This article is our first on Right Now’s February Issue, focusing on Technology and Human Rights.
By Lyndal Rowlands.
If you are reading this on a mobile phone, lap top or tablet, chances are that some of its parts came from journalist Eric Mwamba’s home country of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Despite its mineral wealth the Democratic Republic of Congo or DRC, is one of the poorest and most conflict ridden countries in the world. Mwamba began his journalism career in the DRC as a 20-year-old university student, investigating the causes of his country’s problems and trying to bring light to them.
His journalism career has seen him travel the world from the DRC, to the other Congo (the Republic of the Congo), Cote D’Ivoire and later Canada before migrating to Australia. He has become an international leader in investigative journalism, but along the way has also lost many of his own personal freedoms and rights, a risk many journalists from developing countries take.
To me, another idea misrepresenting voices of the South in the Western media is that Western colleagues consider themselves as journalists and Africans only as activists.
Mwamba’s previous roles include Editor in Chief of Africa News, President of the Forum for African Investigative Reporters and member of Amnesty International’s journalist section in the Ivory Coast. He considers himself a global citizen and works across Europe, Africa and the Americas from his Australian base, but his focus remains on Africa. His newest project Wealth magazine investigates the resources boom in Western Africa.
Mwamba’s career as an investigative journalist has seen him expose many injustices and human rights abuses, from the illegal trade of African soccer players in Europe to slavery in cocoa farms in Cote D’Ivoire.
He has recently returned from speaking at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in October 2013 where he spoke around media coverage of extractive industries.
“I started to investigate when I was 20, combining my university studies with searching, interviewing and writing for local newspapers especially about corruption and human rights in my country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The main problem with being a journalist in my country is that there are no freedom of information laws, and defamation laws mean you can be mistreated, arrested or killed, as has happened to a number of journalists. Nobody risks investigating or in-depth reporting within the country for fear of losing their lives.
“Early in my career, I tried my best to ask questions, check facts and use evidence to help inform the community. I was under considerable stress with pressures including permanent surveillance and death threats.
Without appropriate representation of voices from the South the global view of the world is wrong. To me it’s more than crucial for journalists from both sides – North and South – to collaborate on those issues.
“As a result, I was forced to leave my country for the other Congo, then the Ivory Coast then Canada before moving to Australia. In between, I have had the opportunity to travel across Africa, Europe and North America. In trying to change other people lives you can change your own. For the better or worse, it depends which side you are on.”
Mwamba is often invited as a guest speaker at international journalism conferences, he recently spoke at a conference in the Netherlands about the “Voices of the South” in the Western media.
“One of the ideas developed during the discussions at the conference was how some of the Western media and their correspondents, as well as non-government organisations (NGOs) look at the South, especially Africa, with an agenda. Some of these organisations may not want to report facts in the public interest because of their own interests as funders of aid or other projects.
“During the discussions some of the European media said they didn’t think that African journalists could write articles which could be published in Western media and readable by their audiences. I strongly disagreed.
“We are all journalists working at the same standards. Asking questions, checking facts and using evidence.”
After Mwamba spoke up in support of African journalists at the conference, he was proud to have some of his stories translated and published in different western languages and media. They included an article about the Dutch tradition of Black Piet, published by the Zam Chronicle and an article published in Mo, a Belgian magazine specialising in global issues, about getting rich quick in the poverty stricken Congo.
“To me, another idea misrepresenting voices of the South in the Western media is that Western colleagues consider themselves as journalists and Africans only as activists. My perspectives of journalism especially investigative journalism is accountability for truth and transparency to change things within the community.”
Journalism is one of the best ways to give a say to people for them to ask for more accountability, truth and transparency in order to change things.
“The main idea generated by the Dutch organisations organising this conference was to develop and increase the representation of voices of the South in Western media in order to improve the quality of journalism on international development in the West. And then, to stimulate international development journalism in the South in order to educate local people on development issues and also to promote transparency and democracy.”
“Today, the world is more interconnected thanks to technology and rapid dissemination of information. Global issues such as international trade, international development or climate change touch all the world’s citizens. But economic crises make people more interested in the news closer to their immediate situation. The sad result is that the media don’t have enough funds to support cross-border journalism to report on global issues. Another problem is that when those themes are discussed the ideas and perspectives from the South are not well incorporated. Without appropriate representation of voices from the South the global view of the world is wrong. To me it’s more than crucial for journalists from both sides – North and South – to collaborate on those issues. Even local information can have international connections so its consequences can affect all the globe or a big part.”
I asked Mwamba about how the Western media can improve their reporting of development issues, particularly to increase their audiences’ understanding of the complexities of development such example dependency and neo-colonialism.
“They have to incorporate local journalists and citizens in their editorial strategy if they want to survive the rise of social media. Local journalists are part of the community, at the same time they are witnesses and victims of what happens within the community. Local journalists can report the facts better than “international correspondents” who face time constraints when checking information on the ground.”
Mwamba’s latest project is called Wealth Magazine.
“Wealth Magazine project is important to me for a lot of reasons. Many African countries have plenty of natural resources that are not contributing to the state budget. In most of these countries, such as the DRC where I was born, the governments continue to ask the West for aid, despite the financial situation in Europe and America. At the same time, the number of mining and oil companies increase. Wealth Magazine aims to investigate companies and people for the abusive exploitation of natural resources causing poverty and other conflicts. Also to start establishing a data base about companies because, there is no information available to the public in this area. And finally, to operate as a small centre for investigative journalism trying to increase capacities in the newsrooms and fundraising within the community to support better journalism for more accountability, truth, transparency and democracy. The project intends to collaborate with other media houses on the international level to make more impact about local information creating a movement for change.”
We discussed whether Mwamba has a smart phone and what he thinks when he sees Australians using them.
“Of course, I do have a smart phone because I’m addicted to reading books and different kind of news. I also use the phone to develop my ideas by writing all the time and taking photos of different things around me.
“When I see Australians or other Westerners using smart phones or any other expensive electronic devices sometimes just for pleasure, my responsibility to share information about the way these materials are obtained grows because, people living where those material come from are living in extreme poverty. My responsibility is to inform the world so the private international sector and states put their responsibilities in our global world first to show their solidarity to these people.”
He says that it’s important for the people who use those goods “to know what happens where they come from, to connect consumers to the small villages where workers are exploited like in the DRC with its deaths and lack of roads, hospitals and schools. The media have a key role to play.”
Mwamba is now based in Melbourne.
“I like that I can walk, read or write until late without fear of someone or something. Also, I am impressed with how Australia’s schools and other institutions award people on their merit, even small kids. It make them confident, competitive and responsible.
“The biggest difference for me is the freedom of speech in Australia. Where I grew up my biggest difficulty was the lack of freedom of expression and speech, not only for me but also for all the people. Now I live in Australia the country that I love so much, my passion is still Africa and journalism. When I know that the people do not have clean water, hospitals, roads or schools I have to contribute to change. Journalism is one of the best ways to give a say to people for them to ask for more accountability, truth and transparency in order to change things. Living in Australia, I don’t want to give up any of my liberty. I consider myself a global citizen: born in the Congo but free to live and work far away in the Ivory Coast, Republic of Benin, France or Canada, travelling across the globe before reaching Australia.
I like adventure and I have to continue.”
Lyndal Rowlands is a Masters of Global Media Communication student at the University of Melbourne. She is currently based in Timor Leste working in the humanitarian sector. You can find her on Twitter@Lyndal_writes. Lyndal also recently wrote for Right Now on “Making Online Culture more Inclusive“.