Highlights from our Instagram Lives with OWM New Voice winner, Runako Celina and International Journalist of the Year winner, Philip Obaji Jr.
Q: We’ve seen the investigative piece you published with the BBC Africa, but before we discuss that, can you tell us about your background and how you got started.
Runako Celina: I have been doing investigations now with BBC Eye Investigations and BBC Africa Eye for the past two and a half to three years. This was an exceptionally long investigation. But my background, actually, was that I was based in Beijing for seven years. And throughout that time, I started to document the experiences of my own community, which was essentially the African diaspora and that took me to this investigation.
Q: Can you tell us about how you first came about this story?
Runako: I was living in China when I realised that there were videos being filmed featuring young African children, and others as well, saying things that were derogatory, but sometimes the content was quite innocent too. The idea that an industry exists around sticking cameras into faces of people from far flung villages, as a foreigner, not someone who’s your family or community, was always seen as problematic, and there were so many people that tried to raise awareness. And it still continues, despite the uproar.
In 2020, one video in particular started to surface online in which the children are speaking in Chinese Mandarin saying what means in English, I’m a black devil, and is essentially the N word. Everyone’s outraged but this is an industry that has been allowed to exist for several years. By that time I had left China because of the pandemic. But I decided to try and investigate the and our executive producer, who was incredibly supportive from the very beginning facilitated that.
Q: What was the reporting process like while still protecting the sensibilities of everyone involved?
Runako: From the beginning of the reporting process, we worked in tandem with my co-reporter, Henry Mhango, who was Malawian and could translate on the ground. And that was really important to me as someone who’s based outside of the continent. Having that engagement and working together was key.
The pandemic really impacted things so we spent a year and a half on this investigation. The first thing to do was to identify where the video was filmed , which involves open source techniques. We searched online and looked at every angle of a tree, every building in the village, everything that you see in the background in this video to find out where this could be.
The second step was to make contact with the families and think about how to do that in a sensitive way that respects everyone involved and also doesn’t cause more trauma.
We realised very early on that this operation was ongoing. It’s not the only operation across the continent, but it was still a live operation. And we had to think about recognising the economic situation at play as well. This industry was made possible by economic exploitation. The videos would have only been filmed in areas where people were quite deprived, where there were little resources and little financial opportunity.
And so we’re thinking about trying to expose an industry that in some sense has some financial gain. Our producer was just exceptional in speaking to the families, and trying to understand what the industry meant to them and how they felt about it. Only once we got a sense that there was a deep frustration at the presence of this content creator in their community, did we think this is something to take further.
Q: What has winning the One World Media New Voice Award meant?
Runako: The Award is an opportunity to remember why what we do is important. To bring these issues back into focus in a news cycle that is constantly moving and forgetting important issues. I’m exceptionally grateful for the recognition.
Q: What advice would you give to early and mid-career journalists?
Runako: As cheesy as it sounds, it’s to never give up. Keep producing content, even if it’s on your own platform. Also, mentorship and getting people around you to show you how to emulate their steps if that’s what you want to do, or teach you how to make a name for yourself, is really important. And then the final thing is to think about the stories that you want to tell and how you want to tell them. One of the things I felt most uncomfortable with journalism was just this idea that the story matters above all else. Stories are the currency of journalism but there’s more to it than that.
I think sometimes we forget about the moral side of things, the contributors, who we’re interviewing and the kinds of stories we’re telling, and if we’re the right people to tell their stories. For me, when I think about stories, I ask, am I the person to report on this? Do I have any personal connection? Is there someone who could do this story better justice? Not being the face of a story doesn’t mean that you can’t be involved in investigating it, in tailoring it and helping it to shape into what you think it should be. Remember that we are in public service so it’s not just about you.
Q. How did you find yourself in investigative journalism?
Philip: Let me start from the very beginning. I’m a sports lover and I love football. I support Manchester United and so growing up, when I was 15, in 2000, I went to a local radio station in Calabar, a city in Southern Nigeria, called the Calabar Broadcasting Corporation. I went to the management and said I wanted to become a sports analyst. And surprisingly, they gave me a chance on the radio.
When the Boko Haram insurgency began in Nigeria, I noticed that a lot of kids had fled their homes in northern Nigeria to Calabar, where I lived. I interviewed them and asked why they fled. They said their homes had been destroyed by Boko Haram and that some of their peers had been conscripted by the Boko Haram insurgent group. So I began to think, how can we prevent more children from getting conscripted? I travelled to Maiduguri in the northeast to see the level of disruption and when I returned to Calabar, I wrote about my experience and shared it on social media.
An editor with the Daily Beast saw this article and reached out to me to ask if I was willing to join the outlet to write about human rights issues. I said yes and that was how it began. This was in 2015 and I haven’t looked back.
Philip: When someone tells me they are interested in writing stories for more established platforms, I say that editors want to check out your work first. If you say you are a writer and have a good story, that may not be enough. The editor wants to see the work you’ve done. So I encourage people to create a blog and even publish their work on LinkedIn. Write and share articles on social media or Medium.
Meanwhile, it is no longer difficult to find these editors like in The Guardian UK, Al Jazeera or The Daily Beast because their emails are usually on their social media profiles.
Philip: If you don’t have the approval to focus on a story, you are taking a gamble because you could go out there and do a good story and not find a platform to publish it. It’s really important to know how to pitch a story because it begins with that. So, pitching a story means you have a very strong story and know exactly how important it is. You have to convince an editor what new ideas you brought up that are different from what has been told on that topic in the past and why the story has to be told at this time. Knowing the best time to approach someone or an editor is key in freelance journalism.
Q. What made you apply for the One World Media Awards and in this category?
Philip: Last year I did a lot of reports on the Wagner group and also on how victims of human trafficking ended up in sex slavery. My editors thought we’ve done a lot of exclusives and decided to enter many of my stories for several awards in the United States. But I entered the One World Media Awards on my own. Initially, I thought about entering the Refugee Reporting category, but then I realised that not every story I’ve reported involves refugees. The only other category I could think of was International Journalist of the Year. And people encouraged me to go for that category because they felt I had written so many exclusives about the Wagner group that should be recognised. If I didn’t get that encouragement, I wouldn’t have been confident enough to enter in this category.