A PASSION FOR EXTENSIVE REPORTAGE OF AFRICAN CONFLICTS
Interview by Oluwatosin Fatoyinbo
Richard Stupart obtained an MPP from the Brandt School in 2015 as a DAAD scholarship holder. He is a Senior Fellow at the African Good Governance Network and the Features Editor at the African Defence Review. He is currently a Ph.D. researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He also lectures on Media and Conflict at the Brandt School. With a background in media studies and humanitarian action, Richard is particularly interested in media reporting of conflicts and violence within the African continent.
The Bulletin: You earned a Masters in Public Policy from WBS, how would you describe the program and your time in Erfurt?
I really enjoyed my time in Erfurt and Germany more generally. I was lucky enough to make good use of being able to take the trains in Thuringia for free, and the opportunity to hike in the forest south of Erfurt, which meant that I was able to do a good amount of exploring in two years. I enjoyed the MPP course a lot, though often in ways that only really became clear in hindsight. I’ve never studied anywhere – before or since – that had the kind of diversity of students that the Brandt School had, and as much as this led to inevitable arguments over all kinds of academic views, it was profoundly useful to learn about how my peers in other parts of the world think about the issues we would study. Seeing the UK’s one-year Masters programs as a contrast, I have also been struck by just how much more it is possible to learn in the two-year program in Erfurt, and just how much more one can accomplish when given almost a year to really, properly, do a thesis.
The Bulletin: Can you give us an overview of your doctoral research project? What was the inspiration behind this research project?
I came to Erfurt with a background in media studies and humanitarian action, interested in how we report on disasters and suffering in remote (for some definition of ‘a center’) places. My time in Erfurt led me to become a great deal more familiar with work on conflict and violence and how we think about those terms, and so my Ph.D. research is, in many ways, where all of these interests dovetail. At the London School of Economics, I am studying the work of journalists reporting on the conflict in South Sudan – a conflict that has so far caused the greatest internal migration in Africa since the Rwandan genocide, yet which has not really been covered by major international news organizations as much as one would expect. In the first instance, I am curious as to what enables or constrains reporting from places like South Sudan, which are generally marginal to current geopolitics and are risky and expensive to report from. What exactly makes a freelancer decide to travel there, and what makes them decide to leave? The second part of my work is more theoretical and is concerned with trying to understand the normative ethics of reporting on distant suffering, using South Sudan as a case study. As Kevin Carter’s famous picture of a starving child being watched by a vulture made us realize decades ago, there is an uncomfortable element of voyeurism (or at least the possibility of it) in witnessing the suffering of others from a position of privilege. Many journalists defend this activity through a claim to be ‘bearing witness’ to suffering, which seems to imply a duty to tell others about what has been seen, and so justify watching. Yet the specific details of what kind of duty this refers to, who can claim to be doing it, and whether we think it is a moral duty, or simply a virtuous, supererogatory kind of moral action are all open questions that I am hoping to develop further.
The Bulletin: Generally, what motivated your interest in conflict research and reporting?
Before I eventually returned to university to do my postgraduate studies, there was a period when I went backpacking from Cape Town to Cairo on public transport, as a way of seeing more of the continent I was ostensibly a part of. I was struck, along the way, by the disconnect between what I had been told ‘Africa’ was, and what I actually saw for myself, which in turn made me take an interest in both trying to understand how journalists tell stories and – more practically – how one might be able to do better. The interest in conflict is harder to pin down. I suspect that growing up as a white South African, questions of justice and responsibility, and the possibility of conflicts of certain kinds have always been on my mind, and those intersect in various ways with the way I think about the work I do.
The Bulletin: You work as the Features Editor at African Defence Review, can you tell us what ADR does as a media company?
A few years back, ADR began as an idea of trying to fill a gap in conflict reporting that myself and a few others believed existed. We believed that there was precious little reporting on conflict that was technically well-informed and tried to keep an eye on the bigger picture of humanitarian and human rights concerns. If your concern is about human rights, then it matters where rogue regimes are obtaining weapons, or when governments are hiding the massacre of their own troops in foreign deployments (as the Kenyan government did earlier this year in Kulbiyow, Somalia). So what we’re trying to do is act as a not-for-profit intermediary that can analyze satellite footage, open source intelligence and other bits and pieces to try and work out what is actually happening in various moments with far more detail than a typical humanitarian reporter might include.
