This is the first of a three part series, the #ProtestReportingProject, where CCIJ intern Abigail Goldberg-Zelizer explores the importance of journalism focused on political and social unrest around the world. Featuring journalists from Africa, Europe, and the United States, this blog series tries to grasp the importance and challenges of on the ground protest reporting.
Mongie Zulu, who is a journalist from Swaziland, believes that reporting on protests is his “national duty.” Reporting on political protests and social unrest has been the driving force behind both Zulu’s and other CCIJ journalists, such as Senior South African reporter Raymond Joseph’s careers. While the experience of covering local and national protests can vary depending on the country, many protest reporters feel a certain level of responsibility to the citizens of their country to write about conflict on the streets.
In the past couple of years, Zulu has found himself most commonly reporting on unrest against the monarchical system in Swaziland, or the Kingdom of Eswatini, known as the tinkhundla. For 25 years the country has been ruled by King Mswati III, but recently there has been a rise in oppositional political parties, Zulu explained.
This opposition has manifested itself on the streets in the form of protests against the immense wealth inequality in the country. According to WorldBank Swaziland has a 58.9% poverty rate. “The political conflicts come under the guise of protests for wages or any other related labor matters,” Zulu explains.
Despite the fact that these labor protests have not had much of an impact in terms of policy changes, Zulu believes that this unrest has begun a dialogue between the people and the government. Last year in light of protests, King Mswati III made a plea to that nation: “The King said even though there are going to be some disagreements, there has to be dialogue going on, which to me, it was sort of acknowledging that, the protests by political parties last year did damage his image as a King.”
In addition to Zulu’s current work, there’s also a long and rich history of protest reporting in that region of Africa during aparthide. Raymond Joseph, who serves as the CCIJ Regional Hub Director for South Africa, has also spent much of his career amidst internal political protest. Beginning his reporting in 1976 under apartheid, Joseph was exposed to intense violence and conflict. “So many journalists will go through their life without ever really seeing a dead body or violence on the job,” Joseph said. “And suddenly here I was, this 20-year-old kid. And there were people being shot and killed all around.”
Since Joseph has the vantage point of being in the South African journalism industry for four decades, he has observed first hand how covering protests can define a generation of reporters. Reporting on such extreme violence and conflict forces journalists to be sharper, but can also have harmful effects. “We are such a damaged generation. I mean still to this day I have PTSD and most South African journalists my age in some way or another will have it.”
Despite their different experiences, Zulu and Joseph reflected a shared set of challenges in terms of staying safe on the job. “A major concern is that the protesters identify you as part of the police, or that the police don’t confuse you as part of the demonstration,” Joseph explained. “It’s really important in that kind of conflict to find space where you’re not identified with one side or the other. But the problem is the front line moves all the time.” Zulu concurred that safety is his top concern at all times.
Staying employed comes second for Zulu. In Swaziland journalists who report on protests run the risk of not being employed by the state media because they will be seen as anti-government. “You might be confronted by security forces and asked to delete some photos or they might intimidate you on why you’re reporting,” he said.
Even amidst the obstacles and danger, Joseph stresses the importance of reporting the real facts on the ground. This is vital because of his experience with the inaccurate reporting of the police. During a memorable uprising in Alexandria, Joseph and a fellow reporter climbed up a tree to look into the gated area around the police station. “The next day the police reported how many people had died in that area, and we had seen 5,6,7 times more bodies lying around that day. So that’s always stuck with me,” Joseph recalled.
In South Africa and Swaziland, protest reporting is a crucial and power check on the government. Joseph hopes that the new generation of reporters understands the risk and importance of reporting on social unrest: “My hope is that this young generation does their research before covering a story. You need to prepare, when you get into a dangerous situation you need to know what you’re doing.”