering deep connections through people-centered narratives, and of emphasizing an African context and perspective.

Tunicia’s full presentation is available here.

In the third presentation Chinese journalist Wang Wenwen provided an insight into the Chinese-built Nairobi-Naivasha railway in Kenya. Wenwen reflected on why she chose this specific topic, the importance of the railway to the local economy and the findings from her fieldwork in Kenya. Her initial proposal was to investigate the impact of Huawei in Africa and the implications of the US-China trade war, but she switched her focus to the railway in Kenya as the Huawei topic proved too sensitive for the company’s PR officers who preferred not to be spotlighted in the media at this time.

Wenwen followed the controversies reported in Kenyan and Western media about the railway, and decided to investigate the matter further. These controversies include environmental issues, the ‘debt trap’ issue and the implications surrounding developments of the Belt and Road Initiative. At the same time, Wenwen wanted to get the Kenyan perspective to developing the partnership with Chinese companies in building the railway, the cost-benefit analysis, the problems raised during the land acquisition process, and the benefits felt by the local people.

The first phase of the railway, from Mombasa to Nairobi, was completed in 2017. Wenwen explained that the line from Nairobi to Naivasha was opened recently, however the next phase from Naivasha to Kisumu and Kisumu to Malaba was currently in a suspended state. She found that some Kenyans were concerned about “why would you build a railway that leads to nowhere?”, and from reading the foreign report she found that:

In April 2019 the Chinese government decided to stop its loans to construct the railway as China found that the first phase of the railway was not cost-effective and hence it doesn’t want to invest more.

Wenwen found that nearly 90% of the railway did not generate money, and the government paid for the losses, people were concerned that “if there are no more Chinese loans what will happen?” She collated interviews with several Kenyan officials and ordinary people for views on the use of the railway, the implications of the suspended constructions to the railway line and the ‘debt trap’ issues.

Wenwen’s full article is available here and her presentation here.

The next item on the agenda was a discussion on the new book China, Africa and the Future of the Internet (Zed Books, 2019) by Iginio Gagliardone, Wits University Senior Lecturer at the Department of Media Studies. Iginio explained that the book took 10 years to consolidate all the research regarding Africa-China developments in information and Internet technology, and the narratives shaping the relationship.

The book assesses four African countries’ relations in this field with China, two of which could be flagged as having a totalitarian approach to governance (Ethiopia and Rwanda), and two of which were flagged as having a democratic approach to governance (Kenya and Ghana). Iginio asked the question, “Is there greater engagement of China in these countries’ information space and is this engagement going to push them towards more totalitarianism?”, and “Is China working better with the privileges of totalitarian regimes as compared to democratic regimes?” In response he found that the picture is very nuanced. He focused on three key points to illustrate the argument, namely balanced knowledge sharing of the role of Africa and China in information space, narratives on the issue of agency in Africa and China relations, and the future of the Internet in how it has evolved.

Iginio discussed the relevance of different actors within each country, noting that there are various actors who play different roles in the Internet and information space, namely the state, the private sector and civil society, and that “almost in all of the cases I have looked at, China supports only one sector which is the state. China is supporting this kind of ‘state-centric’ idea of information society”, he said, adding examples.

Giving what he called an “over-optimistic” approach, he said that “in places like Africa, that has shown an ability to play one side against the other, or just make things work to their own benefit, there could be an opportunity to re-approach and re-appropriate certain ideas to that narrative, and so to re-create the Internet from the bottom-up, bearing in mind of course the issues of resources and capacity, but there are no ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ anymore, you don’t have to side with the global north/south to defend the Internet”.

The book is available here, and the presentation here.

The next presentation discussed the Alibaba eFounders Fellowship empowering African entrepreneurs by Sisi Peng, global correspondent at Development Innovation Insider. As an introduction Sisi referred to the latest World Bank report on Africa, which found that “the digital economy can allow new pathways for inclusive growth, innovation, job creation, service delivery and poverty reduction in Africa”. As the digital economy has been rapidly changing in Africa, opportunities for collaborations such as those created by Alibaba Group former executive chairman Jack Ma, have become much more important.

Jack Ma visited Africa numerous times, talking about his African dreams, and has been idolized by a number of young Africans. With the eFounders Fellowship programme launched in 2017 to support young entrepreneurs to succeed in the digital economy, there is the opportunity for the participants to travel to China for an intensive skills training programme inspired by the work of the Alibaba Group. Sisi interviewed several African entrepreneurs from different African countries who studied Alibaba’s success story, and she then investigated how these entrepreneurs expanded and aligned their business models for growth and success, and the implications of exchanges between non-governmental private enterprises.

Sisi’s full article is available here.

The last presentation of Session 1 was on the challenges facing female journalists in Africa by Mary Mwendwa, Editor at Talk Africa Kenya, who was part of a panelist of six female journalists supported by the Project at the African Women in Media Conference (AWiM) 2019 in Nairobi. Mary was also one of the recipients of the Silencing the Guns in Africa by 2020 Award, supported by the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the AU (African Union), for which she will be publishing a feature on women joining violent extremist groups in Kenya.

Women are not being featured in most of the stories of violent extremism, its always the men. And given my own studies I found that women play a critical role in violent extremism, they are either perpetrators or they are in the peace processes.

Mary stated that she will be conducting this investigation in Majengo, one of the recruiting grounds for Al Shabaab. The investigation is ongoing and has been challenging partly due to the security implications.