The Bulletin: African Defence Review recently received a grant from InnovateAFRICA, tell us about the grant and the project.
Early on, we had some excellent reporting successes. We were the first to tell the story of how the DRC army (the FARDC) and the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade successfully defeated the M23 rebellion in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We were also instrumental in proving that the Kenyan government’s claim that an attack on their troops in Kulbiyow, Somalia, was repelled (it was in fact, terrifyingly successful). But we’d always been limited in what we could achieve by the fact that those of us who run ADR were essentially doing so out of our own resources as something that we believed needed to be done. InnovateAFRICA’s grant funding has done a lot to broaden what we can now do, and for the first time, we are in a position to actually send our own correspondents to cover specific conflicts in much more detail. The grant has also meant access to satellite and drone imagery, and other resources that will hopefully make understanding what is happening in various conflicts easier in the future. When the skies are clear, high-resolution satellite imagery can provide a huge amount of information in certain circumstances – something that human right groups have begun to take advantage of more and more, but which journalism has been slow to follow.
The Bulletin: What is your take on the recent unconventional coup d’état in Zimbabwe which eventually led to the resignation of former President Mugabe? How would you describe local and national reportage of the coup?
It’s too early to tell what the long-term political trajectory is going to be, but I am optimistic. It is interesting that South Africa appeared to have had advance warning of what was going to happen, and didn’t reshuffle any troops on the border or otherwise make any arrangements to indicate that they were surprised by what happened. The story seems to be that as long as the label of ‘coup’ could be successfully avoided (as this would oblige the AU and SADC to act to intervene more forcefully), they were happy to let events work themselves out. In a way, I suspect this provided SADC diplomats with a more structured way to manage the end of the Mugabe regime than would be the case if they had waited and possibly had him die in office – which would have almost certainly precipitated a much more violent contest.
The reporting, especially in the early days, seemed to suffer from a great deal of speculation. Nobody really knew what was happening in the first 24 hours, and a great deal was inferred from the sight of a handful of armored personnel carriers on the streets. That is not something unique to Zimbabwe though and illustrates well that rumor and half-truths have an important role in the news ecosystem, whether we like it or not, in ways that are different to, say, the current ‘fake news’ zeitgeist, which I feel is something distinct in many respects. What was also notable was how quickly the authorities in Zimbabwe managed to filter out foreign press at the border. Most of the journalists who rushed to report from South Africa were intercepted and turned back at the border, which is an experience that would be familiar to journalists trying to get in to report from many of the world’s worst-behaved states.
The Bulletin: There is the perception that the media in Africa often rely on international media to report on conflicts in Africa. Is this perception correct and how can Africa develop the capacity to report on conflicts within the continent?
I think there is certainly a reliance on international wire services and their stringers by many national media organizations, but I think we do also see a proliferation of local/national journalists reporting on events in their own countries. This is partly a question of economics – the days of the fully-subsidized ‘foreign correspondent’ are basically dead, and a much larger share of international reporting from African countries is now done by people who are actually from that country, often working as freelancers for various publications. I have been surprised, if anything, by how many South Sudanese journalists I have come across, doing reporting for national and international organizations under often very challenging conditions.
The Bulletin: What is your advice for MPP students who are interested in undertaking a Ph.D. or pursuing a career in research?
My biggest single piece of advice is probably one that I was given – don’t take on a Ph.D. unless you are willing to commit four years to studying a specific issue in excruciating detail, and make sure that you do not need to self-fund any of your living or tuition costs while you study. It is sometimes worth waiting a few years after finishing your Masters and working a bit, to make sure that there is something that really interests you, and to obtain the funding for study. A Ph.D. is a substantial shift in the number of hours you will spend reading and writing, and having to juggle that with anxieties over paying rent or tuition is not something I would wish on anyone. That being said, I’ve found the experience profoundly rewarding so far.