In much of Africa, mobile technologies have now permeated almost all aspects of life, from keeping in touch with family members to coordinating small businesses. They have also opened new channels for grassroots reporting.

This mobile citizen journalism is characterized by spontaneity and intimacy, and it can capture people’s deepest concerns and shed light on aspects of children’s lives that would otherwise escape attention.

The Netherlands-based Voices of Africa Media Foundation (VOAMF), founded by former publishing executive Pim de Wit, works to enable young Africans (20–30 years old) to present an alternative, bottom-up image of their communities. As a senior trainer and coach with the foundation, I have trained more than 100 citizen journalists in the production of audiovisual reports using mobile phones. Starting in 2007, we have held training workshops in Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

My experience of the last six years or so has led me to the remarkable conclusion that whatever a report’s subject, the issue of children’s rights is either explicitly or implicitly handled. When a member of a community uses a mobile phone to look at local issues from a local perspective, the resulting report is likely to reflect how a particular community perceives the notion of childhood – and also to reveal how children cope with life under various circumstances.

“Journalistic ethics requires that journalists take particular measures to avoid causing harm to children.”

Let’s consider the report made on 29 March 2011 by Okello Fathil, a resident of the slum of Kisenyi in Kampala, the Ugandan capital. Titled ‘Kampala: Co-wives fight, public watches’, this report shows a fight between two co-wives from the Karamojong tribe, over who is the best mother. As the two women fight, torsos naked and covered with blood, the surrounding public, mostly children, seems to enjoy the spectacle and makes only half-hearted efforts to separate the women. Some children even mimic the fight.

This report suggests that violence among mothers – generally considered guardians and advocates of peace, tolerance and tranquility – seems to be accepted, as it provides entertainment to bystanders, including children. If, as African proverbs remind us, “Whatever a child says, they have heard at home; whatever a child does, they have seen at home”, then it would follow that these children are likely to condone violence when they grow up. Capturing such violence in its natural environment, in its naked form, is only possible if the reporter is part of the community, and if the tool used is not intrusive.

While Fathil’s report shows children in the background as passive witnesses, Gaston Mungumwa’s report, ‘Goma: Quel sort pour les enfants travailleurs?’ [Goma: What a predicament for child labourers?], shows children actively engaged in a struggle for survival in war-torn eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. One boy is shown pushing a locally made wooden bicycle loaded with dozens of boxes, which he will later have to off-load himself. He says that he wishes he could go to school, a forgotten luxury since the death of his parents. Another child spends his days washing trucks – a temporary situation, he believes, that will enable him to resume his education. The children’s facial expressions show that the technology used to record them, as well as the person using it, were both familiar – suggesting that what they say comes from the bottom of their hearts.

Even more devastating are those reports in which children are engaged in extremely dangerous activities without realizing the risks they are running. Ismael Asiimwe Mustapha, another resident of the Kisenyi slum in Kampala, made a report titled ‘Kampala: Scrap generates cash in slum’. The report features 12-year-old Javilla, who is very satisfied with his scrap business, in which he dismantles old fridge compressors to extract copper wire and sell it. Javilla proudly presents a motorbike he managed to buy after three years in the trade, and he is also proud to have introduced his younger brother to this ‘lucrative’ business. Mustapha also interviews a scrap dealer who says that he pays well and immediately, and is looking for more suppliers, as the demand from the hoe and machete factories is high.

The power of this report and many others on this subject resides mainly in one thing: Children are doing dangerous work unprotected, yet are making money and earning a living. Javilla sees himself already in the middle class, with a motorbike and a second breadwinner (his younger brother). He and his brother have become ‘specialists’ in old fridge compressors – but they appear to be unaware of the health risks from the gas and other substances they encounter in their work. While these reports show in an unambiguous way that children are being exposed to health hazards and exploited economically, they also pose a serious dilemma: Barring children from that dangerous work would deprive them of their income, without offering them a better alternative.

Journalistic ethics requires that journalists take particular measures to avoid causing harm to children. Reporters and editors like myself must make choices about when to reveal the faces and names of children who are interviewed, weighing potential harm to the children against the effectiveness and integrity of the report.

Jacob Mugini’s report, ‘Tanzania: Pupils work on teachers’ farms’, presented a particularly challenging case. While Javilla and his brother, like the Goma luggage-transporter and truck washer, were exploited by industries or individuals in the private sector, primary school children in Tarime, northern Tanzania, reported to be working on their teachers’ farms instead of attending classes, were being exploited by the very people the government entrusts with fulfilling their right to education. Mugini’s report shows girls and boys in school uniforms tilling the soil using hoes. One girl, 14 years old, says with perceptible anger that sometimes they stay on the farm from morning until 2 p.m., running the risk of being bitten by snakes. Another child, 9 years old, adds that his teacher used to send them to the bush to fetch firewood, which they would carry on their heads to the teacher’s home. These children’s right to education was being twisted into hazardous economic exploitation.

The questions I struggled with were: Would the teachers not retaliate if the sweating and angry children were shown on screen? Would the story be reliable and powerful without the sweating faces and the anger reflected in the children’s eyes? Later, the reporter informed me that a district educational official who had seen the report online had embarrassed the teachers by publicly projecting the report at the school in question – and he had also transferred the headmaster to a faraway school. I told myself that I had made the right decision: Publishing the report unaltered helped to end this egregious instance of child labour.

These examples show us the great potential of mobile technologies to document the ways in which children cope with life in their communities. The reporters, themselves members of the community, manage to capture the experiences and views of both adults and children with a high level of spontaneity. While the strength of mobile phone reporting comes from subjects’ familiarity with both the technology and the reporter – and from the openness this familiarity fosters – these same aspects carry particular risks, especially where children are involved.

To ensure that children do not suffer repercussions from the very reports that seek to expose the injustices to which they are subjected, citizen reporters need training that emphasizes the ethical issues at stake, as well as a basic, unobtrusive oversight mechanism. With these in place, mobile grassroots reporting can fulfil its potential, producing powerful, locally focused reports that can help change children’s circumstances and redress violations of their rights.