Journalists sit on chairs writing while some stand behind videotaping

Where Did You Get Those Charts?

May 28, 2015
In Afghanistan, where data journalism is in its infancy, one reporter plots a new course.

Forget, for a moment, big data.

For Rohullah Armaan, simply obtaining — let alone analyzing or visualizing — any data is something of a struggle.

Rohullah is a reporter with Afghanistan’s PAYK Investigative Journalism Center, where he reports from Kabul. After attending a training last year at media support organization Nai Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan, he is now one of the few journalists in the entire country who can also use the title “data journalist.”

The very concept of data journalism is in its infancy in Afghanistan. This is a country emerging from three decades of war, where literacy rates are low — less than one-third of the population can read and write — and Internet penetration even lower.

In this context, it is fair to ask if data journalism really ought to be a priority, even within the media development community.

Rohullah doesn’t see it that way. As an investigative journalist, he has seen firsthand the impact of the corruption that is a defining feature of the system in Afghanistan. He knows that the best way for him to help hold government officials accountable is to provide the public with the evidence — not just the anecdotes that virtually every Afghan has — of government abuses.

Recent events do in fact signal a growing public momentum behind efforts to tackle this systemic fraud. Anti-corruption rallies have taken place (albeit still infrequently), and both of last year’s presidential candidates ran on platforms of reform. “The Afghan public is sick and tired of corruption,” said President Ashraf Ghani shortly after his inauguration. “We are not going to revive the economy without tackling corruption root, stock and branch.”

With renewed calls for greater transparency in Afghanistan, it is important now more than ever that the media learn to tell data-driven stories.

Rohullah also knows that data journalism is just one of many steps Afghanistan’s media sector must take to evolve into a mature and professional industry. The industry has grown at a breakneck pace since the 2001 fall of the Taliban, which imposed a near blackout on media and communications during its reign. Now, a proliferation of radio and television outlets have grown up across the country and mobile phone usage is similarly exploding, while online journalism is growing at a far more modest rate. Although Afghan journalists did receive acclaim in international media outlets for their coverage of last year’s presidential election, in many cases the quantity of journalism still eclipses the quality.

In a sense, data journalism and online journalism will arrive hand-in-hand, and Rohullah is eager to get ahead of both of these curves. “Technology improvements are a part of communities today, and it’s important to learn how to take advantage of them,” he said. “On the one hand I am learning to work with the digital system, and on the other I am learning to be a data journalist.”

Man interviewing another man with a bandaged face
Rohullah knows that even data journalism stories must first and foremost be people-driven. Photo: Internews

For all his convictions, though, Rohullah still faces immense obstacles. While his counterparts in much of the developed world must grapple with how to pick and choose among an overwhelming abundance of statistics, Rohulla has the opposite problem: reliable data sets are few and far between, and those that do exist are difficult to access and often in user-unfriendly formats, such as PDFs. Government officials are rarely willing to cooperate, and are slow to act on the newly passed Access to Information Law.

“After releasing my first data-driven report,” he said, “my colleagues asked, ‘Where did you receive all this data from? Who prepared and provided you with these charts?”

This in and of itself is not an unsurmountable obstacle: international datasets, such as those from the UN or World Bank, contain enough free information for any burgeoning data journalist to work with. It’s understanding and making sense of this data that presents an even greater challenge for Rohulla and his colleagues. Consider the fact that he speaks hardly any English, and his editors at PAYK are just as new to data journalism as he is.

Working with Internews data journalism expert Eva Constantaras, Rohullah came up with a clever, though time-consuming, work-around. As Constantaras writes,

Since that first workshop [at Nai, supported by Internews], Rohullah and I have continued to work together on data stories. The way he and I collaborate on stories is unique, to say the least. We send e-mails back and forth, deciphering approximations of each other’s messages through Google Translate. In this way we try to nail down very specific equations and analysis. Excel spreadsheets have English running down the left side, Dari down the right. We highlight in bright colors to make sure the other sees the changes. Sometime large chunks of analysis, insight and simple logistics are lost in rather atrocious translation.

But, she writes, “The story gets out.” And it does: Rohullah’s first data journalism piece on the failure of the government and international community to curb opium production was published in February. He is currently finalizing his second piece, on the lack of treatment for female drug addicts. Already, he says, he can feel his skills improving.

A man works on a laptop computer
Rohullah analyzes data for his story on opium cultivation in Helmand. Photo: Internews

Unfortunately, an eventual mastery of data processing tools or even working proficiency in English language will do little to mitigate the more longstanding challenges journalists like Rohullah face.

Afghanistan is ranked 122nd on Reporters Without Borders’ 2015 World Press Freedom Index, and attacks against journalists are rampant. Self-censorship among editors and reporters — especially investigative reporters — is commonplace. Although any audience for data journalism in Afghanistan will be small to start, readers are likely to represent the more educated and influential segments of society. By using data journalism to draw attention to controversial issues like government expenditures, narcotics control, or the arms market — topics for which data can be critical — journalists risk angering powerful interests and thus making themselves more vulnerable.

On a more quotidian but equally practical level, the economics of data journalism are not in reporters’ favor: data journalism, especially for newcomers to the field, is time-consuming. In a profession where pay is already low, many journalists cannot afford to forego other reporting opportunities to attend trainings and undergo mentoring just to produce a single story.

What motivates Rohullah for now is not the guarantee of immediate policy change — he knows the chances the relevant authorities will respond to any injustice he reveals is slim — but rather the immediate feedback he’s received from his peers.

“The visual charts in my report were unbelievable to some of my coworkers,” he said. “They said that we’ve never seen such a report from an Afghan journalist before.”

In this new role, Rohullah hopes to catalyze a new way of thinking in Afghanistan, one in which journalists embrace new tools and skills for storytelling, and in which the public places pressure on the government to be more forthcoming with its information.

The people of Afghanistan are eager for a more progressive, transparent, and fair society. One journalist will not make this happen, but for now, Rohullah is just excited to let data tell Afghanistan’s story.

Cameron Scherer is Senior Program Associate for Asia at Internews. Internews’ work in Afghanistan is supported by USAID.

Banner photo: Journalist Rohullah Armaan at a conference on anti-narcotics enforcement in Kabul, Afghanistan. Credit: Internews

This story originally ran in Medium

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