They were 10 at the boot camp. They travelled together in a 14-seater bus from Lagos, hoping to arrive in Italy soon.
They were eager to get to the ‘next level’ as it is called: from local prostitution to hopefully earning big bucks abroad. But first, they must clear the first hurdle—’training’ in a massive secluded compound guarded by armed military men, far from any other human being, somewhere in the thick bushes outside Ikorodu, a suburb of Lagos in Nigeria.
Their trafficker, Mama Caro, welcomed them in flawless English, telling them how lucky and special they were. Then they were ushered into a room where bed and pillows didn’t count for comfort. They had to sleep on the bare floor without dinner.
Danger loomed everywhere. Tobore Ovuorie, one of Nigeria’s revered female investigative journalists, had gone undercover to investigate Nigeria’s sophisticated human trafficking ring that send hundreds of sex workers abroad.
Together with her employers, the Premium Times, they had anticipated the risk and made backup plans. They had put in place contacts, emergency phone numbers, safe houses, emergency money accounts, transport and extraction arrangements.
The last thing in the risk analysis role play was the unforeseen stop. A stop in an isolated, guarded camp in the middle of nowhere.
The harrowing experience stretched Tobore but she braved the odds and delivered an investigative piece that stunned the world, opening the can of worms of the highly secretive human trafficking world. That work almost took her life— Her hair was chopped off, she was beaten, abused, hospitalized and barely escaped murder.
While she has cheated death, she had paid other prices for her resilience in investigative journalism.
“I did not know that being an investigative journalist would affect me this much. I wish I knew I was going to make sacrifices that would impact my life in the long term. Men run away from me when they get to know I am an investigative journalist,” she told an awe-stricken Fellows of the MFWA’s Next Generation Investigative Journalism (NGIJ) Fellowship during a presentation.
Tobore shared lessons she had picked up from her journey in investigative journalism over the years with the 13 budding journalists who make up the second cohort of the NGIJ fellowship, seven of whom are women.
Refusing to allow personal interest to come between her and her passion to shed light on wrong, Ms Ovuorie recalled the many sacrifices she had to make.
“I vividly recall how an ex-fiancé gave me an ultimatum to choose between our marriage which was due in a month’s time and my profession.”
Without thinking twice about the repercussions, she chose her passion over marriage.
Having to choose between her marriage and her vocation was unfair enough, but this price is only one of many that Toborie has had to pay for her passion. She has faced sexual harassment, discrimination and stereotyped simply because she is a female.
But it has been a rewarding journey. Ms Ovuorie is a decorated journalist. In 2021, she received DW’s prized Freedom of Speech Award for her work in Human trafficking. She won the Wole Soyinka awards for her exposés in 2012 and 2013. In 2019, she won the Human Rights category of WAMECA.
Her story resonates with two other female investigative journalists from Ghana – The Fourth Estate’s Adwoa Adobea-Owusu and Corruption Watch’s Francisca Enchill. Both Adwoa and Francisca also shared their lessons with the Fellows at a different time.
The inspiring consistency among their experiences is that they are breaking the glass ceiling in a male-dominated investigative journalism field. Conversely, what’s not so inspiring in their stories are the manifold hurdles some of which are as dangerous as being murdered over a story. However, this has not deterred them, they said, from taking up the tasks, facing the hurdles and telling compelling stories.
“I recall how officers at a police station mostly laughed at or ignored me when I wanted to engage them on bail terms because I was a female,” Francisca Enchil relates to Ovuorie’s struggle.
She had that experience while working on Bail for Sale, an investigative piece that exposed abuse in the execution of bails in Ghana.
On her part, Adwoa Adobea- Owusu, recalls how she had to prove her worthiness as a journalist to a source by walking through a border town simply because she is female.
“I had to go through one of the border towns to Burkina Faso on foot while working on a story. Because I am female, the source doubted I could walk such a distance until I went ahead of them leaving a good distance between us, then he was convinced,” she told the Fellows.
Investigative journalism and the female
Africa is still very patriarchal and the continent’s patriarchy permeates every field of endeavour, including investigative journalism. What this means is that females in investigative journalism face more than just the hurdles that come with the field. They also face peculiar gender-based challenges.
As Tobore explained, female investigative Journalists often experience sexual harassment in various forms- from subtle advances to sometimes downright confrontational pestering.
“Some male sources would want to concentrate on your gender, rather than the agenda; proposing to trade information or to urging you cooperate in exchange for your body,” she told the Fellows. Francisca shared an experience where a key source for one of the stories she investigated was hesitant to release information unless she gave in to his sexual advances.
There is also the tendency for story assignments to be gendered. Often, females are relegated to gendered news topics. This usually tends to be soft news about women’s issues. Also, newsmakers and news subjects tend to be inaccessible to female journalists.
“Already, there are far too few women in politics for instance,” Adwoa said.
According to Adwoa, there have been some occasions when a female journalist has been asked to hand over a story she really wants to pursue to male counterparts because the stories are deemed to be circumstantially dangerous for females.
“And it is not only over-protective newsrooms which hold women back this way, even sources would hesitate to trust you with information in some circumstances.”
That is not all.
There is also the tendency for female journalists to lose the opportunity for recognition because they must remain undercover. According to Francisca, even though it is good to be incognito in investigative journalism, it can also be a discouragement to many women who would desire credit for their work.
“Sometimes you have to do extra to prove yourself before some sources open up, simply because you are female,” she added.
Then there are also biological factors, including pregnancy which can be very challenging for female investigative journalists.
Challenges are strengtheners
However, these challenges have a way of strengthening the resolve to be changemakers for female investigative journalists. According to Francisca Enchill, being forced by such challenges to do more tend to lead to females journalists learning more about their vocation.
Also, the underestimation of women by people, tends to make subjects of investigations open up more to female investigative journalists than their male counterparts. This is why even in major projects by male investigative journalists, they tend to fall on females for help in undercover works, Adwoa believes.
According to Francisca Enchil, the ability of females to sense danger and know what is good or bad at a particular time (the female intuition) is sharper than that of the male and this comes in handy to female investigative journalists.
These three (3) journalists shared their experiences with the MFWA’s Next Generation investigative journalism (NGIJ) Fellows during their 5-month fellowship period.
NGIJ is aimed at arming young and early-career journalists with practical knowledge of the fundamentals of critical journalism, particularly investigative reporting.
Fellows of the second edition of the Fellowship were drawn from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ghana. They were hosted in Ghana with mentorship from Fact-Check Ghana and The Fourth Estate, both of which are the MFWA’s public interest and accountability journalism projects. They underwent intensive practical training to build the character for critical, high-quality, fact-based and in-depth reporting towards improving lives and promoting good governance.
Fellows also had experience sharing sessions with Prof Kwame Karikari, a media titan and Founder of the MFWA; and Umaru Fofana, a distinguished Journalist and BBC Reporter from Sierra Leone. The 2022 Next Generation Investigative Journalism Fellowship was organized with funding support from the US Embassy in Ghana and the Embassy of the Kingdom of Netherlands.