Inside Fatal Extraction: How Africa’s journalists united to investigate Australian mining companies

Fatal Extraction is one of the largest ever journalistic collaborations in Africa. Reporters across the continent spent 18 months unearthing court records and hushed-up government audits to tell human stories, backed up by unprecedented analysis of Australian stock exchange filings. The collaboration was assembled and coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a project of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity. ICIJ is a small organization with a large global network of journalists: more than 190 members in 65 countries.

Here’s ICIJ’s lead reporter on the project, Will Fitzgibbon, with an inside view of how the project started and was built.

By Will Fitzgibbon
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

Like many investigations, Fatal Extraction started small.

On a visit to Madagascar in 2012, I stepped into the arrival hall of a small, regional airport and was struck by posters advertising an Australian-owned mining project. As an Australian (currently living in the United States), I hadn’t expected to see a Perth-based company in such a remote place. After all, Australia and Madagascar aren’t terribly close – just 280 Malagasies lived Down Under – 0.001% of the Australian population.

Yet at the end of 2014, Australian mining companies held nearly 100 licences on the island off Africa’s east coast. It’s a phenomenon repeated across Africa. Australian-listed companies are active in 33 countries on the continent, according to ICIJ research.

And, as many experts told us, where mining goes, controversy follows but not local gains.

“Maybe they’re out there”, South African attorney Tracey Davies told ICIJ, “but I have never seen a single one [mine] where there has been any kind of major significant improvement to the surrounding community”.

South Africa's mining fatality rate is four times higher than Australia's. Courtesy of ICIJ

South Africa’s mining fatality rate is four times higher than Australia’s. Courtesy of ICIJ

Across Africa, Australian companies are accused of workplace, environmental and labor violations that would be unthinkable elsewhere.

The challenge was how to turn the well-trodden topic of African mining into something new.

It helped that there was a gaping hole. Although Australian companies are more numerous than those of any other nation active in Africa, more attention has been paid to the alleged wrongdoing of Canadian and Chinese firms.

Gathering local knowledge would also be key. So ICIJ assembled 13 journalists from radio, print and online news outlets in Africa to create the largest ever journalistic partnership across the continent.

Local knowledge, global reach

ICIJ is a non-profit news organization headquartered in Washington D.C.  We work on the principle that local journalists, not foreign correspondents, have the unique skills and insight to hold the powerful to account. When it comes to investigating in Africa, having journalists with local contacts, experience and knowledge is key to uncovering gaining access to documents, stories and voices that otherwise go unheard outside the region.

We contacted regional organizations such as the African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR) and the Thomson Reuters Foundation who helped identify passionate journalists in countries where ICIJ had never ventured and where investigative journalism is in its infancy.

We knew any support that could be provided to under-resourced partners in Africa would strengthen the overall investigation. ANCIR tapped into the generosity of Free Press Unlimited (FPU) and Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) to obtain travel grants for a handful of journalists looking to report in remote areas. ANCIR also offered legal and editorial assistance to journalists who potentially faced David and Goliath battles in exposing these multimillion dollar businesses.

Eleanor Bell, multimedia editor at the Center for Public Integrity, takes some elevated footage in South Africa. Courtesy of ICIJ

Eleanor Bell, multimedia editor at the Center for Public Integrity, takes some elevated footage in South Africa. Courtesy of ICIJ

As reporters set to work, challenges arose.

Some of them were simple, such as electricity outages in Niger and car breakdowns in Cote d’Ivoire. Other challenges were more serious, including a police raid on the home of one partner in West Africa whose computer was confiscated.

More than any other, obtaining official access to information was a key barrier.

“Botswana doesn’t have access to information laws, and we rely on the good will of citizens to pass to us critical documents”, says Alvin Ntibinyane, editor of Mmegi newspaper, who spent months researching allegations of unfair compensation for farmers who were removed from their land to make way for an Australian copper mine. “We have forwarded questions to the government officials, but they are flatly refusing to answer”.

As the investigation progressed, the large team provided both added clout and additional protection. Using data shared among the group, one journalist was able to force a company to concede ties to Australia that it had otherwise denied. Other journalists were surprised – and relieved – when another famously combative company didn’t react negatively to detailed reporting that was published in the United States and Australia, as well as two countries in Africa.

