I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, but at 27 I became a journalist at the BBC last year when my work was finally discovered through a talent acquisition programme. Today, in an article published by a Forbes contributor in 2011 I read, “nothing is worse for an author than opening a book and discovering passages from your own work used as if they were that author’s words.” I almost agree with her— there is one single thing tragically worse. As a writer, or a creative, the only thing worse than having your work plagiarised— is when the plagiariser both receives critical acclaim for your work and also gets away with it.
On April 11th, Senegalese author Charlotte Seck published an original article for Amina Magazine on the success of female-led governments’ response to COVID-19. A few days later, Seck’s article was allegedly plagiarised by Forbes contributor Avivah Wittenberg Cox— and after 7 millions hits has since gone viral. Cox simply translated Seck’s piece from French to English and added a few other examples without mentioning Seck’s name. Cox’s most read Forbes publication caps at almost 52,000 views to date. However, this particular article was not of her usual writing, rather it reflects the writing strength of Seck.
Following the success of Cox's article, Seck has been using her platform to share her experience and fight for the credit she deserves. A few online news journals have recognised that Amina Magazine posted the original article but are not mentioning the original author’s name. Since being vocal about the situation, Seck has received strong social media support from those who believe they can relate. This in includes the creator of the meme that led her to begin her investigation and write her article.
As a fellow young African journalist, its unfortunate that I’m a rookie in this profession but I can already say, I know exactly how Seck feels— duped and erased. She is currently unable to sleep or eat, and seeking legal action for the theft of her intellectual property. Many will look at Avivah Wittenberg Cox’s byline on Forbes or her LinkedIn and think— what a successful feminist running her own company, that’s ‘#goals’. But now, we may sadly question how she got there, or what it takes to maintain that position. In the competitive media industry when you’re out of fresh ideas for Forbes or the Harvard Business Review do you search small and foreign news journals to plagiarise or do you keep your integrity? It’s tempting. Personally, when I need inspiration I read the local blogs that motivated me get into news in the first place. I find the most phenomenal work there— but my first instinct is always to share their work with others, not claim it as my own.
Even more heartbreaking than hearing Seck’s frail and broken voice over a WhatsApp call is Forbes’ silence and Avivah Wittenberg Cox’s guilty and sly response. Cox has been editing her article bit by bit for a few days now— but the internet has receipts. Screenshots of the edits have also surfaced.
Cox has deleted an Instagram post where she proclaimed “my article has over 5 million views”, and has confirmed that she subsequently reached out to Seck, asking her to collaborate on a future project. She has also since published a rebuttal article on her personal website, arguing her inspirations for her article were outside of Seck’s— however, the fact remains that her article read almost parallel to that of Seck’s published by Amina Magazine.
Online, African and black women are feeling a unified sense of exploitation and erasure— arguing that Seck's situation highlight a pattern of their lived experiences with privileged authors in the West plagiarising the work of African and/or black authors with impunity. Forbes has yet to respond to these messages.
It's safe to say that Cox believed her vast platform was strong enough to swallow that of Seck’s. This is why, as an African female author, I can’t stay silent. I must join my platform with Seck’s and speak up. To all privileged women who preach gender balance and speak about the power of women in leadership— please know that there is integrity and power in sharing the work of other women. There is no integrity nor power of equity in taking their work to amplify your own success.
*The views expressed in this blog are 100% my own. They are 100% my opinion and are not to be taken as fact nor evidence based reporting.