“Investigative journalism is very risky and challenging especially as a woman, every time I leave my house, I am aware of the risk I am putting myself in, anything can happen to me,” said Naipanoi Lepapa, a freelance investigative journalist based in Kenya. Jamlab spoke to Lepapa about her investigative piece on surrogacy agencies in Kenya, which exploit young women.

Lepapa said that before a journalist undertakes any investigation, they should have a plan and assess the risks. She advised that journalists should never go to an interview alone, “always have someone that you trust with you”. Lepapa said she struggled to get sources to speak to her and decided to go undercover by wearing wigs and using pseudo names. “Undercover journalism is tricky but sometimes it is the only way for you to get information,” she said.

However, Lepapa warned that undercover journalism can be dangerous and should be the last option. “If you have options to get information, then don’t go undercover, it is risky and people can uncover you”.

The downside of freelance journalism

“It is important to work with other people or organisations because physical safety is not the only threat or concern, there are also lawsuits. As a freelancer it can be very challenging as I don’t know have the money to fight these lawsuits,” said Lepapa.

During her investigation she had the support of Finance Uncovered – an investigative journalism training and reporting project. As well as the assistance of an organisation that supports journalists in distress (JID). The organisation assisted her with security plans, risk assessments and solutions on the ground during her investigation. Lepapa was sent a defamation letter by one of the surrogacy agencies that she was investigating and was able to deal with it through the assistance of Finance Uncovered legal team, The Elephant legal team and Africa Uncensored

However, Lepapa noted that many freelance journalists do not have the support or the financial assistance for investigating stories, which makes it difficult.

She spoke about how challenging it can be for a freelance journalist in Kenya. “When I started out as a freelance journalist, I attempted to get editors or media outlets interested in my story ideas but none were approved. I was terrible at writing story pitches that I always got no replies or got so many rejections. Sometimes I desperately shared my ideas with editors and local journalists hoping to get help but I always ended up scooped,” she said.

She added that “the freelancing industry is male-dominated and most times, a man would want sex in exchange for the help. Sometimes, I was told the industry was too crowded. Freelancers in Kenya are disrespected and most media associations run on favoritism”.

Journalism and mental health

Lepapa said that investigating and interviewing the women who had been exploited by surrogacy agencies had an impact on her mental health “Listening to the donors who wanted justice and change, it affected my mental health, and it was a difficult story to investigate, I struggled to find sources, it was a story with so many rollercoasters,” said Lepapa. “I suffered, I secluded myself trying to finish it.”

During her investigation, she received threats from the surrogacy agencies, and she feared for her life. “The story really affected me and my anxiety was high, I didn’t have a life and I was afraid for my life,” she said. “For several months, weeks I lived in fear, and I had to change homes.”

She said that the mental health of journalists is often not taken into consideration and it is important for journalists to have access to therapy especially journalists covering trauma and violence. “It is so easy for someone to fall into depression, in a dark hole.”

Lepapa’s passion for investigative journalism and her desire to see a change in her community and country is what drives her. “I tell stories, so there can be change, so if these surrogacy agencies are prosecuted and a law has been put in place that protects surrogates and children, it is a big win for me.” she said.

Lepapa said the surrogacy story, “is not a Kenyan story, it is also an African story. These surrogacy agencies are in Africa”, as many women continue to be exploited by these agencies.

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