For the last one year, Asha Mwilu and her Debunk Media team have been innovators in residence, at The Aga Khan University Media Innovation Center in Nairobi, a project made possible through DW Akademie collaboration. Here, they have refined their skills and ideas, ready to leap into the future of journalism. She spoke to Peter Oduor.
Debunk Media wants young Africans to understand how big events in their environments affect them and why those events are important to them. It wants to show them the little dots and the invisible lines that join these events. Its founder and team leader, Asha Mwilu says Debunk Media is a platform for explanatory journalism.
She wants people to know why swarms of locusts that have invaded some East African nations are not just a food security problem but a climate change problem and possibly, a security problem as well. Her team is composed of very diverse young men and women with a potent mix of talents: Patrick trained as a doctor who now makes podcasts and loves investigative journalism, Sheila is an award-winning actress and producer, Juliet is a Mathematician, a data analyst and Ernest- an illustrator. On and on it goes. The rest of the team is the same; Collins, Peris and Wakini, all with exemplary professional backstories.
Debunk Media has been a gradual process for Asha Mwilu. It started from a disquiet she had while working for some of the top TV stations in Kenya (KTN and Citizen TV). Through her years as a political reporter, Chevening Scholar, a human interest features reporter, to an editor running a desk at the top TV stations; she wanted to practice journalism differently. She felt that there is more to a story than dry and disconnected reports and piles of statistics and figures. So she quit her job.
And for the last one year, Asha has been an innovator in residence together with her team, at The Aga Khan Media Innovation Center in Nairobi, a project made possible through DW Akademie collaboration.
She spoke about the journey, the important issues in East Africa today, telling the African story and the questions journalists should ask about the future of the industry.
The last couple of years have seen political upheavals in East Africa, grand social and economic shifts and of course the pandemic. What has it been like, working in the media industry, within this context?
I see what we do as a privilege. To see what is going on in our region and cover these events for the world; terrorism and security issues, climate change, hunger, police brutality, gradual economic growth in some areas… This is why I get worried when I see media space shrinking.
Think of security reporting – the Westgate Mall terror attack in Nairobi, I was on site for 4 days. Or covering police violence or the return of authoritarianism in Kenya and seeing similar patterns of sanctioned police brutality in Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania.
Being a media practitioner, you see the invisible lines that drive the bigger events. Being in the field means you interact with the people on the ground and can see the biases, the fears and the assumptions in the society that drive the major events.
The way that Africa is presented in the media has been changing over time. Can you talk about the media industry in Africa and its place in presenting the contemporary African story?
It is a fact that the way Africa has been presented has been problematic. For international media, the approach has previously been to parachute reporters into African news settings without proper background. For local media, it has been about looking inwards; covering the immediate things that concern us.
The fact that two or three media houses have monopolised the industry in various countries has not been helpful either, especially when the monopolies are controlled by financial interests – journalism hurts.
The presence of international media does help when they cover issues and stories that local media have ignored. Like the BBC investigative documentary on how Burundi’s security services run torture and detention sites to silence dissent or the BBC’s coverage of the brutality against protesters in Sudan.
My reflection is that the digital revolution has forced us to think differently. We can be local yet see how our stories fit globally and within the continent. This is an opportunity for good journalism and quality content for African and international audiences. The period we are in right now provides a chance for local media outlets to ask themselves the hard questions: What do we stand for? What do we do to survive? What will the future look like? Will journalists be needed, and what will they be needed for?
Debunk Media is built on the promise of using the talents of various skill sets to digitally make sense of the issues that affect us. In your view, what are the five core issues that should be of grave concern to us at the moment?
First, health; Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that this is an issue that will be here for a while. Also on health, is the problem of mental health. There is climate change and how it impacts food security, then there is the economy- Kenya is in debt, the other East African nations are not doing well either and with this comes the issues of youth unemployment and job losses. The fourth and perhaps the most important issue is governance; general elections, local politics, geopolitics and regional diplomacy. The last item is data rights. Tanzania recently changed its laws. Kenyans have started receiving Huduma Namba cards (a government driven National Integrated Identity Management System that contains an individual’s biometric data) and the main conversation around it has been how to safeguard it from data breaches by corporates, the government itself and rogue elements.
Our duty, as the Debunk team, is to look at some of these issues. For instance, the climate change issue was tackled by the team in an interactive piece that focused on the extent of the flooding in Baringo County in Kenya, the reason for the floods, the impact it had on the community and what it means for Baringo County.
