Female investigative journalists share their stories

By Cecilia Okoth

Working as an investigative journalist is tough. Working as a female investigative journalist presents more challenges, among them, harassment.

While celebrating this year’s International Women’s Day, the African Institute for Investigative Journalism (AIIJ) held candid conversations on what it means to be a female investigative journalist.

These discussions according to Solomon Serwanjja, the Executive Director of AIIJ were meant to celebrate some of the women who have been able to produce some of the finest investigative pieces but also tap into their knowledge on how they executed their work.

Various newsrooms across the globe continue to be male-dominated. However, some women working in these spaces have broken the barriers and have produced some of the best investigative stories.

That notwithstanding, a lot still needs to be done to encourage more women to pick up their interest in investigative journalism.

Female journalists, too, often pay a high personal price and suffer from long hours and high levels of stress. It is therefore important to discuss these issues while celebrating the inspiring work being done by women.

Breaking barriers

Peris Gachahi, an investigative journalist with Africa Uncensored in Nairobi, Kenya said being a female investigative journalist has given her the opportunity to do stories that really matter and touch the lives of people she never thought she could reach.

“It has given me a voice as a woman in a male-dominated field,” she said.

Gachahi investigated a story titled, ‘Crooks & Wombs’ which explored the risks that some women and young girls in the reproductive ages across Kenya are taking to get quick fix abortions.

Gachahi explained that there are however many reasons to consider investigative journalism as a dangerous profession, especially for women because they suffer two-fold-both because of their work and because they are women.

“Women encounter different forms of attacks ranging from threats and physical attacks, sexist insults, sexual violence, and online trolling,” she said.

She was however optimistic that proper training, skills, the right attitude, and proper support systems all around will enable women to take up the investigative journalism field.

Cecilia Okoth, a multimedia investigative journalist with New Vision in Kampala, Uganda, said investigative journalism catapulted her to a different level and this made her stand out in the profession.

With little knowledge on the beat (investigative journalism), Okoth made her debut with a story titled, ‘Cancer patients bribe for attention’. She camped at the Uganda Cancer Institute for over two months to expose the wrongdoing at the health facility.

This was after cancer patients at the Uganda Cancer Institute complained about parting with bribes ranging from sh150,000 ($40) to sh1m ($270) in order to access radiotherapy services, which are otherwise free of charge.

“As journalists, we are often told, you are as good as your last story so that technically means your best story is one that you have not yet done. This pushes me to work harder,” Okoth said.

She however advised fellow colleagues to exercise patience saying being an investigative journalist isn’t a single day’s task.

“You have to be patient and master the art of storytelling. Also, pay attention to small details because these have the potential to unearth big revelations. But above all, do not fear to seek help from colleagues who have been in the field longer,” she said.

“As a field journalist, I have seized the opportunity to transform the lives of people I have been assigned to report about. The stories I have covered have helped to get rid of the disconnect between public sentiments about service delivery and the actual challenges that ordinary people face,” Okoth said.

Naipanoi Lepapa, a freelance investigative journalist in Kenya, perceives investigative journalism as a vehicle for social change.

“My work as an investigative journalist is to shine a spotlight on inequalities, injustices, and abuses of power. It is giving a voice to the minority and the marginalised. By highlighting these issues, I am able to help start uncomfortable conversations that create awareness, help lead to policy or system change,” Lepapa said.

She however underscored the need to always seek knowledge and be informed about the topics one intends to investigate. This also includes critically analyzing information as well as looking at facts that help deliver the stories well.

Lepapa’s investigative story titled, ‘Hard labor: The Unregulated Kenyan Surrogacy Industry’, delved into the largely unregulated Kenyan surrogacy industry, revealing numerous allegations ranging from coercion, exploitation, and intimidation of surrogates, human trafficking, forced abortions & identity forgery, and fraud.

This investigation exposed rogue agents that have been taking advantage of the existing legal loopholes, to deceive desperate commissioning parents and vulnerable surrogates. 

Acknowledging that investigative journalism is an expensive and risky venture, Lepapa said no story is worth your life, urging fellow journalists to always work with credible institutions, look out for grants, and to be mindful of their mental wellbeing.

“Investigative journalism is tough. You will get disappointed sometimes but do not give up. When you face roadblocks, take a break from work, take care of yourself and go back when you are mentally and physically fit,” she advised.

Pauli Van Wyk, an investigative journalist with the Daily Maverick, in Johannesburg South Africa. She has written in-depth about the justice cluster, SOEs, and politics.