“There’s over 2,100 of you here and we aren’t going anywhere ... We’re on the right side of history,” said David Kaplan, the outgoing executive director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, from a stage in Gothenburg recently.
It was the opening of the Global Investigative Journalism Conference (GIJC), which takes place every two years in a different country: a huge meeting of investigative journalists from across the planet.
They share tips and advice, and build essential contacts for cross-border investigations on topics such as smuggling, financial wrongdoing and environmental crime.
It is inspiring. But – like every similar event I’ve been to over the past few years – while some participants feel welcome, some are kept away completely, due to humiliating and onerous visa restrictions.
This was highlighted at the conference’s gala dinner and awards ceremony, where a 50-minute long documentary, The Bandit Warlords of Zamfara, was announced as the winner of the Global Shining Light award. The film details the reasons for, and consequences of, a surge of banditry and kidnapping in northwest Nigeria. It was broadcast by the BBC.
BBC Africa Eye executive producer Daniel Adamson walked on to the stage. “I know we’re not supposed to make speeches but I really want to say that the person who should be here tonight [is] Yusuf Anka, a Nigerian reporter who risked his life to tell the story. He was invited to come ... and the Swedish embassy in Nairobi refused him a visa,” Adamson said, to audible disappointment from the crowd. “It’s Yusuf who should be here.”
For Africans – no matter their qualifications – visa applications can be extremely onerous and time-consuming, and the process humiliating. Applicants describe being treated with disdain and suspicion, charged unfair fees and made to produce overly specific documentation. And rejections often happen for no clear reason.
The process of applying for a European or US visa can even be life-threatening, as was seen in Sudan this year when Western embassies evacuated and shuttered without returning passports to Sudanese visa applicants, leaving them unable to escape the country.
Journalism is essential for democracy, and African journalists play a vital role in holding their own politicians to account. How much more could they do with better international support? Over the last year, I’ve recommended excellent journalists from Ethiopia, Sudan and Sierra Leone for fellowships abroad. They were accepted, but could not attend because of visa problems.
The treatment of African journalists at GIJC has led to a certain amount of outcry online. Those affected say they don’t want to let this slide by any more. But they need the help of their privileged colleagues.
“Press freedom is enhanced by freedom of movement; and freedom of movement is enhanced by visas,” tweeted Nigerian journalist and media consultant Ruona J Meyer, whose investigative work for the BBC was nominated for an Emmy in 2019.
“Professional visibility is one of the deadliest forms of power. Because it divides journalists by race, location, gender and socio-economic class. Those who lack it are prevented from realising their full professional potential, as it costs them money, their mental health and more.”
She said five different groups need to take action: “state bodies; journalism conference or event organisers; sponsors; non-African investigative journalists; and African investigative journalists.” She pointed out that the sponsors of GIJC included the City of Gothenburg and EU4 Independent Media, which is funded by the European Union.
Mojeed Alabi, an award-winning Nigerian journalist and head of the development desk at Nigeria’s Premium Times, told me almost all Nigerians granted permission to attend were given short-stay visas: his own was valid for just five days.
That meant he missed the final day of the conference, as well as an important meeting with a major organisation that runs programmes inside his home country.
Complying with unexpected restrictions meant more wasted time travelling to the airport in an attempt to change his plane ticket. Alabi eventually purchased a new one-way flight costing about 1.2 million naira (€1,475). “It was a terrible experience ... For people like me with short visas, it was just as if I didn’t participate.”
“As a European journalist, I attend conferences without thinking about the accessibility,” said Dutch journalism trainer Sanne Breimer. “But that’s not the same for journalists from the ... Global South.”
“Visa discrimination is not limited to journalists and it must become part of a broader discussion about migration,” she continued. “But it is important to create awareness and emphasise that this inequality is influencing the foundation of the journalism profession.”