Giacomo Zandonini interview: "journalism plays a huge role in exposing the unintended consequences of EU policy"

Giacomo Zandonini is the Evens Journalism Prize 2021 | Geopolitics laureate. His work reveals the impact of EU Policy on West Africa and the Sahel, unpicking complex webs of data, finance and politics to focus on human stories. We spoke to him about his career, what drew him to reporting on issues like migration, conflict and human trafficking, and the state of journalism today.

The Evens Journalism Prize jury has particularly highlighted your work in connecting EU policy and its impact on West African countries. Can you tell us a little bit about this?
My interest around migration was born out of some probably personal and partially subconscious motivations, entrenched with the change I was observing in society, since I was a kid. Italy was then slowly starting to become a more diverse country, where people from Asia and Africa found a precarious home. The subjects of migration, identities and mobility have been a key ingredient in my studies and professional life. When I started to work as a journalist, it was natural to work on this. I was brought to reporting on and from countries in west Africa by the need to see the impact of EU migration policies or – as we might call them – containment policies. How where they changing the landscape of communities far away from the European capitals? What did they mean for people trying to cross borders?

I think journalism plays a huge role in exposing how much these initiatives and policies are controversial: their 'unintended consequences', the way in which they can increase human rights violations, to empowering authoritarian regimes. Looking at the ideas that frame policies, journalism needs also to illustrate with facts the inherent profound inequality of these mechanisms of international cooperation, which are rooted in Europe's long colonial history and mentality.

How do you see Europe as a geopolitical force in the world today? What are its obligations and how can it work harder to fulfil these? What role does journalism play in this?
Europe has of course an incredible, and partially unexpressed, geopolitical force. As the war against Ukraine shows well, though, there are huge weaknesses. Energy supplies rely most of the time on countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. Sometimes, these are the same countries with whom European governments engage to stop or reduce so-called irregular migration, and the same recipients of European weapons that then contribute to repression, instability and violence in different corners of the world. I believe, for example, that EU institutions need to carve out a stronger monitoring role for their bodies, and push for the adoption of stricter regulations on arms and technology exports all over the continent. And as well, that they need to assure that powerful lobbies won't pursue their particular interest using public funds.
Journalism has proven to play a fundamental role in exposing wrongdoings by EU governments and institutions, and as such it needs recognition and support.

If we try to focus on the issue of migration and EU-Africa relations, I think It would be crucial for national governments and political parties in the EU space, to introduce a different view around migration dynamics and the best ways to deal with them. This could be done by re-thinking what the EU presented as “equal partnerships” between the bloc and its African counterparts. A nice catchphrase which risks hiding deeply-rooted inequalities.

Can you tell us a bit about your path into journalism?
I started working as a journalist at 23, while in university, in Trento. I contributed to daily news and the cultural section of a local newspaper. But I've been interested in journalism since an earlier age. In high school, for example, I directed the school students magazine. At 26, though, I decided to quit writing. I thought there were few options to gain a salary and I wanted to try working directly with marginalised and discriminated communities. For years, I've been a social and community worker. At 30, I was working full time with an NGO that supports people seeking asylum in Italy. An experience of daily contact with people from different backgrounds that slowly brought me back to the desire to tell stories. At 34, I thus decided for a career change and got back to journalism. At the time, I did a one-year training course in multimedia investigative journalism, which helped me reflect on the profession and build some meaningful connections.

Who has been your biggest inspiration or most important mentor and why?
Starting to work as a journalist, I was particularly inspired by some of the people I had met in my previous career as a social and community worker and which I later met as a reporter: people on the move across continents, taking risky paths with an incredibly diversified set of motivations, but a similar experience of being unjustly deprived of a right to access so-called wealthier nations.

Keeping a strong connection with the people I meet while reporting on migration and 'fortress Europe' policies, is still today a key source of motivation.

Journalism-wise, there's two experienced colleagues that, in different ways, helped me understand some of the main challenges, wider perspectives of this profession: Daniel Howden, who now co-leads investigative newsroom Lighthouse Reports, and the late photographer Yannis Behrakis, with whom I shared a long trip in a rescue ship in the Mediterranean sea, years ago.

I also want to highlight the work and incredible collaborations with some colleagues I had the chance to meet while travelling in some areas of the Sahelian and West African region, such as Djibo Issifou or Moussa Adam in Niger.

What has been the biggest high and biggest low of your career so far?
Since 2017, when I realised I could publish for international media, a new world opened up. It was a career-changing moment. Seeing my name on The Guardian, Al Jazeera and other outlets, gave me a feeling that my work could have a bigger impact and that betting on journalism was not necessarily a completely crazy idea. I received awards and working grants, contributed to important investigations, spoke about my work in conferences, met with stimulating people and colleagues. This seemed to come to a stop when the pandemic hit. All of a sudden, I felt like I got back to the early steps of my career. Projects and programmes, for which travelling was an essential part, were cancelled. Pitches were increasingly refused as newsrooms were cutting down on external contributors. Working as a freelance journalist came to be increasingly unsustainable.

Journalism has long been a precarious profession. How do you experience this and how do you find support?
Journalism, as much as other professions, has been subject to an increasing precarisation. This is of course even more problematic for foreign reporting, since it has high production costs. I think that prizes can be an important form of recognition and financial support, encouraging the pursuit of careers in an environment that is often frustrating. But this doesn’t replace fair fees by editors and a strong re-thinking of the role of freelancers, who need more representation, more solidarity, more support.

What does being named the Evens Journalism Prize laureate mean to you and the future of your work?
The Evens Journalism Prize came in a moment where I was honestly struggling to make sense of freelancing. Being offered support and recognition helped me to value the impact of my work. It will also help me taking a deeper breath and re-programme my career, opening up some space and time for creativity and exploring new ways to support journalism and have an impact, personally but also collectively, with colleagues and organisations. It represented a meaningful push to continue working on topics which, I believe, need to be watched as closely as possible.

Explore more of Giacomo Zandonini's work:

'I just don't exist': the Italian chef Italy will not recognise – The Guardian

A data ‘black hole’: Europol ordered to delete vast store of personal data – The Guardian

‘No room for dialogue’: How abuses by Niger’s foreign-funded army derail its anti-jihadist fight – The New Humanitarian

Biometrics: The new frontier of EU migration policy in Niger – The New Humanitarian

After crackdown, what do people employed in migration market do? – Al Jazeera

The big wall: An ActionAid investigation into how Italy tried to stop migration from Africa, using EU funds, and how much money it spent – The Big Wall

The European Chase for Saharan Smugglers – Privacy International

Giacomo Zandonini ⒸNatalia Alana