SOON after touchdown at South Africa’s OR Tambo International Airport on 16 November at 10am, travellers shove their way through busy long queues waiting to be cleared my immigration and security.
While the airport is the biggest and busiest in Africa, traffic is unusually high in the festive season, as people travel to their favourite holiday destinations.
However, among the arrivals are journalists trickling from across the world, to attend the 19th Africa Investigative Journalism Conference (AIJC), the continent’s leading gathering of working journalists hosted by Witwatersrand University.
The AIJC, an annual meeting, also brings together editors and experts from across Africa and the world to share knowledge, skills, and experiences and is also a platform for networking and collaboration among investigative journalists.
This year, the conference also held its inaugural Africa Investigative Journalist of the Year award to award excellence in investigative reporting across the continent.
At the airport, taxi drivers are flagging delegates who have been selected for the AIJC Masterclass, a fellowship that precedes the actual conference. In the airport’s mid-ring are banner-hoisting transporters with names of some of the delegates, preparing to shuttle them to the main conference.
Most of the journalists are strangers to each other but, in no time, the ice breaks and networking starts as they transit to the hotel, where they rest in preparation of the real business that follows.
The day after is busy, and packed with educative material on the use of open source intelligence (osint), which involves collecting, evaluating and analysing publicly available information to answer a specific question in investigations.
Osint provides new tools to journalists attending the masterclass, and Bellingcat, an investigative journalism group, is up to the task, simplifying all concepts to equip the class with new skills.
Bellingcat is famed for one particularly huge investigative coup, in which they revealed the true identity of Russian suspects in the Salisbury poisoning.
After the suspects appeared on television, it took just under two weeks for the real identity of one of them to be revealed, using osint tools.
For three days during the masterclass, journalists are taught how to use key tools to carry out crucial tasks like geo-location, chrono-location, verification, passive research and tracking different modes of transportation including airplanes, ships and fishing boats.
Back home, across the continent, most media are still clawing their way out of the abyss, and are lagging a few light years in terms of adopting technology.
The conference itself is a hive of activity featuring some of the biggest names in investigate journalism. In attendance is Anas Aremeyew Anas, a top Ghanaian investigative journalist.
He never takes off his mask in public. His presentation, though not a keynote address, is packed as people wait for Kodak moments with him immediately after he has delivered his presentation.
“Journalists should support and make noise for one another in the face of persecution. Journalists across the country have not been as united in the face of persecution. We have created a safe space (safe house) for other journalists who are in danger across the continent,” Anas says.
There is total silence, in the emotion-saturated auditorium, as he makes his presentation on the murder of Arsene Salomon Mbani Zogo, Martinez Zogo, popularly known as Martinez Zogo, who was abducted and killed after unearthing a major corruption scandal.
His mutilated body was found near the Cameroonian capital, Yaoundé. Al Jazeera lead investigators Alexander James and Sarah Yeo, renowned in Zimbabwe for a major investigative coup, the Gold Mafia, produced earlier this year, are also present.
The hard-hitting documentary exposes how well-connected political elites have been smuggling the country’s gold, while laundering money through South African and United Arab Emirates (UAE) banks.
The racket also included several people, all of them linked to President Emmerson Mnangagwa, including Ambassador-at-Large Uebert Angel and Zimbabwe Miners’ Federation president Henrietta Rushwaya, among others. James and Yeo’s findings show that criminal gangs have been legitimising money laundered through gold exports and front men, who wash the dollars through initiatives such as the Advance Payment Scheme. While the evidence was overwhelming, no arrests have been done.
“Zimbabwe, under President Mnangagwa, is a captured state, and the distinction between supposedly independent institutions like the Reserve Bank and the pockets of the President and those around him, the gold miners, the lines of distinction are not there,” James told The NewsHawks on the sidelines of the conference.
“So when people talk about sanctions on the President, it is by extension the capture of the state because he has control of that state. And that was it. It was showing essentially the theft of a country, the theft of a nation by the Gold Mafia, by those close to the President, and by all accounts these people are still doing business in Zimbabwe, still making money, still robbing the country.”
Other presentations focused on crucial issues pertaining to the safety of journalists. Bellingcat’s Youri van der Werde presented on how they have been tracking stolen money and investigating suspicious real estate deals in France and beyond.
The NewsHawks news editor Owen Gagare presented in a session titled: Media and Money; Multiple Models for Sustainability, alongside experts like Guy Berger, a researcher, Stephen Omiri, from South Sudan’s Eye Radio, Internews’ Tim Zunckel and Sebenzile Nkambule from IJ Hub.
Respected South African investigative paper, amaBhungane, presented yet another key investigation involving Zimbabwe featuring south African tycoon Zunaid Moti.
After a US$120 million mining deal that led to a payout to President Mnangagwa’s farm in 2017, South African chrome magnate Moti used a fraud-ridden bank and accounts linked to a convicted gold smuggler to move US$44 million out of Zimbabwe, records by The Sentry show.
In addition to the US$1 million paid to Mnangagwa’s Pricabe Enterprises, Moti’s chrome deal also resulted in a US$2 million payment to a shell company controlled by Vice-President Chiwenga’s associates.