Difficult investigations, mental health and teaching the next generation: a conversation with John-Allan Namu
John-Allan Namu is a Kenyan investigative journalist, CEO and co-founder of Africa Uncensored, an investigative media house focusing mostly on in-depth documentaries. Africa Uncensored also works on other projects such as short explainers, fact-checking on their sub-domain Piga Firimbi and their latest innovation Wizileaks, which collates corruption and graft-related information from all the Kenyan regimes since independence.
Africa Uncensored has also been positively influencing the journalism profession in Kenya by training and mentoring young journalists. To date, John-Allan and Africa Uncensored have collectively trained over 700 journalists, most of whom are now working in different newsrooms and media organisations and independently telling impactful stories.
John-Allan’s journalism career spans over 18 years, 17 of which he has spent working on investigative documentaries. As a pioneer investigative documentary producer, John-Allan has worked on some of Kenya’s most daring investigations touching on powerful government figures as well as prominent Kenyans, the most recent being ‘Pandora Papers: The Kenyatta’s Secret Companies’, a documentary about secret companies owned by the family of the then Kenyan president. This was a collaboration with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) from the leaked Pandora Papers. His other documentaries include The Profiteers, which exposes how certain members of South Sudan’s elite have profited from the civil war and plundered their nation, all the while investing in Kenya and other East African countries. Another example is Justice be our shield: The Mavoko 3 murders, an exposé about the kidnapping, torture and murder of a human rights lawyer, his client and their trusted driver by police officers.
He has received numerous awards for his work including CNN African Journalist of the Year, joint journalist of the year at 2015 and 2017’s Annual Journalism Excellence Awards by the Media Council of Kenya, and was named a 2019 Global Shining light award finalist. Doing the kind of exposés John-Allan produces not only comes with accolades but also with threats. He has received death threats over some of the stories that he has covered, and he has been forced to take extra precautions such as relocating with his family for a few weeks after publishing some of the documentaries.
Q. You worked in mainstream media for a couple of years before starting Africa Uncensored. Could you tell us what made you venture out of mainstream media?
A. I want to answer that question differently every time I am asked because, depending on the day, there are different motivations, but I think the overarching one is wanting to be almost like a master of my own destiny. You just want to be able to tell stories the way you want to tell them or influence journalism in a certain direction. Unfortunately, it comes from a kind of narcissism that all journalists have, that they think they can leave an imprint in society with their reporting. Mine was a bit stronger than others’. Other than that, you could tell that there had been a shift from the early to mid-2010s, a downwards shift in terms of professionalism within the mainstream media where there were instances of censorship and victimisation. Lastly, I think the business model wasn't very encouraging and I thought that we could try something else: we haven't succeeded yet, but it looks promising.
Q. You have been training and mentoring young journalists from the early days of Africa Uncensored. Why do you do it?
A. It would be a disservice to us, to journalists everywhere, if journalists such as myself who have been around a bit longer than the majority of journalists who are practising in our country, don't look back, share and reach out to try and influence journalists to do things a little better than the environment encourages them to. The selfish motive is that I want to be able to retire at some point in time knowing that there will be different people who have been mentored or trained and are doing their thing in different places. I can see the early fruits of it: you are an example, someone like Iqra Salah is in the States, and a couple of mentees are working in local media as well as international media, and so that's that really the goal. Our thoughts about journalism, our methods, and perhaps even just the culture to want to do good work is something that we can share and keep Kenya, the region and the continent as a powerhouse in terms of quality journalism.
In 2007, a cameraman and producer was brought from Reuters to train local journalists on writing for news and that was one of the most impactful training sessions I ever attended. Using the skills that he taught me during that session I went on to do two stories in 2008, both of which won CNN Awards. I can draw a line back from my success and my team’s success to the three or four days that I was allowed to go in training. So, I am a big believer in especially practitioners training other people because you have seen things in the field, you have experienced stuff and sometimes it's easier to communicate that way and that's exactly what that Reuters producer did.
Q. How has it been, working on investigations touching on senior people in government and prominent and influential individuals in the country?
A. You just try and think about it like any other job. You look at it like, fine this guy is a senior person, but he is a person whom we are holding accountable. So, I try to think about them in that way so that I don't get too intimidated by the weight of their name. For instance, you might think that it's easy to write a Right of Response letter to the President, but it is not because you write and rewrite it. But at the end of the day, you want to try and be as professional as possible and you must stop where the facts stop and at the same time try and be as informative and in-depth as possible. So, to answer you, it's never easy, especially in our context, but we do try and be professional and I guess history will be the one that judges us.
Q. Can you tell us a high in your career?
A. Inasmuch as it's been difficult, these seven years that I've spent working at Africa Uncensored have also been the most rewarding. I have been able to do things that I would have never done in the newsroom.
