Bill Keller, former executive editor of The New York Times wrote earlier this month about the importance of journalists being there when news happens. Risk-averse, cost-focused news organizations had begun their retreat from the world long ago, Keller wrote, lamenting that the truly committed foreign correspondent was something of an endangered species.
Sadly, in many areas, this issue goes far beyond a diminished corps of foreign correspondents.
The truly committed journalist, who is prepared to make personal sacrifices to tell the story despite economic, social and political obstacles, is in some societies also under threat. And how many publishers are still hiring and training and deploying journalists who are able to make their own calls on how close they get to risky situations?
So when exceptions arise, they are worth making a fuss about. Two Africans who understand the need to be there were in Zambia this week to share their newspaper experiences with participants on WAN-IFRA’s Women in News programme.
Liberian Wade C.L.Williams (pictured), news editor of the Liberian newspaper and website, Front Page Africa, is one of Africa’s top women investigative journalists and is known as the most powerful woman in Liberian media. She is has succeeded in a market where few women have, through her total commitment to traditional reportage.
Williams told how she has defied death threats and made huge personal sacrifices in reporting on subjects Liberians had been afraid to tackle: warlords, homosexuals, female mutilation, the poor and the politics of Liberia. She insisted on going to where the story is, no matter what time of day or night she received a tip off. Her children knew that when she donned her trademark jeans and backpack, she was off to work and was not sure when she would be home. She has won national and international recognition for her work and is a fellow of New Narratives and a winner of the Dag Hammarskjöld Journalism Fellowship.
As founder and publisher of Zambia’s The Post newspaper, Fred M’membe, has faced similar threats and imprisonment, in fighting for press freedom. For him it is the freedom not only to be right, but to be wrong too. “Early on I realized that we had to make a profit to maintain our independence so nobody could squeeze us. Our independence is not for sale. We struggled for it.”
Part of that independence includes funding foreign correspondents in areas such as the Caribbean, Cuba and Latin America. “We believe in being there to report for ourselves,” said M’membe.
The Women in News initiative is designed to build management and leadership capacity across all disciplines of news publishing in Zambia, Botswana and Namibia. It is part of WAN-IFRA’s programme to advance press freedom and media development by supporting free and financially sustainable media world wide.