When Mercedes Sayagues arrived in Mozambique three years ago to begin work as a Knight International Journalism Fellow, health news was consigned to the back pages, health stories were based on news releases, and health assignments went to the least experienced reporters.
By the time she ended her fellowship in November 2012, major publications featured health pages that offered in-depth coverage of diseases or problems, reporters were capturing top national and regional prizes for their coverage of health, and topics such as unsafe abortion and the impact of industrial pollution were routinely finding their way to the front pages or top of the news.
Sayagues, a veteran journalist and trainer, was not deterred by the situation she found in late 2009 when she began her mission to raise the quality and profile of health journalism in the southern African nation. Instead, from her base at Savanna, a venerable but cash-strapped weekly publication, she created models for good health coverage – training a handful of journalists and introducing a two-page spread where a particular health challenge or crisis was examined each week. Sometimes, the coverage turned into a campaign joined by other news organizations.
The story of Mozal in Mozambique is a case in point.
As the company’s aluminum plant in Maputo, the capital city, spewed unfiltered gas and particles into the sky, reporters questioning its practices met frustration and resistance. Not only was the environmental science involved complicated to cover, but Mozal and the government refused to release the information reporters needed.
Sayagues organized media training for reporters and activists on industrial pollution, corporate responsibility and public health.
With their new knowledge and skills, the media ramped up their coverage of Mozal, the country’s largest company. The results: The firm agreed to make all of its documents available to the public and to meet with non-governmental organizations, which it had previously shunned.
The Mozal breakthrough was just one of many ways Sayagues helped improve health coverage in a country where thousands of people die every year from preventable diseases. She trained reporters and community members in skills such as verifying facts and Internet research. What’s more, she taught them how to think critically and independently about their sources, statistics and assumptions.
As a result, Savana reporters are landing pay raises, job opportunities and prizes. Political reporter Raul Senda’s story on Lusovinho, the largest liquor company in Mozambique, won second prize in the National Awards for Health Journalism.
Senda’s story revealed that the Ministry of Health had closed several of the company’s factories because of unhygienic manufacturing practices, then allowed it to reopen them a few weeks later, suggesting possible corruption. To counter the negative press and present a more positive corporate image, Lusovinho later developed a TV and print campaign against drunk driving and underage drinking.
“Such a response shows the impact of solid, well-documented reporting,” Sayagues says. It also represents a cultural shift in Mozambique, where political reporting is considered much more prestigious than health reporting. “For a highly regarded political reporter [like Senda] to tackle such a story shows how seriously health journalism is viewed here now.”
The reach of Sayagues’ work extended beyond Savana, as other news outlets began following its lead and covering health more deeply. Noticias, the largest newspaper in the country, hired away Savana’s top health reporter – and Sayagues’ trainee – to start a health page at three times her Savana salary. The government-owned Domingo is now a source for innovative health features. The weekly Sol employs another three of Sayagues’ trainees, who cover topics such as mental illness, liver cancer and maternal deaths. And the 50-page quarterly Scientific Reporter Magazine published a series of in-depth health stories in 2011.
Now that health is no longer a second-rate reporting assignment, Sayagues says, the public is finally beginning to get the health information it needs. And her work is not over yet. With the fellowship ended, she was hired late last year as senior advisor to a new multi-year media development project in Mozambique funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.