The Nile, the longest river in Africa, traverses 11 countries, including Egypt, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. A source of water for millions of people living on its banks, the river is also a cause of conflict between communities and even countries. For instance, Ethiopia recently built Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam, which has created tensions between it, Egypt (the most downstream Nile country), and Sudan.
When journalists and media outlets across the region write about the river, the stories are typically connected to their own communities or countries. Journalists from upstream countries may write about pollution without thinking about how it affects other communities dependent on the river. This approach makes it difficult for researchers, policymakers, and members of the public to get a holistic picture of the river.
That’s why Ugandan journalist Fredrick Mugira founded Water Journalists Africa, a network of 700 journalists. The organization provides story grants to journalists to conduct data-based water-journalism projects, mentors and trains journalists in data journalism and science communication, and creates interactive maps and data visualizations on critical issues of water, environment, and climate change. Coordinators in Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan, and Ethiopia mobilize networks and translate stories to Swahili, Arabic, Amharic, and French. Today, the network’s primary funder is the U.S.-based JRS Biodiversity Foundation.
One of Water Journalists Africa’s flagship projects is InfoNile, which aims to “defamiliarize” the stories of the Nile, using less-familiar forms to stimulate fresh perceptions and providing a complete view of the situation of the river and the communities who live close to it. (Another of WJA’s major projects, started a few years after InfoNile, is the Big Gorilla Story, which focuses on stories about gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.)
In 2020, InfoNile’s collaborative multimedia investigative project combined drone and satellite imagery, video documentaries, and an interactive data-driven map to show foreign land grabs across 11 Nile Basin countries and to reveal the environmental, economic, and social impact the illegal acquisitions of land have on the communities around them. The project won the Best Data Visualization award at the 2020 WAN-IFRA African Digital Media Awards.
Here, Mugira talks with Abhaya Raj Joshi about his experience in science journalism and in building Water Journalists Africa and setting up its flagship project, InfoNile. (They first spoke over a voice call on WhatsApp, and follow up questions were sent by email. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Why did you decide to go into journalism?
Growing up, I had seen my neighbor work as a journalist. He didn’t earn much. I understood that I may not earn money working as a journalist, but I can help my community make informed decisions and provide them with the information they need.
Journalists such as Gerald Tenywa, an award-winning environmental journalist working with New Vision in Uganda, and my former editor Vumira Collins were the ones I looked up to. Collins, for example, wrote about the problems related to overpopulation, how it is affecting the country, and about issues of women and their rights. These stories left an impact for a long time. These role models also showed that you can do good things in journalism if you specialize.
What did your early career look like? Did you have a specialization from the beginning?
When I was fresh out of the university in around 2004, I started freelancing for different media houses, and later worked for a radio station run by Vision Group, Uganda’s biggest multimedia house. [Editors’ note: The term media house isn’t often used in the U.S., but it is popular elsewhere in the world; it refers to companies that run media outlets such as newspapers, TV stations, and news websites.] I spent most of my time running up and down the country, writing about anything that I found interesting. But the money they paid freelancers was not enough to even pay for transportation. They would pay less than a dollar for a story that would involve a lot of travel and reporting.
In addition to the pay, the other challenge I faced was that fresh out of the university I didn’t have the practical skills real-world journalists needed. When you are starting in journalism, you don’t know what you want to write about. It is only when you develop an interest and specialization that you can write real, meaningful, and impactful stories. Water and environment became that area of specialization for me. I never formally decided to go into environmental journalism. But it turned out that most of the stories I was doing as a freelance journalist were related to the environment. For instance, I wrote a story on how over 60 percent of wells had dried up in my community in western Uganda. This opened the eyes of the community about climate change.
In 2006, you received a scholarship from the Swedish government to study culture, communication, and international development at the University of Malmö. How did that change your career trajectory and lead to the founding of Water Journalists Africa?
The opportunity I received to study in Sweden helped me develop a network of contacts, and people recognized who I was. I started getting invites to different events, such as the World Water Day event in Cape Town, South Africa. In 2011, I returned home from South Africa having met many journalists from around Africa writing on water. [At the time], there was no network of journalists on the African continent that focused exclusively on water journalism. We only had ANEJ, the African Network of Environmental Journalists, of which I am one of the founding journalists. So, I wanted to have a network dedicated to water issues only. So I built WJA network with some skills I gained at ANEJ. We are registered in Uganda. But, of course, we spent several years without an office due to a lack of funds to set it up until we got a funder that supported us [to] start an office in Kampala.
The network now has 700 journalists reporting on water.
Could you tell us a bit more about WJA’s InfoNile project?
When I attended the COP [United Nations Climate Change Conference] in Paris in 2015, thanks to a fellowship from the Earth Journalism Network, I got to learn about the concept of geojournalism: [the idea of using] data, visualizations, drone images, and multimedia tools to tell stories and locate them on easily accessible maps. While I was toying with the idea of establishing a geojournalism platform, especially for the Nile region, Annika McGinnis, an Earth Journalism Network intern based in Washington, DC, happened to visit Uganda. During her visit, we decided to start InfoNile as a flagship project of Water Journalists Africa.
