It was late 2016, and Gambian journalist Sheriff Bojang Junior was glad the world was finally paying attention to his home country’s decades-long struggle under a strongman president. But when voters finally ousted President Yayah Jammeh, Bojang was discouraged to see how many international outlets were getting key facets of the story wrong.
“This is a big problem. As much as you want to understand the country and think you know the country and what is happening in the country, I don’t think one week is enough,” Bojang said from his base in neighboring Senegal, where he worked for a decade in exile from Gambia. He was allowed to return to Gambia in 2017, and now travels frequently between the two countries. “There is never a ‘new’ story. There is always a root that started somewhere as a result of something. But you’re not in the country, and you don’t understand this.”
Still, Bojang acknowledges, the solution is not as easy as simply encouraging international outlets to hire more local reporters and photographers. In Gambia and throughout West Africa (and many other places worldwide), journalists have faced a lack of resources and educational opportunities for years, and these and other shortcomings need to be addressed across the continent. “There has to be proper training,” Bojang said. “It’s like if you go to Gambia and you want to invest in a state-of-the-art radio station — this is not the problem. You teach people first how to be good journalists.”
Meanwhile, the West is often so focused on what Western audiences are reading or watching that it leaves African audiences out of the equation. Yes, improving journalism at national outlets could lead to an increased pool of local talent for the foreign press, but the most important effect would be that local audiences would have better access to information that impacts their lives.
The status and skill set of journalists in West Africa is inextricably tied, as it is throughout the world, to economic development. Even in Senegal, where the journalism industry is more robust than it is in many neighboring countries, photography students at the University of Dakar’s journalism school have little access to the gear they need to train for their future careers. More concerning still is the fact that many recent graduates have accepted jobs at local publications where there was little or no pay.
This concern has been echoed at training sessions I have conducted over the last few years for local journalists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Congo-Brazzaville, Tanzania, Niger, and Guinea Bissau. The number-one complaint from working journalists was that they were not paid a living wage, if at all.
Proper salaries are rare at publications across much of West Africa, according to Bojang. And, as a result, many journalists accept payments from the very corporations or individuals they’re covering in order to make extra cash. A reporter could spend a week reporting on illegal timber activities and barely cover costs, Bojang said, or they could get a stipend from a telephone company to report on one of their events in the newspaper.
Journalists working for West African outlets often cover corporate events promoting organizational activities because those entities compensate them by “refunding your fare,” Bojang said. The premise is that the money is a “reimbursement” for transportation costs to and from the event, but the amount paid is often higher than the actual transport costs.
“I started to see people taking money for coverage around 1990,” said Djib Diedhiou, who worked for 40 years as a newspaper journalist and is currently a faculty member at the University of Dakar’s journalism school. “It existed before, but wasn’t a huge problem. The people who took money were looked down upon. Today you have this phenomenon everywhere in Africa. Some non-governmental organizations know that if they don’t give money, the journalists won’t come to their press conferences. It’s not a problem of training. The journalists know they are not supposed to accept money.”
But where does the blame lie, if the journalists are simply trying to make ends meet? And what can be done about other negative impacts of a faulty financial model?
Twenty-seven-year old Diene Ngom graduated from the University of Dakar’s journalism school in 2017, but he has yet to find a job. He said there are skilled journalists in the country, but publications often hire those with fewer qualifications because it’s cheaper. “Those who went to school expect a better salary and conditions than those who didn’t,” Ngom said. “And so the online news publications are often bad because they are not run by professional journalists.” He added that the salaries offered are usually between US$100 and US$400 per month.
And yet access to funds is not usually a problem for the wealthy owners of national newspapers and radio stations, who are often politically motivated when establishing their media companies, according to Diedhiou. “There is corruption here,” Diedhiou said, adding that owners often live luxuriously and drive around town in expensive cars. “There are some that own a lot of publications, but they cost 100 cfa (about $0.20) per issue and don’t have advertisements. So I ask myself: Does this business model work?”
Sometimes the problem is not simply a financial one, but also an issue of restricted press freedom. In Mauritania, which lies just north of Senegal, there have been crackdowns on the press by government officials in recent years. Just last month a freelance photojournalist was deported for his research into a slavery story.
“We started in the past few years to see more journalists and reporters — I’ve trained with some of them — and now we have some investigative journalists,” said Daouda Corera, a photographer from Nouakchott, the country’s capital. “But there is also a missing freedom. They say there is freedom of expression, but if you go deeper, you are prohibited from speaking freely.”
Although Corera believes that photojournalism has progressed in Mauritania, he is unaware of any local papers that have staff photographers. Meanwhile, it’s become somewhat easier to get assigned work from foreign outlets.