Debunk is part of a growing collection of digital media and storytelling platforms across the continent. Where do you see your platform and your team in the next couple of years?
One thing I like about the independent media space is how collaborative it is. Working with others is easy. I want us to help move the needle. When you look at the trends in society, we need truth tellers. I would like Debunk Media to be part of the space that the public can trust, believe in and find credible. We should be a giant, a leader in storytelling; to be a head of the pack in film, journalism and innovation. And, hopefully, be a household name that can carry the torch in Kenya and Africa.
Misinformation and fake news is a global problem. It is difficult to regulate content creation and content distribution, especially on digital platforms. What are your thoughts on the best possible approaches that we could/ should have as a response to this moment?
Misinformation thrives when the media industry is weak, when we don’t have media establishments that can fact-check. This is not just a digital media problem only. I strongly believe that if the media industry were strong, we’d not have this much misinformation.
The Aga Khan University Media Innovation Center trains future media-thought leaders and media industry change makers. How has your experience been like so far?
The media innovation center is for the media community. We never had this before. A place where we can share ideas, meet like-minded professionals and find people who can listen to the ideas we have and help sharpen and polish them. It is the type of a place where you can bring an idea to life and have the initial support to get your project off the ground. The coaches, the trainers and the other innovators… It is a wonderful environment.
It is common to see media and digital media start-ups shutdown within the first year or two of operation. What do you make of this?
Being an innovator in the media means stepping out of the comfort zone that the newsroom gives you as a practitioner where you are just a reporter or an editor… For the most part, journalists in mainstream/ established media houses do not have to worry about where the money is coming from. They do not see the back end… it’s tough. These are worries founders of digital platforms and new media outfits have to deal with. Many moving parts that only you (the founder) is aware of. The other thing is leadership… for start-ups, this is crucial. Lastly, knowing how difficult the initial stage can be, you have to believe in the dream long enough to see it through and communicate this to people.
You and your team have spent time at Aga Khan Media Innovation Center for a year as innovators-in-residence. Has your experience at the center helped you see a clearer picture of media entrepreneurship and equipped you and the other participants well enough to not fall victim and fold at your infancy?
I believe we can survive the tumultuous initial years, and thereafter thrive. We have had time to think and refine our ideas. We have had sessions with a business coach, who went through the fine details of the financial aspect of our idea; we have had a journalism coach with whom we interrogated our content. And we have had several trainers. I think the center has given me and the team the initial push. We have the tools to move to the next stage. I understand the space we are going into better. I believe that we will survive. The need we are going to be serving is what will make Debunk survive, not because we are reinventing the wheel or that we are very different from other ideas out there, it is not because of these: Ours is to serve a need that is an essential need.
Most of the independent digital media platforms in East Africa like Debunk Media are run by young people. They have changed the approach to content creation, the distribution models, and the structure of how we tell our stories and a shift in content type too. Do you think we are witnessing lasting change?
I don’t think this is a YES or NO situation. Most of the institutions that have been challenged by society in any part of the world often come to that crisis point because they lack diversity; because they present a picture that doesn’t reflect society. The push for change comes when the society or certain elements (people) within the society realise and highlight that fact that we are more diverse than currently represented. This is the case in East Africa, and in the media in the region; it is easy to see for example that for the most part the gatekeepers in our media industry are older men. They are the ones who sit in boardrooms, they make the decisions, they are the editorial directors and program managers, CEOs, media directors etc. I believe this has contributed to our media spaces missing certain things. I don’t think young people, women, people with disabilities and certain minorities have been heard the way they ought to be. I am certain that if the media industry listened to these diverse voices in the region, mainstream media wouldn’t be in the crisis it is experiencing at the moment.
It is not a straightforward situation, to assume for instance that the audiences will go back to doing what they used to do, or that they will go back to the big media outlets and, I think it is unfair to assume that small platforms will fail (I get this assumption a lot by the way). There is a ship that sailed. The ship that sailed is that the society today is different. It has changed. Consumer patterns and preferences are very different. People are progressing… to new experiences.
Are innovation centers such as this one that you are part of good for the change we are witnessing in the media industry?
The innovation centers such as Aga Khan Media Innovation Center are one piece of this puzzle. They help create space for conversations that haven’t been had, or those that we have not had the platforms to discuss. Apart from this, they are environments where solutions to the society’s problems can be found. The people who come up with ideas and solutions to our problems need centers such as this to test their ideas, to support them in their creative process, especially ideas that come from people who don’t necessarily have no resources of their own or limited access to funds.
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