Transitioning from Traditional Journalism to Data Journalism in Cameroon

Welcome back to Open & Shut! For this post, we got in touch with Ngeunga Madeleine, a journalist based in Cameroon. Using Madeleine’s experiences, we’ll delve into the state of open data in her home country, and track her journey from traditional journalism, through to the wonderful world of data journalism.

The state of journalism in Cameroon

Cameroon’s strict anti-terrorism laws, with a wide remit that is often used to crack down on journalists, have resulted in a restrictive legal regime, that in turn has had a negative effect on media freedom in the country. Compounded by the increasingly worrisome Anglophone crisis, which has included widespread internet shutdowns in the region, Cameroon is not a country that makes a journalist’s job easy.

Where does Cameroon sit in the open data world?

Cameroon ranked 145/100 and scored 26/100 in the 2016 Corruption Perception Index (CPI), and the latest Open Data Barometer (ODB) report showed that the majority of government data, from land ownership to public contracts, doesn’t exist. And growing tensions in the country, alongside repressive anti-terrorism laws, reflect on how translucent the government operate at on all levels. The readiness score from the ODB reflects on how the Cameroon government lacks a long-term commitment as well as the resources to support open data initiatives. Similarly, the latest Global Open Data Index (GODI) highlights that the implementation of open data initiatives in the country only applies to government budgets, procurement, national statistics and administrative boundaries.

From traditional journalism to data journalism

Ngeunga Madeleine is a journalist based in Cameroon. She has worked in journalism for six years and discovered open data two years ago at a capacity building workshop for journalists on visualising data to make impactful stories. Her skills were further enhanced when she was selected as one of a few young African journalists to attend another training session by a CFI Media Cooperation on November 2016. Then, she started to apply this newfound knowledge in her work at InfoCongo earlier this year, from fact-checking data online to data collection itself, after participating in the 2016 Open Government Partnership (OGP) Global Summit held in Paris. The international event provided her with fruitful insights over what open data is about:

“When the public read stories and watch debates on TV, you feel like there’s something missing. TV news programmes don’t use data when they present the news.”

For Madeleine, data plays an important role in delivering impactful stories to the public. Relying on human stories alone is not enough to raise critical issues that require immediate attention. As part of the fact-checking process and analysis, data gives an analytical point of view and emotional appeal to the audience. As a journalist, the frequent internet disruptions in Cameroon have had a big impact on her work; this year, the government ordered a shutdown for the second time, resulting in civil unrest and 20 deaths. Other than growing restraints on freedom of expression in the country — already greatly hindered by government reactions to the Boko Haram insurgency — searching and retrieving information online to cover stories from the ground up is a difficult task for journalists like Madeleine. This has resulted in an environment in which journalists are at risk from police questioning, arrests and lawsuits. Madeleine emphasised that more work needed to be done to convince the government that openness is an integral part of good governance:

“It is difficult when stories are not written based on facts, and instead just based on people’s stories.”

Despite the absence of open data initiatives by the government, communities like Code For Cameroon, a branch of Code For Africa, play an important role in informing the public about transparency and accountability issues. With the government still resisting the idea of openness, advocacy in transparency and accountability continues to be a critical component in convincing the government to make changes. Madeleine expressed that capacity building in open data is still needed for journalists. For her, it is important to have such training to encourage fellow journalists to get involved in the open data and transparency movements:

“It is not easy when only a few people understand data in one organisation. You are alone in your world.”

This is also true for governments, who desperately need capacity building in data literacy, particularly at the municipality level. Birth certificate records in the country are an example of the government’s lack of knowledge when it comes to archiving, but Madeleine highlighted that there has been a failure to archive valuable public data goes across government departments, not just birth certificates records.

Is Cameroon a closed society?

For Madeleine, Cameroon is not a closed society — pointing out that the government has done a lot of work in collecting national data on the ground. What is lacking is data literacy and advocacy work about open data among public servants. In her six years of journalism, Madeleine has not only used data in news articles but also in news coverage over the radio. One of the best examples of this is her radio programme about women’s rights in Cameroon. During the programmes, she spoke with local civil society organisations that worked on the issue, used data when presenting the news, and there was a growing interest from her audience in terms of the programme sharing data insights. However, after three years, her radio programme was forced to come off air due to a lack of financial support and commercial coverage — another issue for open data initiatives in the country.

Madeleine’s top tips for data journalism

Throughout her experience as a journalist, Madeleine has done her best to include data in her stories. Her go-to tool to import and work on data is Tableau. The online resources available at the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) and Code For Africa (CFA) have also helped her improve her skills.

“If you don’t look at the data angle, you often won’t find the real problem”

Madeleine emphasises that before writing a story, it’s important to carry out in-depth research before going into the field. When it comes to collecting information, the best place to start is by working with experienced organisations that are involved in these issues. Preparedness is crucial especially when working in restrictive environments.

The exciting thing for Madeleine is that there are still a lot of stories that are yet to be written, but are waiting to be told.

In case you wanted to read more on Madeleine and her work, we have linked a number of her articles:

Her article that won the 2015 Climate Change Storytelling Contest can be found here.

An article on innovations helping to reduce deforestation can be found here (French version here).

This article looks at the dying mangroves of Douala Edéa wildlife reserve, found here.

And this article focuses on the failure of Cameroon’s government to issue logging licenses efficiently.

Open & Shut is a project from the Small Media team. Small Media is an organisation working to support freedom of information in closed societies, and developed the Iran Open Data portal.

Cover image by skp, story edited by Tom Ormson.

The original post can be found on Medium here.

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