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The impact of Australian mining in Africa

The project Fatal Extraction, about Australia’s mining footprint in Africa, is one of the largest-ever journalistic collaborations on the African continent. Reporters from thirteen countries spent approximately a year going to local courthouses and digging through company reports. The project was initiated by Will Fitzgibbon of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which is based at the Washington DC-based Centre for Public Integrity. The ICIJ coordinated the project, which produced more than twenty stories including a multimedia piece. In the interview Will Fitzgibbon explains how the ICIJ came up with the idea and how they managed the project.

How did the project start?

The origins of Fatal Extraction were in a visit I made to Madagascar. I remember arriving at a regional airport in the southern part of the country and seeing advertising by Australian mining companies on the walls. As an Australian, I hadn’t expected to see this in such a remote place. My instinct as an investigative journalist was to ask myself if this was a phenomenon across Africa. We found out that by the end of 2014, Australian mining companies held nearly 100 licences on Madagascar alone and were active in 33 countries on the continent. And, in many cases, controversy wasn’t far behind.

What was the angle of the story?

The broad theme was the untold story and impacts of Australian mining in Africa.

1. We showed the presence of Australian mining companies in Africa in terms of geographical spread: how many companies were in which areas and what they mined.

2. We showed the human impact. For the first time we counted the number of fatalities linked to Australian mining in Africa. We also reported on labour disputes and allegations of environmental damage related to their activities.

What documents and data did you use?

We analysed underexplored data on mining houses from the Australian Securities Exchange. We collected information from thousands of documents, including company reports and stock exchange announcements, to see how many fatalities were reported by mining companies. We had a data reporter who was able to analyse the documents by focusing on key words that could draw out only those documents related to Australia, Africa and mining. We manually confirmed details such as the number of fatalities linked to a specific company in a specific country and were able to tally the total number of fatalities linked to Australian-listed mining firms in Africa since 2004. Our African partners went to regional courthouses to find cases lodged alleging unlawful dismissal or environmental pollution. The Namibian reporters unearthed a great government report by the office of the deputy prime minister that related to the health of pregnant women working in an uranium mine. The journalist in Burkina Faso gained access to mine workers’ petitions that had been submitted to the company, alleging breaches of local labour laws. These may seem like simple, everyday documents. And, in some cases, they are. But they were completely unknown to international audiences and to Australian decision-makers and investors – those who could ultimately implement reform if they wanted. There were entries in reports of parliamentary proceedings in which mining accidents were discussed. There was even archival footage of a very controversial trial of mining employees in the Democratic Republic of Congo that showed for the first time some of the faces of those involved and the inner working practices of the firm.

What were the main challenges?

1. Official access to information: Most companies didn’t allow us onto their mine sites and most were unwilling to answer any questions. Even in countries like South Africa where we think things should be easy because there are laws around it, we didn’t manage to put in a successful access to information request.

2. Logistics: The occasions on which reporters couldn't meet deadlines because cars broke down on the road in Cote d'Ivoire to a mining site or when electricity blackouts in Niger meant that long-awaited court documents couldn't be shared by partners.

3. Legal threats: Based on journalists’ previous experiences, many of whom were seasoned veterans on the mining beat, we knew there was a risk of legal action in response to publications. However, the fact that this was an international project helped with most of the local reporting because it meant that stories about controversies in those countries were given an international platform. It was therefore harder for one story to be shut down or for an individual journalist’s voice to be silenced. Collaboration can empower local reporters on particularly sensitive subjects.

Any ethical dilemmas?

1. Not for sale: We had some sources who wanted to be paid. I was in touch with a lawyer in one country who represented a workplace accident victim I was writing about and one day she told me she could get me the court records I was asking for but that I would have to pay him $15,000. This is something I would never do because this was public information. So we said no to that and we stopped communicating.

2. Be open to your sources: When you report on topics like mining, you often talk to employees but you don’t want them to endanger their jobs or their families. So we had to be very upfront with everybody we interviewed that if they agreed to speak to us it might be used online.

What was the impact?

In Australia, a senator called for renewed investigations into an infamous incident in the Democratic Republic of Congo and for increased oversight of Australian mining activity overseas. The global workers’ union, ITUC, also called on Australia to do better. Our media partner in Burkina Faso, L'Economiste du Faso, did an interesting story on a labour dispute between an Australian company mining gold and its employees. The reporter got her hands on court documents and petitions from mineworkers alleging unfair dismissal and anti-union discrimination. Her feedback was that this was a topic that hadn’t been covered by other media. The journalist helped to put labour rights on the front page - which hadn’t happened before - at a critical moment as the government was reviewing its mining code. In Mali, our reporter dug into a fatal incident in 2013 in which a number of people were killed in clashes with police that locals alleged were in part related to frustrations borne out of mining activity by an Australian company. This was something that was never reported to shareholders in Australia.

What is the digital toolkit all investigative journalists should have?

1. Microsoft Excel: Every investigative journalist needs Microsoft Excel and needs to understand how to create at least one new or interesting data point or sentence from an Excel document.

2. Encrypted email: Communicate safely with Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), Thunderbird or Mailvelope encrypted emails. We only work with journalists that have encrypted email.

3. Encrypted mobile phone communication: Download an app like Signal Private Messenger on your mobile phone for encrypted calls and messages.

What is the big lesson learned from this project that you would like to pass along?

The big lesson from any investigation that tackles large, well-financed industries is not to be put off by colour and fluff. Mining companies are very good at producing glossy documents and annual reports of 150 pages and maybe only on page 139 will you find a sentence that will tell you something of real interest. Go the extra mile, stay an extra hour at work and read the whole report, quarterly update or environmental impact assessment and find that little bit of information that nobody else has found.

Alvin Ntibinyane from Botswana was one of the reporters that took part in the Fatal Extraction project. Thinking back about the project he explains: “I researched allegations of unfair compensation for farmers who were removed from their land to make way for an Australian copper mine. My main sources were the farmers who had sold their land. They also gave me most of the documents. We found out that if this mining company had compensated them in Australia, they would have received around twenty times more money. I asked my government, who was pushing the negotiations for the compensation, questions about the compensation figures and about the land policy in general but they were not forthcoming. Botswana does not have access to information laws and we rely on the goodwill of citizens to pass to us critical documents. We had some stories without any comment from the government that was the biggest challenge."