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AIJC2021: Going undercover to expose wrongdoing

In a quest to uncover the truth, investigative journalists are often forced to put their lives in danger and go undercover. During an online session that cast the spotlight on this form of journalism, Nigerian investigative journalist, Fisayo Soyombo, spoke about the bravery required for one to get to the roots of a story.

Award-winning investigative journalist, Fisani Soyombo (picture supplied)

“If your work is motivated by public interest, you have to be brave because it would take a lot of risk”, said Soyombo speaking at a panel discussion on undercover journalism at the ongoing 17th African Investigative Journalism Conference, hosted across five African cities.

Emphasising the importance of undercover journalism in the public system, Soyombo said a measure of bravery is an important component to investigative journalism. He noted that, while planning for an undercover story, a journalist would need to “identify the public interest in the story; identify the risk; gather necessary equipment; understand the output or impact, understanding how your report would spark change and the elements needed for the story.”

Soyombo has won multiple journalism awards for his brand of investigative reporting and spent periods of time in prison and police cells whilst attempting to uncover corruption in Nigeria’s criminal justice system. These accolades include being named winner of the “local reporter” category of the 2020 Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism

Detailing some of his undercover expose, the founder of Foundation for Investigative Journalism, said, “The entire idea was to expose the corruption in the Nigeria prison system and I did not want to report what judges or inmates had said but get the experience, first hand, of the level of corruption that was going on.”

He shared that in his discover, prison warders were some of the major culprits in promoting corruption in the system, despite being aware of that the Nigerian constitution forbids illegal actions.

“They asked for brides from the complainants. They also negotiated with me, every morning for five days, asking if I had any relatives to call and was willing to pay about a bribe. The Nigerian law says that if a court is within a 40 kilometer radius, the suspect is to be indicted within 48 hours of his arrest and if it is more than 40 kilometers, you will need a court order to bring the suspect to court.

“A lot of corruption happening in the justice system escapes the notice of the public because of access to undercover reporting. As long as the public interest is bigger than the method employed, there can be any problem”, he said.

Soyombo is also known for carrying out a three week investigation as a patient of the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Yaba, Lagos where he lifted the lid on the state of decay of hospital facilities, gross shortage of critical staff despite a bloated workforce widely believed to be populated by ghost workers and low quality of service delivery, among other ills.

Alongside Soyombo on the panel Sudanese investigative journalist, Fathr al-Hamdani, who went undercover for 18 months in 2018 to investigate 23 Islamic educational institutions in Sudan, known as khalwas, where many children were chained, beaten and imprisoned by the sheikhs in charge of the schools.

In its 17th year, the conference, organised by Wits Centre for Journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, brings together working journalists across Africa to discuss, share experience, network and offer training in the latest investigative tools and techniques. For the first time, the five-day long conference was held simultaneously across five host cities: Nairobi, Abuja, Dakar, Addis Ababa and Johannesburg.

The story was first published at AIJC2021 by Kehinde Ogunyale , republished by Espoir Iradukunda, an AIJC2021 Fellow.



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