It is four o'clock in the morning somewhere in the developing world and there is an insistent banging on your front door. Get up, get out of bed, calm your partner and quieten the children. Your heart is pounding. Three plain clothed policemen are there. You knew this could happen and now you are going with them - into the night.
It is a fear shared by investigative journalists across Africa.
Think of the contrast; in the West, the most likely reason for an investigative journalist to be up at 4 a.m. is their late arrival home from an awards ceremony. I can think of only one instance in a 30-year career where anyone in the West faced a 4 a.m. visit from the police.
It is a level of fear few journalists in the West would endure - the constant threat of arrest on jumped up charges, intimidation, death threats, the real threat of death itself; all part of the business of minding other people's business in the interest of the public good.
All the Africa Investigates reporters are practicing investigative journalists in Africa, used to these risks and each of the investigations in this series is theirs.
By definition, investigative journalism reveals things that someone with power wants hidden. So, the best investigative journalism usually upsets the most powerful people - the revelations about Watergate upset Richard Nixon, while those about rendition, the CIA, the non-existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction upset Tony Blair and George Bush.
The cast list of those Africa Investigates will upset is quite impressive too. There are no well-known names on the list - the African elite rarely make the world stage - but in their own societies they are impressive and powerful figures and by revealing their secrets Africa Investigates' journalists are exposing real hurdles stunting development in much of Africa: corruption, cronyism and the politics of fear.
Meeting the journalists
Anas Aremeyaw Anas is a Ghanaian journalist who is already famous in Ghana. Recently, his exposure of corrupt personnel at Ghana's main cargo port of Tema increased the port's revenue to Ghana's exchequer by tens of millions of dollars. Anas is one of the four journalists leading Africa Investigates. He has two investigations in this series - in one he busts a multi-million dollar gold scam and in the other he goes undercover as an illegal miner to reveal the human cost of gold. He also plays an important role in three other films where his impressive undercover skills achieve impressive results.
Sorious Samura from Sierra Leone is also involved in running Africa Investigates. His first exposé with Cry Freetown in 2000 changed the destiny of his country and his films since then have transformed African television journalism with their no compromise 'real reality' character driven style. (I admit to some bias here because I have been Sorious's executive producer on most of his films). His investigation for this series is still in production but his revelations will, I guarantee, reverberate around Africa and the world.
Four years ago Zimbabwe's Stanley Kwenda investigated election violence and the activities of one particular senior police officer. When his story hit the streets he had to risk crocodiles and hippos as he fled for his life across the Limpopo River into South Africa. Stanley crossed the Limpopo again for his Africa Investigates film when he followed the plight of Zimbabwean children, so miserable with their lives that they too have decided to flee their country in search of a better life in South Africa.
There are four other Africa Investigates journalists but they cannot be named; they are still working on their stories, and some will never be known because the sensitivity of their work makes anonymity their best defence.
Africa Investigates together with Al Jazeera, have been working with these journalists for most of this year to help them turn their own investigations into films. We bring resources and skilled director/cameramen and women to work with them and a global audience to appreciate their work.
Speaking truth to power
The logic is simple. With proper support, local investigators can make films that are closer and more detailed than traditional parachute journalism can provide. A foreign correspondent may arrive in a foreign land with good intentions and some knowledge of a story but they will have none of the 'lived experience' of the local reporter or the access and knowledge that comes with years of dogged work and connections. That is why foreign correspondents always hire local journalists, called 'fixers' in the trade, to help them get that valuable insight into their own reporting.
The closest most African journalists get to telling their own stories to a wider audience is as a fixer. As a reporter working abroad, I have employed many fixers. They were always the best journalists I could find and many of them, given the proper resources and trust, would have told a better story than I did in my two week sojourn in their country. What a waste of talent!
As I write (at the end of October 2011) investigations are still happening. Today, for example, in two countries in Africa, African journalists are stressed as they prepare for their latest sting. There will be subterfuge, acting, secret cameras and the ever-present danger that they will be caught. With or without Africa Investigates or Al Jazeera, this is what they do for a living; in their countries where status and wealth are protected by the real threat of violence, they speak truth to power.
In many African societies rumours of wrongdoing are the shadows of facts held captive by power. The key to releasing these facts is the integrity and determination of brave local journalists.
Since I first set foot in Africa to report on the Ethiopian famine in 1984, I have been in awe of such courage. No reporter in the West faces such challenges. The work of these journalists represents the very best of our trade.
By bringing some of these journalists together, Africa Investigates and Al Jazeera are recognising the importance of these reporters. We and most of those who will see their films are standing with them as they get on with their important work.
Ron McCullagh is the executive producer of Africa Investigates, Al Jazeera's new series which gives some of Africa's best journalists the chance to pursue high-level investigative targets.
Source: Al Jazeera