Q&A with OWM Award winner Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu

Highlights from our IG Live with OWM Award winner, Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu, openDeomocracy’s East Africa reporter who won the New Voice Award this year. Khatondi spoke to us about how to report a story while protecting vulnerable sources. You can read Khatondi’s work here.


What drew you to the story? Why did you want to tell these stories?

I pointed out these realities of LGBTQ people in Uganda. As someone who has been working in feminist and LGBTQ spaces for a few years now, I was aware of this issue. It’s different when you are working in the NGO world or even in US law school. Perhaps you’ve written an essay on LGBTQ rights or the unconstitutionality of the Penal Code (Anti-Gay) Law. That’s different from journalistic work. Journalism has been a much more personal way for me to care about these topics and do something about it. Even when we publish stories on LGBTIQ communities in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, or in Africa, sometimes it’s hard to get them co-published in mainstream media because a lot of media is still conservative, patriarchal and homophobic. It was amazing that I had the opportunity to do this work. I know how journalism sometimes is viewed as cold, factual and impartial. But investigative journalism has shown me I can be factual as a journalist but also be humane and not shy away from emotive storytelling: to care about people and you’re not afraid to show that in your stories.


Have there been any other challenges or learnings during the process that you want to talk about?

As someone who reports from East Africa on East Africa for an international media outlet, you try to avoid the pitfalls of pessimism. There is the challenge to not paint your region in a pessimistic light but try to balance that with the reality. Sometimes, even fellow journalists view your work as a kind of imperialism, like you’re the people reporting negatively about our country. There is that mistrust. [It’s] challenging because this work can be quite personal. It can be taxing on your mental health. This is something that I work with every day — ‘how do you carry yourself’, because it’s an ever-present challenge.

A work related challenge is that sometimes access to information in countries like mine can be extremely challenging because transparency laws and policies may not be as straightforward. So if you are going to look into like a group, sometimes it’s very hard to find the financial records of these groups, for example.


How do you protect your vulnerable sources while working on stories like this? How do you protect yourself?

This is such an important conversation to have. Oftentimes, as a journalist you may really want to tell a story. Us making the effort to reach out to these communities also means that we’re not just being extractive of their stories but also link it back to how we protect vulnerable sources. I’ve found I can protect my LGBTIAQ sources or female sources because I have spoken to these communities or their organiser and found out the best way to do that. I learn from them in many ways that you might not in journalism school, or training. And it takes listening. I would encourage journalists to be respectful of community organising and work with them, listen to them. Secondly, prepare. If you know that you are going to work with a vulnerable source, how do you make them safe? How do you make them comfortable?

We try to connect vulnerable groups that we have reported on with resources that they need. So if for example, you’ve been interviewing people on sexual gender based violence, sometimes people talking to you means opening themselves up to the trauma of returning to those stories. It would be good to establish relevant networks and recommend resources (legal, mental health) if they communicate that they need this.


What does winning this award means to you?

This means a lot. This was validation and recognition not just of my efforts, my team and their support, but of the stories we were telling. It means those stories are important and that we’ve told them well. That recognition to me is even beyond just me — it’s the sources, subjects, the communities whose stories we are telling. So it was very affirming. This is my first award in journalism. I think I’ll always look back and say, this was my first award. 


What are your tips for early career journalists?

Be confident in all the new and disruptive ways to tell stories. Take up training opportunities, especially the free ones. In this field, your skills are important. And take care of your mental health. The risk of burnout is real in journalism. Perhaps we could keep pushing for mental health friendly workplaces and policies. The last one is — and I know young people are already doing this — break the bias. I’m seeing a little reporting on how international journalism especially can be very elitist. A lot of people have gone to top journalism schools. Spaces like those are likely to have like a little bit of classist bias, maybe homophobic or transphobic bias too. Try to break that bias bracket for yourself but also for other journalists coming after you. Journalism as a whole is much better when we make such passes, we get diverse voices. We get much better stories. We do much better. 


You can watch the full interview on Instagram.