Beneath the hot sun, a group of small, colorfully billed Sub-Saharan birds perches on the backs of large mammals, feeding on ticks and other parasites. These birds are oxpeckers, the avian inspiration behind South African journalist Fiona Macleod’s environmental journalism watchdog organization of the same name. The eco-parasites Macleod and her reporters seek to remove are not ticks but elephant poachers, wildlife traffickers and corrupt mining companies.
Founded by Macleod in 2013, Oxpeckers is the first organization of its kind in Africa, using geospatial mapping and data analysis to achieve the latest in investigative reporting. Since its founding, Oxpeckers has also partnered with Wildleaks, an online whistleblower platform, and started a fellowship program for young journalists in Africa and Asia.
What motivated you to start the Oxpeckers organization?
I’d been a journalist for many years (more than I’d like to say!), working at the Mail and Guardian, one of South Africa’s major investigative newspapers. The environmental issue doesn’t get a lot of attention, mainly because of funding cuts and lack of resources. I want to be a mentor and assist a new generation of environmental reporters, to get them involved in the beat, and provide support in Africa and elsewhere.
How has Oxpeckers grown over the past few years?
I see it as a great success. We are known for our integrity in this part of the world. Our reporters were recognized with an SAB EnviroMedia Award for Print and Online and a Merit Award in the Asian Environmental Awards in 2014. We also received a grant from the African News Innovation Challenge to develop digital tools.
What is the importance of investigative reporting in South Africa?
Investigative journalism was big during the Apartheid era; it played a big role in investigating corruption. The state of journalism has become feeble since then, watered down due to fewer resources and funding. South Africa’s proposed Protection of State Information Bill is currently on hold, but it could threaten people’s right to know. Universities and media organizations are dealing with it on the frontlines, and we are supporting them, fighting that fight.
How is reporting in South Africa different than reporting in other countries?
Although South Africa is quite advanced compared to other countries in the region, it hasn’t done very well on the World Resources Institute Environmental Democracy index. [It ranks 52 out of 180 countries according to the World Freedom Index]. We do well in terms of legislation to deal with issues, but there is a problem with access. South Africa has a Public Information Act (PIA), which is similar to FOIA in the U.S. We depend on a lot of PIA applications and requests.
What advice do you offer to your fellows covering Asia and other African countries?
We’ve had six fellows since the program began. It’s very difficult for them; they don’t have the same capabilities we do. You just have to pursue the government officials until you get the information, or in some countries, nongovernmental agencies. One of the biggest successes to date has been the Chinse Environmental Journalism Project, which has helped to link journalists in both these areas.
Tell me about your latest success in Mozambique.
I’m rather proud of this development. Oxpeckers had been covering the illegal ivory and rhino horn trade for two and a half years, and over the last couple days, Mozambique has been burning illegal elephant ivory and rhino horn. It was controversial, and we have gotten input and debates about the topic, but I’m very proud to see we helped to make an impact.
How do you separate being an environmental journalist from being an activist?
There is a fine line between journalism and activism, and I am aware of that all the time. Sometimes, though, you verge on the edge. I wanted to say “yay!” to the rhino horn burning, but then realized I’m a journalist, I’m supposed to be neutral, so I really can’t. I go back to my original training of what a journalist is: telling both sides of the story, contacting those you make allegations against. The basics ethics of journalism always apply.
How have technology and social media revolutionized the way you do journalism?
One of Oxpeckers’ main mandates is to use new technology, which is why we have been developing geo-journalism, online interactive maps and #GreenAlerts. #Greenalerts is a way to track environmental impact assessments by ZIP code, to sign online petitions and to monitor nearby developments. And we wouldn’t have grown as quickly as we did without social media.
Have you ever been challenged or threatened as a result of your reporting?
Our reporters do get threats, some more concerning than others, particularly on the Mozambique story, or when digging around sensitive topics. You always have to be careful, but that is the nature of journalism.
What are your goals for Oxpeckers in the future?
To expose some bad guys and succeed in producing fine environmental journalism research. It’s taken a lot of hard work to get to where we are now and hasn’t happened without hard work and dedication.
Tagged under: FOI