“On the 13th March, Kenya announced its first coronavirus case. The government announced measures to contain the spread. However, some of the measures proved deadlier than the virus itself” – Cops and Corpses, 2020
Maurice Oniang’o won the Thomson Foundation Young Journalist award in 2014 with a portfolio of stories which included a film on child soldiers in Kenya.
Seven years on, Maurice is firmly established in his field and making long-form films and documentaries that hold power to account. His mission is to give a voice to those who cannot be heard and a platform to those who cannot be seen.
“I wouldn’t call myself a campaigning journalist,” he says. “I am a journalist who is interested in social and environmental justice.”
His latest film, Cops and Corpses – Victims’ Cry for Justice, won the Spotlight Gold Award as one of the best independent films of 2020 and has been nominated for a second award at the 42nd Durban International Film Festival. The subject matter – the escalation of police brutality on people living in informal settlements in Kenya during the Covid-19 pandemic – came to his attention through social media.
“Citizen journalists played a key role in letting people know there was a pandemic,” he says. “There was also the issue of an escalation of police brutality. I learned through social media – tweets and videos - that people were being injured, and in some cases killed, because of the breaking of a curfew. It was especially the case in the informal settlements with the police enforcing coronavirus restrictions.”
Much of Maurice’s film covers street protests. He uses mojo extensively and combines it with photo stills and mobile phone footage from citizen journalists, together with victim interviews filmed on a video camera.
“This was my first protest film, so I needed guidance as to what to do. I spoke to different mentors and did online learning for mobile journalism. This taught me how to use my mobile phone for good quality video and to have something that is presentable.”
Covering civil unrest during a pandemic also brought its own issues, with personal safety a key factor.
“Just mentioning that I am the 2014 Thomson Foundation Young Journalist winner has given me a platform to speak about my work and get other opportunities"
Maurice stresses the importance of balance and accuracy in storytelling in order to have credibility with the audience. It is important, he says, to try to get both sides of an unfolding story. “You have to love doing research. The only way you are going to get accurate and verifiable information is by doing in-depth investigation. You must also listen to the experts, your peers and your mentors.
“When the authorities refuse to speak to you as a journalist, it is either that they are hiding something or they don’t want to face the media and speak about an issue that many people know exists. I tried to get their side of the story, but no one responded. All my emails and phone calls went unanswered.”
Maurice is not in the job to win awards, although such recognition helps to highlight his areas of concern. “Winning the award means that someone is noticing what you are doing,” he says.
They most certainly are.