“There are lots of elections we’ve covered where someone says it was stolen. But here was a possibility to have a smoking gun, if this data really did come off the servers.”

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Episode notes

David Pilling is Africa editor for the Financial Times. In January 2019 his team broke a story on massive fraud in presidential and parliamentary elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The reporting was impressive for its depth, based on the systematic review of leaked electoral data. It was also striking because it was so unusual, following years of superficial and crisis-driven engagement with the DRC by the international press.

With that in mind, this episode is about when and how the international press engages with highly marginalised places.

We get into how international editors determine what’s newsworthy; the extent to which foreign media can or should act as a “fourth estate” in dysfunctional polities; and the process of getting an explosive story like the DRC one verified and published.

Links:

  • ‘Congo voting data reveal huge fraud in poll to replace Kabila’ (15 Jan 2019)
  • ‘How Joseph Kabila lost then won Congo’s election’ (30 Jan 2019)

Topics discussed:

[00:00] How to set editorial priorities when you’re looking at most of a continent, with limited column space and a small team.

[06:35] Looking for stories with wider resonance, alongside those that are important in their own right. Why cases like Rwanda and Sudan tend to get much more attention in the international press.

[16:25] Breaking the story of electoral fraud in long-delayed elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The practicalities of verifying and reporting a politically explosive story.

[29:00] The role of the press during events like these. Avoiding “delusions of grandeur”, sticking to your job as a journalist, and moving onto the next story.

[35:00] How the press can stay engaged with slow-burn stories, rather than reacting only to dramatic events. Staying engaged with the political drama in the DRC.

[39:25] Reacting to the start of the Sudanese revolution in late 2018. The challenges of sustaining coverage and momentum over an eight month period, and how this became a major priority for the paper.

[47:00] Lessons from working as the Africa editor for 3.5 years. Specifically for covering the continent, and generally for working as a journalist.

[50:00] Subverting the “Lunch with the FT” formula to meet Bobi Wine in a Kampala slum. Continuing to find interesting twists on the story after twenty years with the paper.