On the challenges facing journalists, Mary mentioned the following:

  • Lack of facilitation
  • Lack of resources and funding
  • Low pay/ salaries
  • Unfriendly media policies influenced by politicians
  • Access to information
  • Poor governance
  • Lack of proper infrastructure
  • Poor policies on sexual harassment

Mary explained that although there is a law in Kenya allowing for access to information, in practice “that is not the case, the government and government institutions or health officials and the police force are not able to provide the data and information that one requires, and that is a major challenge”.

Members of the first panel then engaged in a Q&A session moderated by Bongiwe Tutu, Project Assistant Project Coordinator.

Session 2: Roundtable discussion on the future of Africa-China journalism

The second session of the Forum was moderated by Yu-Shan Wu, Proiect Research Associate. The discussion was set up by the following three short primers:

  • Global and African perspectives on trends and challenge in journalism by Anton Harber, Caxton Professor of Journalism [Adjunct], Wits Journalism
  • Africa-China trends and future directions by Dr Cobus van Staden, Senior Researcher: Foreign Policy, South African Institute of International Affairs
  • Reflections on ten years of reporting at the Africa-China Reporting Project by Barry van Wyk, Project Coordinator, Africa-China Reporting Project

Professor Anton Harber reflected on some of the main themes and challenges that were discussed at the African Investigative Journalism Conference 2019 as well as the Global Investigative Journalism Conference 2019 in Hamburg, namely

  • Financial concerns in the face of shrinking newsrooms and collapsing business models of journalism and the need to find new ways of sustaining the work, but also to allow for independent work
  • The confrontation with what social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter do and how they impact the media
  • Threats via social media to female journalists

Yet in the face of the challenges, Anton expressed how much remarkable journalism work has still been done, as showcased during the days of the conferences in Hamburg and Johannesburg. He mentioned particularly the remarkable work being done in data journalism and forensic investigations, for example example the Bellingcat investigation and their use of technological tools.

Among some of the trends that could be noted, Anton mentioned the importance of cross-border collaborations among journalists, “because there were very few journalists with the technical tools required, and the answer to that is often collaboration to bring in data experts or forensics experts”. Another consideration was how to make the stories “sing”, such as with collaborations between journalists and other people and organisations from e.g. civil society, NGOs, podcasters and filmmakers, in order to explore ways of telling the stories more effectively and powerfully.

Innovation on how we tell our stories is as important as how we find and research our stories.

Dr Cobus van Staden, Senior Researcher: Foreign Policy, South African Institute of International Affairs, reflected on the trends and gaps in what is being reported in Africa-China relations. He listed the following trends in reporting:

  • Tech reporting and consumer technology in the Africa-China relationship, issues of cyber security and Huawei and the role of Africa, tech apps and gaming from China in Africa
  • ‘Debt trap’ concerns and narratives, for example applied to the Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya
  • Environmental reporting relating to poaching; environmental impacts of Chinese developments

In regard to gaps in the reporting of Africa-China relations, Cobus mentioned climate change issues and environmental regulations related to infrastructure developments, for example the loss of beaches per year in West Africa under the influence of the Belt & Road Initiative.

Barry van Wyk, Project Coordinator of the Africa-China Reporting Project, reflected on the Project’s ten years of supporting Africa-China reporting. He noted that in 2018 the Project undertook a strategic review of what it actually does, and with this the Project was able to consolidate its core function as providing facilitation and capacity building for journalists via reporting grants, workshops and other opportunities.

Barry also noted that the Project had developed a niche for issues and stories told from the ground level perspective of ordinary people in Africa-China relations, emphasizing the value of the Project being an African institution that upholds African perspectives. He mentioned the uniqueness of the Project and its work, with a wide network of journalists in Africa and China and the rest of the world. He further explained that the Project is a good example of people-to-people exchanges in Africa-China relations.

Barry listed the following achievements of the Project over the past ten years:

  • 200 reporting grants disbursed to journalists
  • 135 journalists trained via workshops in South Africa, Mainland China, Hong Kong, Ethiopia, and Côte d’Ivoire
  • Network of thousands of journalists around Africa and China
  • The Project developed as networking hub for policymakers, business people, journalists, academia and other organisations
  • Engagement of Anglophone Africa, Francophone Africa, and North Africa and Arabic reporting. Media coverage in English, French, Chinese and Arabic
  • Impact of wildlife poaching and trafficking investigations and stories, for example black rhino poaching in Namibia, pangolin poaching and trafficking, and abalone criminal networks
  • Wide ranging coverage of how the lives of African people are being impacted by Africa-China relations

In conclusion, Barry stated that the Project would continue to tell Africa’s stories, as Africans continue to shape their own future. The Project will also address new topics of investigation like health and equitable development, climate and the environment, youth, gender and women, the Fourth Industrial Revolution & Artificial Intelligence, digital identity, and North Africa. In addition, the Project will seek to take skills development to a mass audience across Africa.

Following this, the panel was joined by journalists Nosmot Gbadamosi, Wang Wenwen and Peng Sisi from the first panel for a discussion and for taking questions from the audience on the future of Africa-China journalism. The journalists discussed their reports in relation to the trends and media impact in Africa-China relations, and their experiences on the ground while conducting their investigations.

During the event Iginio Gagliardone sold copies of his new book China, Africa and the Future of the Internet.

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