Just after Christmas last year Luis Laje, the captain of the fishing boat, Intrujao, out of Cape Verde, called me. “You can come,” he said to me.
“For how long, captain?,” I replied.
“As long as there are sharks south of … nowhere,” he told me.
“I’ll be there tomorrow.”
Though I sounded laconic, it was hard for me to keep the satisfaction from my voice when Laje called to let me know he would take me as his second in command of a crew of 23 sailors from the various islands of the North Atlantic archipelago. I flew from Lisbon to Mindelo, Saint Vincent Island, and on the day before we were scheduled to set off, I was sitting at Café Portugal having a drink. From my small table near the door, I could see people walking in the street, and as I sat there a woman walked by, stopped as she noticed me, and then started to shout.
“This is him,” I heard her say, “He is the only teacher who made me cry in my entire life ….”
As I reconnected with this Cape Verdean journalist whom I’d trained, I found myself going back three years in my mind to when I left Portugal for a six-month assignment training television reporters in Cape Verde. It wasn’t until this moment that I truly understood the grip that these months together had maintained on the local reporters. I invited her to join me and asked her to tell me the latest news. She nursed a “coffee” for a long time, while we talked. A few hours later I left Mindelo on Intrujao, heading south. On the boat, I had an opportunity to teach Malulula, a fisherman, to read and to write; I remember very well the day he wrote his name for the first time. He was 40 years old.
Similar strong memories stir in me from those months I spent in Praia, the capital of Cape Verde, when I went there in 2001 to train these TV journalists. In Cape Verde, there are now about 125 journalists, and as of May 2004, nearly half of them (66) had a degree. Thirty-seven percent of them have a high school diploma, and 17 percent do not have a diploma.
The Cape Verdean Experience
When I arrived, Cape Verdean Radio Television (RTC) had only seven or eight reporters (and some of them were working as video editors, too). RTC was the only television station existing in the country. I had been sent there by Portuguese Public Television (RTP) as an experimental journalism instructor. During the past decade I have trained hundreds of Portuguese journalists at Centro de Formacao de Jornalistas (CENJOR) and at RTP in Lisbon. I was also a journalism lecturer at Portuguese universities. The other reason for me being sent to Cape Verde is that the Ministry of Cooperation had decided to launch such a program in former African colonies through its official agencies and RTP. And RTP was completely devoted to government wishes, since its CEO was an appointed government official and the company was financed partially with public funds.
When I arrived in Cape Verde, RTC had one building, poorly constructed, divided into numerous rooms, and all of the journalists were confined to one of them. Each journalist sat at a desk in a row not unlike a classroom. All of them were young and eager to learn the craft of journalism, though I must confess there were times when I’d want to pack up and leave the country, sometimes twice in the same day.
I was surprised to learn that in addition to doing this training I also was expected to produce (with my fellow cameraman, Luis Monte) a 30-minute, weekend evening news show—on my own. Not one journalist showed up to work on this broadcast. Later I understood more about why: Cape Verde is a poor country, and public transportation is hard to come by, especially on weekends. Cars and gasoline are pretty expensive. But there are obviously other reasons, too.
“There is also a certain amount of apathy,” says Filomena Silva, now the editor of the weekly newspaper A Semana. “There are journalists who justify their apathy with the lack of [good working] conditions.”
One morning I suggested to a reporter I was training that he might do a story about Ana Maria Cabral, the widow of historical Cape Verdean guerrilla leader, Amilcar Cabral. She’d recently arrived here after fleeing a war in Guinea-Bissau, another former Portuguese colony. Not only had she witnessed Cabral’s assassination in 1973, but also she was now a refugee in the country her husband had, in part, led to independence more than 30 years earlier.
“I do not have a car,” this young reporter told me. To deal with that issue, I said he could take my Jeep. A while later he was back to see me again. “She does not want to speak with me. She does not give any interviews,” he reported.
