Ensuring people have access to effective remedies to their legal problems can be life changing. Many grassroots organizations and paralegals in countries throughout Africa are doing crucial and important work providing justice services to marginalized communities. But this work and the everyday justice challenges of people in local communities are often unnoticed or overlooked by policymakers who need to hear their stories.
That’s why the Mott Foundation is supporting the Adamela Trust in its efforts to increase reporting and storytelling about access to justice and community justice work in Africa. The nonprofit media trust — which also publishes South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper — recently launched The Continent, an innovative digital newspaper focused on uplifting Pan-African news told through the eyes of people living in each country.
In this Q&A, co-founder and Editor-in-Chief Simon Allison and Communities Editor Kiri Rupiah offer an overview of the publication’s mission and their plans to elevate Africa-based journalism, as well as stories of the struggle and triumph of grassroots justice work.
Mott: What prompted you to start The Continent and focus on digital platforms for distribution?
Kiri Rupiah: We all used to work in the same newsroom at the Mail & Guardian, and it was just an idea born out of conversations we were having with family members sharing info on COVID and asking us to fact check it for them. We decided around April 2020 to start a Pan-African newspaper, specifically to combat some of the fake news and wave of misinformation we were seeing about the pandemic. A lot of misinformation was being spread on WhatsApp, so we figured we should create a newspaper that could easily be distributed on those types of channels.
Mott: Tell us about your vision for The Continent. Where do you see it going?
Simon Allison: Our vision for The Continent is that we can cover both continental and world events from African perspectives. I’ve been a news correspondent based in South Africa for the last 10 years or so, and what I’ve realized is that most coverage of the rest of the continent and the rest of the world that you see in African newspapers and on African websites comes from Western media sources like AP, Reuters, the BBC, the Guardian or The New York Times. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I think it’s important that African journalists are allowed to tell both their own stories and the news of the rest of the world. So, our goal was to create a newspaper where African journalists are making the decisions about what stories are and are not important, and how to go about covering those stories.
I think situations like the war in Ukraine are a very illustrative example of why this is so important. Of course, Ukraine should get a lot of coverage. But for our audience it’s equally important that the conflict in Ethiopia, for example, gets a lot of coverage. And if we are relying solely on Western newsrooms to make the decisions about what is and isn’t important, we’re not going to get enough of the coverage that is necessary for our audiences.
Rupiah: It’s also very important that we are in the room when conversations and decisions about journalism and its trajectory are being had. As Simon mentioned with Ukraine, for example, there are sometimes contextual things that are missing from that reporting. Especially when we’re talking about, let’s say, how many African countries abstained from voting at the U.N., or why they abstained from voting.
Mott: Are you hoping to extend your reach globally, or are you solely focused on growing your audience within Africa for now?
Rupiah: I feel like that’s something that’s just happening naturally. Our first goal was by Africans for Africans. But then we’d be somewhere like Europe at meetings, and it turned out we had a lot of European readers who would say, “I didn’t know that. That’s not reported here.” Or, “Can you explain this thing to me?” So, it just happened that the audience grew. We’re focused on serving readers on the continent, but we don’t want to exclude anybody. I think it’s like Black American media like Jet, Ebony or Essence. They’re made for a specific community of readers but they’re open to everyone. I think there is a thirst for that kind of access to African stories, and we’re able to provide that to people. It’s not always going to be sunshine journalism and happy-go-lucky stuff. It will also show that there are real people in these countries, and these are the conditions that they live under, or these are the things that they find important. And readers might find that they actually relate to them far more than they realize.
Allison: An interesting and surprising example of how we’re reaching people outside Africa is that we have several subscribers in Russia. Although the Russian government has strictly censored most news outlets and the ability to access websites like Facebook and Instagram, they haven’t censored WhatsApp. So, we are able to deliver our newspaper to readers in a country like Russia, when they can’t get access to more prominent mainstream media sources, which is pretty cool.
Mott: Mott’s work on access to justice includes a focus on highlighting injustices in communities that often go unrecognized. Tell us about your approach to covering justice and legal empowerment issues. What are you focusing on first.
Rupiah: We started having this conversation sometime late last year when the South African government decided that it was not going to renew permits for Zimbabweans living in South Africa. So, it was the most natural first step to start reporting on justice issues. We have a large group of Zimbabwean readers, and they’re also a group of people that don’t always have access to justice, nor do they have access to the information to help them get justice. We want to help people understand that this xenophobia is not a one-off thing. It’s quite cyclical. Since the first stirrings of violence around 2006, the South African government has not been able to put in long-lasting measures to stop this from happening, and things are starting to get worse again. So, we started with highlighting that and we’re working toward having a special Afro-phobia edition. Then we’ll start taking on more writers in other countries.
Allison: Mott’s support allows us to cover more stories that are specifically about justice issues, but also more general news about other issues that communities are experiencing that don’t often get media coverage. I think that increased visibility across the board is a means of providing access to justice for people whose voices often go unheard.