A mapping study into investigative journalism hubs in sub-Saharan Africa is set to be released and is expected to reveal a growing trend where the hubs are increasingly closing the gap opened by newsrooms that find it hard to finance investigative journalism.

Wits Journalism professor, Anton Harber, who is overseeing the study, said the research was finding that there were more of these hubs than previously known.

Harber, who runs Wits’ Investigative Journalism Programme, briefly discussed the study in an interview with AJENda and spoke about investigative journalism training at Wits and on the continent.

AJENda: What is investigative journalism and what is its purpose?

Harber: Some journalists are quick to say all journalism is investigative journalism, but the truth is it isn’t. When you go to a press conference, or when you go to cover a sports match or current event that’s happening, that is no less important, but it’s not investigative.

Investigative journalism is about initiating your own stories, using investigative tools, usually to uncover something that somebody is trying to hide, or they don’t want it known.

The tools of investigation have become very sophisticated, particularly what we call the open source tools – what’s available on the internet. The tools, the techniques, the data available on the internet has created enormous scope for investigative work. The work requires a wide range of skills. And that’s why it’s very important that we teach those skills to all journalists. The skills are particularly useful if you’re trying to uncover something or create a story out of something somebody is trying to keep hidden.

Its (investigative journalism) purpose is really accountability. Some people call it accountability journalism, and its purpose is to expose what people want hidden in order to hold anyone with power to account.

AJENda: What is the content of the Wits Master of Arts degree in Journalism and Media Studies (Investigative Reporting)?

Harber: It’s a comprehensive 18-months programme. It’s a comprehensive package aimed at journalists with a few years of experience. So, first of all they do outstanding journalism studies or media and society, which are our core courses for journalism students, and that’s to provide them with a better knowledge of the media and the journalism world. Then we do a course called Investigative Journalism A and that’s where we have a debate about what is and what isn’t investigative journalism; what are the major global trends in investigative journalism. And then we look at the history of investigative journalism, because I think it’s very interesting and inspiring to learn about the rich global and African history (of journalism).

I think there is a lot of work being done in Africa with regards to investigative journalism that doesn’t get enough attention. So, we do what we can to highlight it and make people aware that there’s a rich history of investigative journalism in this continent.

We also teach data journalism because there are very specific skills journalists need to make stories from data. The power of data in the age of information and in the age of data is something journalists can use to do all sorts of investigative work.

Then we do other elements like ethics, storytelling, how to tell the story, how to write the story. When we teach students how to go about an investigative story, we model it on a thing called the story-based inquiry, which was developed by Mark Lee Hunter, an academic in France.

We also teach a lot of very specific skills like how to do really deep search, how to use the internet, how to find stuff on the internet. So, it’s a mixture of history and thinking and techniques and tools.

AJENda: How popular is investigative journalism training in Africa?

Harber: There is a lot of interest from many investigative journalists to enhance their skills. We see that when run short courses on investigative journalism.

Unfortunately, people (from across the continent) can’t always afford to come, without bursaries and scholarships.

AJENda: What sort of support does this cause or causes like this on the continent have from governments, given the fact that most universities are funded by governments?

Our own university (Wits University) is a state university, and government gives money to the university, as a whole, but not to investigative journalism (specifically). There is support from some European governments, such as the Norwegian government and the German government, give us support in some of the work we do in investigative journalism. A lot of funding comes from foundations and journalism organisations from across the world.

AJENda: Is there hope to sustain training in investigative journalism on the continent if our own governments don’t support it?

Harber: Well, you want to be careful about government involvement because governments and investigative journalists aren’t the best of friends, generally.

The problem of government involvement is that it will raise difficult and sensitive issues about the content of what’s taught. One fundamental principle that you teach investigative journalists is that “don’t believe a word they (government officials) say”.

It’s like if your mother says you are handsome, be sceptical, don’t believe her. Governments don’t like that critical, sceptical attitude… yet that is at the heart of investigative journalism.

AJENda: But if you take funding from foreign governments like the Germans and the Norwegians, doesn’t that open you up to accusations that you are doing the work of foreign governments?

Harber: It does. Look, it’s very important that we preserve the independence of investigative journalism, so we don’t take support or funding that has strings attached. If we could get (our) government support without strings attached, we would take it. But one seldom does.

AJENda: I gather you are undertaking an investigative journalism mapping study of journalism hubs on the continent. What is it supposed to find out?

Harber: What we found is that there are small investigative units popping up all over the place.

What is happening around the world, in Africa as well, is that many traditional, conventional newsrooms can no longer afford to do investigative journalism. It’s only a few that can still sustain it in those traditional media operations. So, what you find is that these hubs are moving into the gap. They exist in Lesotho, in Eswatini, in Botswana, in Mozambique, to mention a few.

The research we have commissioned is to draw a map of these hubs of investigative journalism across sub-Saharan Africa.

We are finding things we didn’t know existed. I am active in the field, I run the African Investigative Journalism Conference, so I keep my finger on the pulse, but we are finding hubs we didn’t know existed. It’s amazing how many are springing up all over. I think it’s a very wonderful and healthy and exciting development.

AJENda: And because training in investigative journalism is not readily available in many countries, what plans are there to expand training?

Harber: We do some training during the African Investigative Journalism Conference.

There are others who do training from time to time, whether it’s the global network or some of the other networks.

There is a fair amount of training in investigative journalism being offered across the continent, not all of it is good, but a lot of it is good in passing on valuable skills.

AJENda:  Would the advent of e-learning help with expanding the training to candidates on the continent, who can’t come to Wits?

Harber: I think it would, absolutely. I think that there are lots of techniques and tools and things one can teach.  We have all had to adapt very quickly, in recent years, to distance learning and to do virtual teaching. We have learned that it has its difficulties, it has its challenges. In some ways it’s not as good as the classroom, but we can do a lot virtually.