“Previously photojournalism was done by people coming from foreign countries,” he said. “But thanks to social media, they don’t need to send people as much.” It has become easier for international editors to find local photographers through Instagram and other platforms, he said, and he and his colleagues are now contacted more frequently.
Still, Corera estimated that he is one of perhaps four Mauritanian photojournalists working in the country, despite the region’s rich history of photography. Senegal and Mali, for example, have deep photographic histories and a wealth of working local photographers, but it’s extremely rare to see in-depth documentary photography in local papers there.
“Why is photo reportage missing from the newspapers? We don’t put a huge importance on it here,” Diedhiou said. “One problem is training. We have photographers who make portraits at press conferences. That’s not photojournalism. That’s photos of press conferences. If it’s a press conference about rice farming, instead of going to the rice fields and taking photos there, they take a photo of the conference. They don’t see the importance of a photo that says something, instead they have a photo of the minister talking.”
Pressure from the authorities often influences the quality of photographic reporting, he said, citing an example he remembers vividly after one press conference: “There was a minister, and he called the editor and asked where the photo of him was.” The editor explained that the paper had published a photo to illustrate the actual story. According to Diedhiou, the minister responded: “Yes, but I can’t find the photo of ME.”
Another stubborn problem is a lack of gender diversity at the local level, especially in photo and written journalism. Men vastly outnumber women. Of the very few women enrolled at the University of Dakar’s journalism school, most are broadcast journalism majors. One faculty member, when asked why there are so few female students, told me that women just didn’t have what it takes to be journalists.
As in the rest of the world, women journalists in Africa have struggled against gender-based discrimination and hostility. Ley Uwera, a Congolese freelance photographer who often works for the BBC, said she first encountered difficulties a few years into her career. “Working in the east of DRC is a bit complicated and on certain topics some people would rather send male photojournalists over women,” she said. “I tell myself I will continue fighting, so that we can have the same access as men.”
For women who do make it into the newsroom, they often face sexual harassment. A colleague in Benin told me that when she works nights or interviews powerful men, people accuse her of being a prostitute. Uwera agreed: “Here, when people see a female journalist, they automatically think she’s a prostitute, because she often finishes her work very late at night. People think it’s not possible for a woman to finish actual work so late, so she must just be going out with a lot of men.”
Uwera added that some women she knows would prefer a job that has more of a routine. “I think there are two sides. I’ve met certain women who prefer staying in the TV studio over going into the field,” she said. “And now the editors are used to that. And they sometimes only propose that. You will see a lot of women who are only TV presenters or who go to conferences. But they don’t go into the field, which is an important part of the job.”
Sexism in the workplace, corruption, and training deficiencies all plague journalism in sub-Saharan Africa. But at almost every training I’ve conducted in the region, the conversation inevitably boils down to one main question: “How can we practice journalism if we’re not paid a living wage?” And then we have a chicken-or-the-egg debate: If good journalism is practiced, won’t the public value it, leading to better salaries? Or does the effort need to start with local unions to push up wages first?
I always come away from leading these training sessions or teaching my class at the University of Dakar reinvigorated by the passion and talent of my colleagues. But I also feel deflated to know that no matter how much talent they have, the economic situation (often mixed with government and economic corruption) keeps them from reaching their fullest potential.
And if they aren’t provided the proper time and resources to produce in-depth reporting at the national level, how can they have influence internationally? How can they foster an environment in which a robust national press can work with the international press to produce well-reported news from the continent? And wouldn’t that environment be even stronger if more African journalists had the opportunity to travel to the U.S. and Europe to report back to their readers at home as well?
There are many qualified journalists across Africa, and international outlets should be doing a better job of seeking them out, but there are still gaps in training that need to be resolved. If the international press is to be expected to hire a more diverse range of reporters and photographers in Africa, there needs to be a continent-wide effort to improve the quality of journalism at the national level. Simply hiring local journalists to report for Western audiences will not solve the larger issues that journalists face within the region.
If local newspapers could produce higher quality journalism, more opportunities would open up for journalists within their home countries, and the international press would have a more vast and diverse pool of talent to draw from when covering Africa. And the residents of these countries would benefit most of all, with access to information that would allow them to hold their leaders accountable — perhaps the most important purpose of journalism in the first place.
Ricci Shryock is a photographer and journalist based in Dakar, Senegal, since 2008. She’s a contributor to Everyday Africa and teaches photojournalism at the University of Dakar. She has conducted multiple journalism trainings throughout the continent and is a mentor for The Native and Everyday Projects Mentorship Program. Follow Ricci on Instagram.
Next in our series “Truth-Telling”: Bradley Secker on being a gay journalist and the narrow media portrayal of LGBTTQQIP+ people. And don’t miss our previous article, “Working around reductionism in Afghanistan,” by Andrew Quilty.