African journalist Frank Nyakairu discusses challenges, rewards of human rights reporting

Posted on March 9, 2009

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By Jessica Weiss, IJNet Editor

Ugandan human rights reporter Frank Nyakairu received the 2008 Knight International Journalism Award from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) in November. As a correspondent in East Africa, Nyakairu is a voice for victims of genocide, rape and other violent offenses stemming from wars in the region. He also serves as the chairman of the Forum for African Investigative Reporters, and as a coach to budding reporters.

Since January, Nyakairu has worked for Reuters’ humanitarian news network AlertNet, which aims to keep relief professionals and the wider public up-to-date on humanitarian crises around the globe.

To learn more about the experience of human rights reporting in conflict zones, IJNet Editor Jessica Weiss recently interviewed the accomplished 30-year-old Nyakairu.

JW: You are so young, only 30 years old … when did you know you wanted to be a journalist and how did you get started?

FN: Earlier, when I was 17, I saw a photojournalist photographing a bird feeding on a human body. Later, before I went to University, I started teaching students in lower classes. I loved history and mastered it by retelling it. But I could not get a job as a teacher. I instead got an offer to spend time as a journalism trainee at a local radio station. This was in 1999, when my desire to be like that photojournalist resurrected. My journalism candle has been burning since.

JW: Do reporters that do the sort of work that you do have to have a set of core characteristics, for example, bravery, tenacity or resilience?

FN: They must have the drive to identify the defenseless and speechless in our society and stand up for them to uphold justice and fairness. That drive for the most important causes of humanity is most rewarding when you change lives, of course positively.

JW: When did you begin working for AlertNet?  What do you think is special or beneficial about writing for this population of humanitarians, rather than for communities?

FN: I had been working as a freelancer for Reuters since 2004. My post at AlertNet since January 2009 was my first job with an international news agency. My greatest challenge is how to continue to write for communities. AlertNet is not only for humanitarians, it also focuses on the plight of people in crisis zones. I am among the first correspondents specifically focusing on humanitarian affairs. I have recently written about the Congo, Kenya and Somalia.

JW: In your acceptance speech at the 2008 ICFJ Award’s Dinner, you mentioned how important it is for journalists in your field to support one another. Can you explain this further? What is the benefit that you receive from learning with and from fellow journalists?

FN: As they say, “United we stand and divided we fall.” Journalists in oppressive environments need each other to defend one another and expose their tormentors. The power of the pen is so much that we foster change and expose evil. But most importantly, as we grow older and get off the scene, we need to mentor young ones to carry on with the struggle.

JW: Have you ever considered backing down from your work? In the darkest hours, the most challenging circumstances, what keeps you going?

FN: Not at any one point. I have never thought that I could be anything else. On Earth, everyone is carved out to be someone. Some never be what they are meant to be. As for me, I am strongly convinced I was meant to be a journalist and I am glad I got an opportunity to be one.

JW: You once stated that each story “has taught us more about humanity’s inclination toward destruction.” Do you ever report on positive change or development? Do you see any benefit of positive reporting in places that are overrun by violence and negative news?

FN: Yes, I do positive reporting, but I have to admit that I have overly focused on negative aspects of life. In human rights reporting, a story is mostly negative before it becomes positive. For instance, in 2004, I exposed the forced labor of former child soldiers in northern Uganda. The story caused great concern which lead to the sacking of the farm managers and freeing of the already tormented children. I followed up with a few of them as they were finally reunited with their parents.

JW: Have you ever been harassed or intimidated by the government for your work?

FN: I have been jailed for a week once and threatened by armed forces for exposing abuses in northern Uganda. I have been physically harassed on several occasions as a result of my work. Human rights reporting is not the kind of journalism where you expect to make a lot of friends. It is as dangerous as the abuses themselves sometimes. So to set out to do that kind of work, you need to be prepared for all sorts of tormenting, continued persistent attacks and criticism.

JW: Bearing witness to great human suffering and atrocities, how do you stay sane?

FN: Sometimes, abuses are mind boggling. You find yourself asking “Why? Why? Why?” without finding answers to your own questions. Thank god I have never reached a point of losing my mind. But yes, to some extent, seeing so much cruelty, bloodshed and destruction, leaves one wondering why? It’s worse when you feel the frustration of having little or no contribution to changing the situation for the better. Reporters are only human. Sometimes part of their work is struggling to remain sane, in all situations, which is obviously beyond human capacity.

JW: Do you have suggestions for journalists working – or interested in working – in similar circumstances?

FN: Just be openminded, do not get mangled in biases of conflict or deterred by threats. Those who hate you for such work at the same time respect you for standing up for justice and human rights.

JW: What are the challenges of training a new crop of young journalists? What are the most important things you try to impart upon burgeoning investigative reports?

FN: In places like Africa, journalism is a frustrating profession if one wants to earn a big salary at the onset.  It is resilience, skills, focus, investigative rigor and passionate writing that are rewarded over time. Yet, you cannot get those in our schools. The trick is simple — follow one general principle: anything worth doing, is worth doing well.

JW: What do you try to help them avoid, that you had to experience firsthand?

FN: Remove yourself from situations, avoid bias traps and never try to please anyone in journalism.

JW: Do you see a future for new technologies in the types of reporting that you do?

FN: The world is getting more connected by the World Wide Web and satellite. To be on the same page, reporters should keep tabs with new communication technologies to their work as swiftly and fast as the world demands. To be the best you must have the best of tools. The internet is a very amazing tool in this trade.

To read more about Frank, go to http://www.knight.icfj.org/Awards/KnightAwardsOverview/FrankNyakairu/tabid/814/Default.aspx.

To learn more about the Knight International Journalism Awards, go to http://www.icfj.org/AwardsDinner/AwardInformation/tabid/749/Default.aspx.

To learn more about AlertNet, go to http://www.alertnet.org/.

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