Undercover journalism is on the rise but what are the risks and precautions that journalists should take?

“The biggest stories that are to be told require some measure of bravery even if it is not undercover, the most important stories that journalists have to tell require some measure of bravery. Bravery is a core component of good journalism,” said Fisayo Soyombo, a Nigerian investigative journalist and founder of the Foundation for Investigative Journalism who spoke at the African Investigative Journalism Conference (AIJC) held recently.

AIJC is Africa’s biggest annual gathering of working journalists, an opportunity to share great African work, learn new skills, hear from others how it is done and share experiences. During the undercover journalism in Africa session, Benon Oluka, Africa editor for the Global Investigative Journalism Network spoke to Soyombo about his experiences as an investigative journalist in Nigeria.

Soyombo spent five days in a police cell as a suspect and eight as an inmate in Ikoyi Prison to track corruption in Nigeria’s criminal justice system. “The entire idea was to expose the corruption in Nigeria’s criminal justice system,” said Soyombo. He said that he chose to go undercover in prison because he wanted to experience and see the corruption first-hand. Soyombo said he spent five days in a police holding cell but according to Nigerian law a suspect needs to be arraigned within 48 hours but by refusing to pay a bribe he spent a longer time in the holding cells.

Often journalists are told that ‘no story is worth your life’ and it is important to outweigh the risks. Soyombo agreed that no story was worth one’s life but he said that “your work needs to be motivated by public interest and societal advancement, then you will know when to apply the brakes”.

Soyombo said it was important for an undercover journalist to have a risk assessment strategy. “If you run into trouble, this is my plan A, B and C, as long you have those plans worked out then you can go ahead”. He added that “if there is no clear path to escaping the risks then you should apply the brakes”.

What to consider before going undercover:

  • Public interest
  • What are the risks? And how can you mitigate them?
  • What equipment will you need?
  • Understanding the story and how your output will spark change
  • Be fully present: have a clear mind

Click here to watch the full session

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