I asked him and the cameraman to come with me. We got into my Jeep, and on the way to Ana’s apartment I stopped at a small supermarket and bought some cookies. When we met her, I said I did not need any statements from her. She invited us to come in and share a cup of tea, since she was sick that day. The apartment belonged to the widow of a man whom Amilcar Cabral helped many years ago in the bush. The widow was poor, but concerned. To my amazement we ended up doing a good story that day, and it captured the sense of what seemed tragically romantic about this entire experience.
In this case, I was training these reporters by showing them by example how they might approach such a story. But I used other strategies and approaches as well. Since this was the second time I was training journalists in Cape Verde, I knew that the best way was to tailor my teaching to their particular needs and problems and do so in an informal way. I strongly urged that we should work together as a reporting team and helped them to understand that this is the only way they would succeed. I did this because when I arrived I found that the staff was very divided. In fact, prior to my arrival a reporter had tried unsuccessfully to kill the managing editor. There were reporters who did not talk to their colleagues who worked in the same newsroom. Cameramen and editors were not respected by their fellow reporters. Bringing the staff together—and creating a sense of solidarity among the younger journalists at the station—was perhaps the most important result of my training, even though it is all but impossible to measure the ongoing progress with this effort that took place after my departure.
The next step was to strengthen their background for journalism and to promote and elevate the standards of our craft. These things weren’t happening in Cape Verde, where there is no journalism school, and most of the television reporters did not know even the basic principles of the trade. Nor were these local reporters capable of doing what we’d think of as independent reporting. This was not a surprise to me, since reporters who work in Portugal, my home country, face a similar problem. Without proper training, most tend to mistake propaganda for facts. As Jose Manuel Barata Feyo, a distinguished Portuguese journalist, observed, “Journalists are the portrait of their mediocrity and the portrait of the mediocrity of the powers they reflect. The multiplication of incompetence generates incompetence, as the multiplication of scandals vulgarize scandals.” And with this low level of journalistic competence, their credibility suffers.
After spending some time with these Cape Verdean reporters, I could improve their skills and knowledge— helping them to write and to produce their stories and put a broadcast on the air—but the political constraints remained intact, since most of the journalists had close friends who served in the government.
“Journalists in Cape Verde are comodistas [selfish],”explains Odair Santos, who is one of the Cape Verdean journalists I trained who now works as a radio reporter in Brazil. Silva agrees with this perspective and notes that “there is a lack of motivation and also of professionalism.” From her perspective as an editor, Silva says that “journalism is not a priority in such a poor country. The market is short, but journalists are the real problem.”
What Is Missing?
Commitment is only part of a larger interwoven web of issues. Even with international training programs like the one that brought me to Cape Verde, there exists no political will to improve the situation. “The powers that be use the media at their will. All the government officials in Cape Verde want to control the public media. The opposition is very critical, but they do exactly the same thing when they get back into office,” Santos observes. Reporters Without Borders 2005 annual report confirmed this analysis: “The government maintained its pressure on the state-owned media, which did not have complete editorial freedom. But the privately owned press encountered no particular obstacles.”
In 2003, José Carlos Semedo, a TV journalist with the state-owned broadcaster RTC, was suspended for two months along with a producer and an editor, because two guests on the “Press Club” program accused the station’s management of waste while the rest of the corporation was starved of resources and equipment. “Press Club” was dropped.
But on the whole, my sense was that freedom of expression was in good shape in Cape Verde. Several commercial radio stations were started in 2003, and the online press has been expanding and is becoming an important way of reaching the sizable Cape Verdean diaspora. From my experience training reporters in Cape Verde, looking at the situation from an ethical and technical standpoint, I would rate the journalism that is being practiced there as adequate but in need of improvement.
While Cape Verdean journalists will need to find new ways to respond to the many challenges they confront, as they do, those of us who go there as trainers ought to be careful to avoid paternalistic approaches that might satisfy our consciences but do little to provide a solid foundation for positive change.
Rui Araujo, a 1991 Nieman Fellow, is a freelance journalist based in Lisbon, Portugal. His stories appear in Publico, in Portugal, and Le Point weekly in France and with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.