I have also seen our team change. Young people walk in here with no idea what to do and then in a year or two produce a stunning piece of work; that has been a real high for me and I wouldn't trade it for any other experience in the profession. I look at this not just as me working by myself, I want to look at Africa Uncensored’s whole body of work as my magnum opus where, when I walk away from this, people will turn back and be like, that organisation has really had, and continues to leave, a big imprint on the state of journalism on the continent.
Q. What about a low moment in your career?
A. There are two lows that come to mind now. One was the story that I did on Felicien Kabuga in 2012 and the fact that I got it wrong forever just haunts me in a sense because even with the purest of intentions, the purity of your intention can still be overwhelmed by just one mistake, and I'm reminded of that constantly and so it scares me that back then that I didn't realise the mistake that I made.
The second low has always been any time I've had to leave my home and my place of work to go and sort of cool my heels, I published part of the story of the most recent one on Twitter, and I didn’t even say half of the dark thoughts that I had at that time.
I'm going to be sharing some experiences on the emotional toll of investigative journalism on the 12th of this month with @risj_oxford . So, in preparation let me share one (short-ish) story from October-November last year, about #PandoraPapers and the days after. Ready? OK— John-Allan Namu (@johnallannamu) October 4, 2022
Q. Do you think it helps when a journalist speaks about a failure like you just talked about your past mistake?
A. This lesson I learnt from my wife. I had considered just being quiet, but she's very open and very honest and I guess in some way it was cathartic for me to talk about this failure. Secondly, if there's anything that both being a husband and a father is, people learn as much from your successes as they do from your failures and there is no human being who is perfect, there is no journalist who is perfect. We all make mistakes, some bigger than others, some perhaps come from ill intentions, others innocent and from pure intentions. But I guess the sum total of it was, it was important for me to just be honest about what happened with that story and over time, from the number of times I've told that story, it has allowed me to appreciate myself better, to know that you can fail and then you can move on.
Interestingly, the other day we were having a monthly get-together here at the office and one of the young reporters was like, “I know John-Allan, the way he does his work, if he could mess up so much,” and she emphasised the ‘so much’, “who am I.” So, I hope the story becomes a cautionary tale for some but also something that reminds people to always keep their wits about them.
Q. How do you manage to move past your disappointment and fears and still move on to do other stories?
A. I think it just boils down to reminding yourself that nobody owes you credit or accolades for the work that you do, you'd hope for it but nobody owes the story that you do the favour of it being successful and trust me, I look at the views sometimes on our YouTube page, and this is really good content, and I wish it could have done better and I really feel sad, especially for our young journalists. But remember that at the end of the day, sometimes it's not about the individual story, like I mentioned earlier it's about the body of work. If your body of work speaks to its consistency in truth, in fact, in striving for excellence, then one day your body of work as a whole might be the one that is commemorated. I don't know how this is all going to end but that's the hope.
I also try to think of it more as, your work is not the highlight but your work is building a library, and people visit libraries all the time and maybe one day they will pull out your work and be like, this is a very true characterisation of the point in time in which we were. See, we are the first drafters of history so I hope that my drafts are as accurate as possible.
Q. So how can journalists best handle this emotional toll?
A. That's actually a very serious question and I’ll answer it this way: when I joined our profession, there was this pub in town, I don't know if it's still there, and that's where all the senior journalists used to go and drink. I went there once, and I saw some of my senior colleagues really sloshed and then someone pointed out to me, “That one has a drinking problem.” In this profession, in every newsroom I've been to, I found at least one person who's had a problem with substance abuse, with some sort of abusive relationship with something. I think it's because of the scale of exposure to some of the things that we see. People don't realise that journalists are exposed to a hell of a lot.
The way to deal with the emotional toll is to start to practice self-care and recognise what your triggers are. As for me, I get very emotional when I do stories about children, I hate doing stories about kids, especially kids in trouble. Recognise how you react to them naturally, do you react angrily? Do you withdraw?
Then also what's been helpful is speaking to someone. As a consequence not just of what I do but also of personal things, I have sought professional help and I have a good support system in my wife and my family, and I try not to re-traumatise her when speaking about some of those things.
I find that sometimes just having a laugh or exercise for me really helps me focus on one thing and let everything else fade into the background for an hour or so every day and when I come back to them, they don't seem so big or so daunting.
But I say this from a point of extreme privilege, I am in Nairobi; it is one of the most connected cities, and I have been fortunate enough to meet all sorts of people who give me these tips. So what of the journalist on the frontier who doesn't have that outlet? I think it's just finding an opportunity to talk about some of the things you have seen. It really helps you get them out without even reliving them. Just remember that these things are things that happen around you, that they do not define who you are, that you might not have been able to stop these traumatic events and that the job requires that you see these kinds of things. But I think one mistake in our profession is that you're supposed to be dispassionate. I remember being told, ‘You must be dispassionate about everything’ but that is not what a human being is, human beings have passions as you know, and you will always react to things emotionally before you do logically. The key is to remind yourself that your emotions are not the story, and after the story is done, your emotions become the story: you have to be able to deal with what it is that you see.
Watch John-Allan's Global Journalism Seminar at the Reuters Institute