Mining the data

With the help of its data team, ICIJ mined the Australian Securities Exchange –  an underexplored public data repository.

We collected information from thousands of documents, including company reports and stock exchange announcements, and then restructured it into spreadsheets that could be sorted and filtered to give a more detailed data picture than ever before.

We found hundreds of companies active in Africa that owned more than 1,500 licences. For some reporting partners in Africa, this data was the most comprehensive they had ever seen.

“I can see that the list you have is much more detailed than the one I’ve seen”, said Mali reporter David Dembele, who produced a detailed investigation into the controversies surrounding one of Mali’s oldest gold mines.

Caldwell Sichinga, a former contractor in Malawi, sustained total body burns during an onsite explosion in 2009. Courtesy of ICIJ

Caldwell Sichinga, a former contractor in Malawi, sustained total body burns during an onsite explosion in 2009. Courtesy of ICIJ

Organic presentation

With a plan to produce some written stories and a handful of video vignettes, ICIJ and its parent organization the Center for Public Integrity traveled to Africa, thanks to support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. We returned with hundreds of hours of footage, thousands of images and dozens of interviews. From our investigative work, we also had a compelling data story and a mountain of primary source documents and recordings.

With an abundance of rich material, we saw an opportunity to create a genuinely digital experience that would tell a compelling, continent-wide story by presenting each piece of material in its most organic form. After seeking inspiration from other multimedia-rich stories (like NPR’s Borderlands), we opted for a horizontal digital slideshow that would incorporate video, audio, text, and data in a screen-friendly format.

One of the big challenges was wrangling the huge amount of content into something digestible and accessible. After multiple rounds of storyboarding, we settled on a documentary-style narrative arc that would carry audiences through the vast and complex story. To deal with load and lag time for media like video, our developer created a system that allowed videos to load while a viewer watched the video directly before it.

Using ASX reports and other sources, ICIJ tallied the number of fatalities linked to Australian listed mining companies in Africa since 2004. Courtesy of ICIJ

Using ASX reports and other sources, ICIJ tallied the number of fatalities linked to Australian listed mining companies in Africa since 2004. Courtesy of ICIJ

Impact

ICIJ and reporting partners released the first wave of stories on July 11, including original investigations from Namibia, Malawi, Botswana and Mali. Since then, more investigations have come from Tanzania, Madagascar, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Zambia, with more still to come.

By one measure, Fatal Extraction has increased global attention on an underreported issue.

In Australia, Greens Party Senator Lee Rhiannon responded to what she called the “shocking” findings of ICIJ’s investigation and called for action.

“With 183 Australian-owned companies operating in Africa and numerous cases of workers being killed on the job, local people losing their land and their livelihood and massive offshore profit shifting, the federal government has a responsibility to assist affected communities”, she said.

Internationally, the head of the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharan Burrow, called on Australia and other mining nations to ensure “equal treatment” of workers.

By a second – and no less important – measure, the Fatal Extraction collaboration has extended ICIJ’s reach into Africa and identified investigative reporters for future partnerships.

“I had never before been so steeped in this explosive situation”, says Dembele, who was inspired by the project to file paperwork to register Mali’s first investigative media organization – Malian Network of Investigative Journalists (RMJI). “Through this investigation, I learned so many things, and I discovered a real scandal”.

Will Fitzgibbon is a reporter with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a nonprofit news organisation with more than 190 members around the world collaborating on in-depth cross-border investigations.

Fatal Extraction was made possible with support from the African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR), and thanks to grants from the Pultizer Center for Crisis ReportingOpen Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA)Free Press Unlimited (FPU) and Natural Resource Governance Institute.

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More photos from the project:

Headlines across Africa reflect a range of controversies. Courtesy of ICIJ

Headlines across Africa reflect a range of controversies. Courtesy of ICIJ

A settlement in South Africa overlooks a platinum mine. Courtesy of ICIJ

A settlement in South Africa overlooks a platinum mine. Courtesy of ICIJ

Shortly before ICIJ's journalists arrived in South Africa, a miner  died in a workplace accident. Courtesy of ICIJ

Shortly before ICIJ’s journalists arrived in South Africa, a miner died in a workplace accident. Courtesy of ICIJ