African journalists are a special breed. They are some of the hardest working, most dedicated and honest bunch of professionals you will ever find anywhere. In many countries on the continent, they are also routinely underpaid, overworked, unappreciated, abused by officials and publishers alike, beaten, jailed and even murdered. Yet you can never keep them down – day after day, they hunt out hidden stories and tell the world the truth.
It was therefore wonderful to see the cream of African journalists, for once, being treated like the stars they often are during the annual CNN/Multichoice African Journalist awards in Cape Town, Durban.
I was invited as an observer since pan-African media, from what I gather, are excluded from entering this competition. I may have got this wrong but if it is indeed the case that African oriented journalists outside the continent are not allowed to enter, I would urge the organizers to reconsider their views. It is no secret that some of the best examples of African journalism are to be found in the pages of the pan-African media.
This is because journalists writing for the pan-African media not only have to be very good in terms of reporting and interpreting events, they have to write their stories to exacting international standards and, perhaps the most difficult of all, to have the ability to ‘sell’ their stories across 53 different nations. Any journalist will tell you this is extremely difficult to do; hence only the very best rise to the level of being truly international African journalists.
An award in this category, I believe, will not only help raise standards of national journalism but also inculcate a pan-African outlook in national media and provide role models for the hundreds of African journalists who wish to write for a broader audience.
That said, I was delighted to be among my colleagues in the beautiful surroundings of Cape Town. There were two workshops – one looked at journalism in the round in Africa and the other was devoted to the reporting of HIV/Aids. Both provided plenty to talk about and both were, alas, too brief to allow us to sink our teeth into some of the issues raised. Nevertheless, there was opportunity enough to gain some insight into the workings of the industry from several national viewpoints.
The one glaring oversight, which was pointed out by my old friend, Adama Gaye who is now the group corporate affairs manager of Ecobank, was the scarcity of French, Portuguese, Spanish and Arabic journalists on the various panels. I am sure the organizers will ensure a more balanced representation next year. We learnt that 1,600 entries had been received for the various categories in print, TV and radio. This is a clear indication that these awards are taken very seriously by the media in Africa.
The award ceremony itself, hosted by CNN anchors Jonathan Mann and Nothemba Madumo, at the Cape Town Convention Centre, was magnificent. This was show-business at is best – and why not? We journalists regularly attend high profile events to cover awards for other professionals so it was deeply satisfying to see that when it came to honouring our own profession, the organisers pulled out all stops.
We were given short excerpts from the work of the winners and I have to declare that the quality of the work on display was original, well-crafted, relevant and very moving in some instances. This was top-drawer work indeed but were all the winners the very best that Africa can produce? As usual there were arguments and discussions about the merits or demerits of the judging but there was no disputing that every single item that we saw or heard was outstanding.
The overall winner was investigative reporter Richard Kavuma of the Weekly Observer in Uganda. His stories on Uganda’s progress towards the MDGs were written from the perspective of the people and showed a side very different from the top-down versions we see so often in the press.
In fact, most of the winners were distinguished by their people-centred approaches. Even the winner of the Economic and Business category award, Toyin Akinosho succeed in writing about oil and gas from the human angle.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that those countries that value and reward their journalists also happen to be stable countries where human rights are protected, freedom of speech flourishes, governments are accountable and the people enjoy better than average living standards.
When press freedom is attacked or restricted, the rights and freedoms of the people are also attacked because the journalist is the eyes and ears and voice of the people. When you lock up a journalist, you turn the public blind, deaf and dumb. Press freedom therefore is not an issue for journalists alone, it affects all of society.
The celebration of the best of African journalism, in similar vein, is therefore a celebration of freedom in Africa.