Collins Mtika is an investigative journalist in a difficult environment.
“I was a shy child. Growing up in the mining towns of Zimbabwe where my parents worked in the copper mines – I never thought I would end up asking questions of strangers for a living,” Collins says.
At school, a job as a newspaper delivery boy for teachers who subscribed to the national paper piqued his interest in journalism.
“Even at an early age I developed an attitude of always asking why and how. I believe this ingrained attitude helped get me started in the world of investigative journalism where I broke a story early in my career about human trafficking in Malawi.”
“My goal is to see accountability working throughout all levels of society and that systematic malfunctions are corrected and that we should not have sacred cows,” Collins says.
In-depth reporting on issues of national importance is a hard sell in Malawi, in common with most southern African countries, owing to weak journalism training programs, limited resources on the part of publishers and restrictive media environments.
“The consequences of this include a pervasive culture of impunity among elected officials, poor citizen participation in matters of critical importance such as elections, and general reluctance to demand accountability,” says Collins, who has sought to overcome these hurdles as an author of many investigative pieces, editor, and founder of the Centre for Investigative Journalism in Malawi (CIJM).
Collins has never feared to step into murky waters.
He has reported on socially delicate topics like the government’s controversial scheme to encourage circumcision among adult men as a tool to bring down Malawi’s drastic HIV/AIDS rate.
In a country where three-quarters of the population rely directly or indirectly on tobacco farming, he probed the role of big tobacco in a multinational initiative to lift 50 million people out of poverty in 11 African countries through public-private partnerships.
In an article this spring, the CIJM put the question how a Portuguese-based engineering company with ties to the Malawian president’s brother won government road-building contracts worth nearly $200 million – 10 times more than its nearest rival.
A red thread running through much of his work is how the country’s weak economy discourages both the public and the media from interrogating those in power. “The poor state of the economy in Malawi has a direct bearing on the quality of journalism, as most media houses cannot afford pursuing investigative stories that require significant amounts of money,” he says.
This leads to major stories going practically unnoticed by the local media, he says – like the growing clout of Chinese investors, who among other projects are financing a new parliament building, or the potential for radiation leaking from a uranium mine to contaminate surrounding communities.
“While journalism training has significantly improved over the past few decades in Malawi, it still lags behind international standards, partly because of lack of exposure among journalists to some of the latest cutting-edge techniques in carrying out investigations. At the same time, journalists in Malawi, as elsewhere, now compete with the growing army of ‘citizen journalists’ who generate and distribute content through social media.
“The result is that there is a rush to the bottom, with immense pressure to break the news leading to rumor-mongering, sensationalism, defamation and other forms of unethical conduct in the media. This purely a disservice to Malawians,” Mtika said.
Collins also wants to push the boundaries of newsgathering to keep up with technology. At the Centre for Investigative Journalism in Malawi, “we are trying to move away from traditional investigative journalism which depends a lot on leaking,” he says.
“By conducting data investigative journalism we can have access to the whole universe of information, not only what someone wants to deliver.”