Wed | Sep 20, 2017

Annie Paul | A new cadre of investigative journalists

Published:Wednesday | August 9, 2017 | 8:00 AM

Jamaica consistently ranks highly in global press freedom rankings, yet seems to exploit that freedom too little. There's a burning need for hard-hitting, in-depth journalism exposing and stemming the rampant white-collar crime and corruption we live with. Yet it's something our media houses don't focus on enough, a state of affairs in itself worthy of serious investigation.

So it gladdened my heart when freelance journalist and writer Kate Chappell recently brought a community journalism training programme, titled 'Building a Journalist With Integrity and Impact', to my attention. Chappell, along with Zahra Burton of Global Reporters for the Caribbean, has been working with Omar Lewis, civil society coordinator at National Integrity Action (NIA), and Ian McKnight, chief of Party USAID COMET II, to train about 30 community members in investigative journalism and will be publishing 10 pieces (in print, radio and television outlets such as Roots FM, MORE FM, The Gleaner and Power 106) produced by the novice journalists in the next few weeks. The aim of the programme is to cultivate investigative skills, as well as to hold authorities accountable by using tools such as the Access to Information Act (ATI).

 

Rigorous approach

 

Zahra Burton, as many of us know, is the star reporter of 18 Degrees North, a TV news magazine inspired by shows such as CBS's '60 Minutes' and ABC's 'Nightline'. With Zahra's rigorous approach to journalism and Chappell's organisational and empathic skills, and the help of mentors such as Dennis Brooks and Kalilah Reynolds, 14 women and 13 men with a mix of educational levels, mostly in their 20s and 30s, were trained at the end of April and have spent the last three months researching, interviewing, writing and putting together pieces to air or be published in media outlets.

The project coordinators were interested in training community members to report on what happens in their communities with a particular interest in good stories that hold people to account, instead of the standard media fare of "everybody a tief and rape and kill each other". One story involved churches and noise pollution.

One day, Burton received a call from the veteran dub poet Oku Onuora in Portmore saying, "18 Degrees North, I have a story for you ... ." The story involved a church near Onuora's house making intolerable noise that he wanted help in curbing. The group investigated the situation and produced a story with a clever lead in: "Oku Onuora has been attending church every Sunday morning, though not by choice. He goes up to four times a week depending on when his neighbour, Harvest Temple Apostolic, chooses to meet."

"So we're trying to do the kinds of stories that maybe people do want to tell, but that maybe another outlet may not be interested in because it's too small an issue, it's too big an issue, it's too rural an issue," said Burton, who also arranged for a screening of the film Spotlight some months ago in Kingston, which focused on the Boston Globe's exposure of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

 

Exceptional training

 

I spoke to two participants from the training programme, Sharlene Hendricks and Jamaila Maitland, both of whom had studied at CARIMAC. Sharlene described the investigative journalism training as exceptional, especially learning to use the ATI Act to pry information from tight-lipped government ministries and agencies. A resident of Rae Town in downtown Kingston, Sharlene focused on the adverse effects of the dredging of Kingston Harbour, on fishermen who were being insufficiently compensated for the reduction in their fish catch by Kingston Freeport Terminal Limited (KFTL), the entity doing the dredging.

Sharlene's team started by finding out the process by which fishermen would be compensated, under what legislation the dredging was being undertaken, and the terms of the beach licence granted. Some of this was obtained from the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), but the ATI request to KFTL revealed that the company was private, not government-owned, which meant that they had to be persuaded to release information. Sharlene and her team were eventually successful in getting the information they wanted.

Another aspect of the Rae Town story was environmental, as it seemed KFTL was dumping what it was dredging up in the community, silting up archaeological sites in the process, but doing so legally with NEPA's permission. An examination of the weekly reports KFTL was required to make showed that complaints were being registered, but NEPA advised KPTL to ignore these and proceed, as the beach licence granted them leeway to dump there!

While NEPA's ATI officer was forthcoming, Sharlene was unable to get a comment from someone senior at NEPA in charge of monitoring KFTL, a problem Chappell said many of the trainees had when attempting to get interviews with those in charge.

Jamaila Maitland and her team's TV report stemmed from a Budget speech made by PM Holness in 2016, after a number of women were brutally murdered by their partners, in which he promised there would be a domestic violence coordinator in every police station in the country. Calls made to 40 police stations a year later revealed that only one domestic violence coordinator in place.

Kudos to all concerned for this much-needed fillip to local journalism.

- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com or tweet @anniepaul.