Feminist investigative journalism fellows are at the heart of openDemocracy’s Tracking the Backlash project, which has two goals – to expose and challenge the backlash against universal human rights, and to challenge exclusion in the media.
In 2018, we launched our new fellowship programme for young women and LGBTIQ people, to help them develop their skills and confidence in investigative journalism while working on groundbreaking projects. Each fellowship lasts six months, with each fellow being mentored by a more senior journalist. Every year, these opportunities receive hundreds of applications from around the world, and so far we have trained fellows from Armenia, Georgia, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, Uganda, the UK and the US.
Our fellows have worked on many of our biggest stories – including our 18-country investigation into anti-abortion misinformation and our work revealing $280m of ‘dark money’ from US Christian right groups flowing around the world. They’ve learned new skills in data journalism, undercover reporting, feature writing and much more.
At a time when journalism is under attack and experiencing drastic cutbacks, we are very proud to have created opportunities for early- to mid-career women and LGBTIQ journalists around the world. We know that who tells the stories matters – and that the exclusion of diverse voices from the media, and investigative teams in particular, can enable anti-rights movements to flourish unchecked or without scrutiny.
We have seen how organised far-right, religious right and other ultra-conservative movements are waging war across the world against gender equality and sexual and reproductive rights including in courts and schools, and by lobbying politicians. Women’s and LGBTIQ rights are human rights and these threats against them must be investigated seriously – and must be tracked daily, not just every so often.
The change we need to see in our industry is big and it won’t happen overnight. Our fellowships are key investments in this long-term change – building the capacity of women and LGBTIQ people to work on and lead agenda-setting journalism projects including those that expose and challenge the anti-rights backlash. Three of our current fellows are also focusing on the feminist movements around the world that are on the frontlines of daily resistance to this backlash.
Read on to learn more about our current fellows and their work, in their own words.
Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu, East Africa Investigations Fellow (Uganda)
As an African fellow and a young journalist, working on Tracking the Backlash projects has deepened my understanding of the impact of organised Western opposition to the rights of women and sexual minorities in Africa. It has also enabled me to participate in constraining the efforts of anti-rights groups on the continent.
Last year's dark money investigation achieved this for me. I got the opportunity to learn how data journalism can be used to tell stories. In this case, following the money of anti-rights US groups illuminated many of the machinations of those opposed to women and LGBTIQ rights on the African continent and beyond.
“My fellowship has deepened my understanding of the impact of organised Western opposition to the rights of women and sexual minorities in Africa”
Tatev Hovhannisyan, Eurasia Investigations Fellow (Armenia)
My fellowship has been a valuable experience. I’ve enjoyed working with professional and wise mentors from whom I’ve learned how to be ambitious and go the extra mile! While producing and collaborating on new investigations, I’ve developed my skills and experience, including on strategic and forward planning, as well as network-building with external media and civil society partners.
The biggest highlight has been my investigation last year revealing how US taxpayer money was funding a website in Armenia that was pumping out COVID-19 conspiracy theories. The story was cited more than 70 times by outlets including AFP, BBC Russia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America. It also had real-world impact: after publication of openDemocracy’s investigation, the US ambassador to Armenia announced that the embassy was cutting its funding to the website.
“I’ve learned how to be ambitious and go the extra mile!”
This investigation was my first big project as a fellow and a perfect example of how journalism can work. In addition to widespread media pickup, and the US funding cut, the number of posts on the Armenian website containing misleading and incorrect claims about COVID-19 decreased. This was the most important impact for me!
I enjoy being part of a feminist investigations team where women from different backgrounds empower each other. I love how behind each of our successful stories there is always collaboration. As they say: ‘Teamwork makes the dream work’.
Lou Ferreira, Global Investigations Fellow (UK)
One of the things I enjoy most about being a Tracking the Backlash fellow is being part of a uniquely supportive and collaborative team. I feel lucky to be learning from and working alongside such a talented and passionate group of feminists – from around the world. I can’t think of a more inspiring environment! I’ve already learned so much from their feedback and grown more confident in my investigative skills.
“I feel lucky to be learning from and working alongside such a talented and passionate group of feminists – from around the world”
One of the highlights has been working on stories revealing that Amazon’s US donations platform, Amazon Smile, is allowing dozens of anti-LGBT groups to fundraise, despite the company’s anti-discrimination policies. Human rights activists have called on Amazon to remove the groups from the platform and – thanks to the hard work of our team – our findings were published by dozens of other media outlets across the US, as well as in Europe and Latin America.
Inge Snip, Global Commissioning Fellow (Georgia)
I think what I have gained most from my fellowship is more confidence in myself as a journalist. Being part of this team, the supportiveness, the sisterhood, is what has helped me take my skillset to the next level. It's been extremely powerful. Not once have I felt the competitiveness that I’ve experienced elsewhere. On our team, there's trust in everyone's abilities. There's support for anything you may need support in.
The biggest highlight has been working on an in-depth investigation into surrogacy in Georgia (to be published in 2021). I was supported by different team members throughout the investigation, but also given the freedom and trust to tell the story how I thought it should be told, and to develop a multimedia package.
“Being part of this team, the supportiveness, the sisterhood, is what has helped me take my skillset to the next level”
Being a fellow has meant that I have been able to focus on skills I wanted to develop – without having to worry about my income, having to put my attention on a variety of different tasks in addition – and that I have received the space and support to do this. I have gained confidence in my writing and reporting, and also become increasingly interested and experienced in creative, visual storytelling.
Claudia Torrisi, Documenting the Resistance Fellow (Italy)
My fellowship has helped me grow as a journalist, as a feminist and as a feminist journalist. I am also improving my investigative eye, and my ability to look at issues through this lens. A highlight has been the publication of my feature about the Abortion Without Borders network of activists helping women in Poland to access abortion despite that country’s very restrictive laws. This story was co-published by outlets across the world, including several in Latin America. I was happy and proud of my work, but also of the teamwork that helped get it published in so many places.
“My fellowship has helped me grow as a journalist, as a feminist and as a feminist journalist”
I love working with such an amazing team of feminist journalists, learning from them, and sharing knowledge, ideas and tips with each other. Being a fellow has meant being part of a team of great journalists but, most of all great, humans. It has meant facing new challenges, improving my skills, learning from my mistakes and celebrating personal and team successes. And celebrating birthdays too!)
Joni Hess, Documenting the Resistance Fellow (US)
Coming from a freelance journalism background, the fellowship has shown me the value of working with a team of journalists, especially ones from all over the world. The team structure has been supportive in ways that go beyond regional expertise, such as one-on-one calls with editors on how they overcame their fear of public speaking.
This fellowship has given me room to set goals for myself and take charge of different learning opportunities. The highlight so far has been interviewing US presidential candidates Jo Jorgensen and Howie Hawkins, plus the latter’s running mate, Angela Walker. We discussed the impact their third-party candidacies had on the 2020 election and their passion for giving people the opportunity to vote according to their values.