At InfoNile, we transform [the stories InfoNile funds] into long-form multimedia projects focused on different themes, published on InfoNile and various partner media houses. The stories we produce do not just live in the newspaper or on the Internet—they live on the maps we generate. This helps the reader compare, contrast, and find the connections between the stories of the Nile and helps them make informed decisions.
How does InfoNile work? What does it look like for a journalist to work with you?
InfoNile is not a media house. We apply for grants available for environmental journalists and then subgrant them to our members spread across 11 countries of the Nile Basin, who produce stories for their own media houses. We mentor them [and] help them produce data visualizations in collaboration with Code for Africa, a nonprofit. We also translate the stories that they do into English and other local languages.
You recently worked with seven other journalists from across the region on the issue of land grabbing. What were some of the major challenges you faced?
The land-grabbing story was one of our first cross-border projects. We needed to link to environmental journalists in the Nile Basin. This was a challenge, especially in Eritrea, where we failed to link to a journalist who could write in English. We faced a similar challenge in the DR Congo. It was hard to find a journalist who could write in English. However, we expanded our networks and got in touch with experienced journalists in some of these countries, except Eritrea, where we are still struggling to find journalists.
The other main challenge was the language barrier. There are several languages spoken in the Nile Basin: Arabic, English, Kiswahili, Amharic, French, and others. We had to recruit coordinators to translate stories into different languages. This, of course, meant extra spending.
Talking of challenges, what kind of challenges do your journalists tend to face in general?
The first is that most journalists lack skills in data journalism. A recent baseline content analysis that we carried out showed that most stories journalists do in the region are based on speeches by politicians and different events that they attend. They don’t use facts and data to report their stories.
The other challenge is that some of the stories related to the Nile are politically sensitive, and journalists fear going into details as these issues are linked to national security. Some governments in the region, whom I wouldn’t want to name, don’t entertain requests from journalists [particularly about the Nile] as this is a matter of their national security. Similarly, the governments want journalists to think about their own country, rather than the entire region, when writing on issues related to the Nile. This can be described as a form of “imposed nationalism” under which journalists are obliged to show their own country in a good light and others in a bad.
The Nile doesn’t care whether you are from Uganda or Egypt.
Yes, that’s true. But some journalists don’t understand that and they don’t want to collaborate with other journalists from the region. They just want to write stories about their community or their country and compete with other journalists rather than collaborate on important issues that have transboundary consequences.
It’s been 17 years since you started off as a journalist. What kind of changes have you seen for science and environment journalists in the Nile region?
There have been a lot of changes. Scientists who work in the region are more accessible than before (mainly due to the spread of social media). These days it’s the scientists who reach out to journalists for co-production of knowledge. They have started simplifying their work and doing away with jargon that normal people wouldn’t understand. This has helped journalists to write fact-based stories rather than stories that rely on speeches delivered by the politicians.
The other big change is that when I started, climate change was something confined to the corridors of academia, but now everyone knows it’s happening. For example, ask a farmer why he can’t grow millet the way he used to do in the past, they will tell you the climate is changing. They will also tell you the reason climate change is happening.
What do you think led to these changes?
I think it’s a combination of many things. Scientists now look at journalists as partners, unlike in the past, where the trust gap between the two was wide. In the past, mistrust between the two blocked the flow of information from scientists to the public. The scientists thought they would rely on conferences to disseminate their research finds but this was not enough; they needed the media. So, scientists now have more media platforms to reach out to the public. But also, with increased science reporting, the informed public is now quick to demand answers that only scientists can provide.
How about the noise in the media? Media houses tend to focus on spicy things related to politics and celebrities rather than serious issues such as climate change.
Yes, the noise is always there. The recent COP also didn’t get the space it deserved in the media outlets in the region. There’s a big competition for space in the media. But I believe that a climate story can be just as interesting as a story related to politics or celebrities. If you can relate the story to things people are interested to read about, then they definitely will read it.
Some journalists are doing that, but others prefer not to. Some editors are reluctant to spice up climate stories.
But these days, people are demanding more climate stories from media houses. Whenever there is an extreme weather event, they call up the local radio or the newspaper to ask journalists to investigate. This also shows the level of trust the public has in the media outlets.
How has the pandemic affected your journalists’ ability to report from the field?
The pandemic has had a telling effect on journalists reporting on the environment in the region. Many lost their jobs, and some even died after contracting the disease. Funding has also dried up, and disbursement of grants has been delayed. The main challenge, however, is related to transportation. Journalists have been confined to their desks to report on stories happening far away, and there is a lack of local voices in the stories.
Abhaya Raj Joshi is a journalist based in Kathmandu, Nepal. He writes on environment, wildlife, and climate change issues. Follow him on Twitter @arj272.