Highlights from our Instagram Live with OWM New Voice winner, Runako Celina about how to report on minority communities.
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: So, as I mentioned, 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 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.