November 05, (THEWILL) – At a recent workshop on the importance of Freedom of Information Act, Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda Edetaen Ojo surmised that Nigerian journalists are not doing enough to avail themselves of this most important piece of legislation. THEWILL was there. Michael Jimoh reports…
If the Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda Edetaen Ojo had his way, journalists in Nigeria should take full advantage of the Freedom of Information Act to hold public institutions and officials who run them accountable. With the signing of the Act into law by former President Goodluck Jonathan in May 2011, journalists were handed licenses to look into the inner recesses of government institutions previously closed to them or simply out of bounds.
Now here is this best of all possible Acts giving journalists in Nigeria more than enough leverage and they’re just not making the most of it. Instead, most reporters seem to be quite content doing routine stories without paying much attention to investigative pursuits, especially now with the latitude FOI Act allows them.
“Most of the information coming through the media is routine,” Edetaen said Tuesday October 31 at a workshop in Ibadan on how journalists can avail themselves of the FOI Act. “There is not much investigative reporting going on.”
For Edetaen who started as a journalist with Nigeria’s flagship The Guardian, it shouldn’t matter what desk, beat they cover: Arts, Aviation, Business, Energy or Sports. “Identify the institutions in your beat,” Edetaen urged participants at the workshop. “Identify the sectors that are of interest to you.”
What he left unsaid is that if they look deep enough in any of the MDAs relating to their beats, there will be something unwholesome to unearth, something to conceal from the public – a padded budget, say, a duplicated contract, funds spent on things never purchased and such like underhand deals by bent government officials.
It is puzzling to Edetaen that reporters are not taking advantage of this gift of freedom to ask questions, pore over government documents to see whether a stretch of road was actually constructed, abandoned midway or never even begun at all. In the past, reporters digging into the finances of a ministry may be stonewalled by an inscrutable permanent secretary, a headstrong minister or be reminded of the civil service code preventing them from divulging government secrets. But that omerta has since been removed making it possible for journalists and just about any person to seek information about public institutions or those running them, which is what FOI Act is really all about.
In plain English, FOI Act “is to make public records and information more freely available, provide for public access to public records and information, protect public records and information to the extent consistent with the public interest and the protection of personal privacy, protect serving public officers from adverse consequences for disclosing certain kinds of official information without authorization and establish procedures for the achievement of those purpose.”
The workshop therefore was clearly meant to help reporters understand what FOI Act is and how they can use it more effectively. Along with Ojo as instructors at the workshop was Deputy Executive Director of MRA, Ayode Alonge, Legal Officer Obioma Okonkwo and Esther Adeniyi.
It is sometimes said that the synergy between teachers and students in a class is marked by the number of hands shooting up spontaneously during question time. The assumption is that in the course of teaching, the instructors did their job perfectly while the students also listened attentively. In other words, there was communication. It was exactly so at the two-day workshop at Palms 77 Hotel Agodi Ibadan from Tuesday October 31 to Wednesday November 1.
The students were journalists drawn from media organisations – mainstream, online covering print and broadcast – in the South West. The teachers were a team of instructors from Media Rights Agenda, a non-partisan, non-governmental and not-for-profit organisation led by Ojo himself. Subject of discussion? Freedom of Information Act, specifically “Workshop on Using the Freedom of Information Act for Investigative Reporting.”
Until May 20II, dubious government officials and public institutions in Nigeria could hide under the protective shield of the Official Secrets Act decree to ward off nosey reporters. But once Jonathan signed the FOI Act into law in 20II, the cover of such individuals and institutions was literally blown away, thus making them more accessible and accountable to the public.
With the Act in place, the job of reporters should be relatively easier, not so? True! How many of those gathered at the commodious conference hall of Palms 77 were aware of the FOI Act? Ojo wanted to know. Nearly all hands went up. There were 26 of us. How many of them had made any request using the FOI Act? Only two. That was not impressive, Ojo said, which the workshop hoped to redress in due time.
But first, there was a pre-test knowledge of FOI Act for the reporters at the workshop to find how much they are conversant with the Act itself on day one and another to assess the level of understanding post-workshop.
Divided into 12 plenary sessions for two days, Ojo and his team from MRA taught the journalists the basics of FOI Act, its scope and limitations, what it means for investigative reporting and how they can apply it in their work most effectively.
Effortlessly tackling “Overview and Elements of Investigating Reporting,” “The Role of Records in Investigating Reporting,” MRA’s top man pretty much dictated the pace and flow of the first and second plenary followed by comments, questions and answers reminiscent of lively interactive sessions at such workshops.
To participants with a patchy knowledge of FOI Act, Alonge filled in the gaps starting with key features of the Act, proactive disclosure under it, information exempted from disclosure and duties and obligations of public institutions under it. MRA’s legal officer Obioma naturally talked about making requests for information under the FOI Act in the sixth plenary, with emphasis on who can apply for access to information and what types of information can be applied for. Of course, day one ended with a brainstorming session on challenges of investigative journalism. Someone mentioned the evident risk of being an undercover reporter, the threat to life, lack of funding by media houses and even little or no insurance on the job.
Despite that, Ojo encouraged participants to fear not, recalling his well-told anecdote of reporters being put off from investigative writing because of possible harm that may come to them. To him, it is like committing suicide because death is approaching. In his reckoning, a thoroughgoing investigative journalist has everything to gain from publishing outstanding reports rather than losing.
First, they expose wrongdoings by government officials that would have gone unnoticed. Second, they become superstars in the process after such exposures. Ojo specifically singled out an American British investigative reporter who blew open what became known as an expense scandal involving MPs in England.
Sometime in 2004, a little known Heather Brooke began an investigation into the expenses of members of the House of Commons. Prior to that time, no one had considered giving the public details of the expenses of the lawmakers. As a student reporter in Washington, Brooke could access her local politician’s receipts in a “matter of days.”
But when she wanted to do the same thing about the expenses of members of the Commons, there were obstacles and brick walls everywhere, many of them erected by the lawmakers themselves. For one, Speaker Michael Martin was not amused about the strange request to look into what many of his colleagues considered a private matter or something untouchable, a no-go area. So, they raised every possible objection – legal and administrative – to Brooke’s request.
It dragged on for five long years, prompting Brooke to comment thusly: “Little did I realise that the simple request to the Commons would end up becoming a five-year investigation, and take me to the high court and back.” But the “opaque parliamentary expenses system,” as Brooke described it, galvanized her the more. Like most thoroughgoing investigative journalists, she was determined to get to the root of the matter.
It paid off. Her doggedness notwithstanding, she had one great advantage: Freedom of Information Act she relied on to press her case. By 2009 when Brooke was done with her investigation and published same in a piece headlined “The right to know,” the previously unknown reporter had become a celeb in her métier, ranked alongside the likes of Bob Woodward as a first rate investigative reporter. By that time, too, because of her report, several members of the Commons had resigned from office, notably Speaker Martin.
The person who signed into law the FOI Act in the UK was none other than a British politician and onetime Prime Minister Tony Blair. In the months leading to new Labour’s success in the British polls, Tony Blair had made a promise “We Will Clean Up Politics” under which was a sub-promise for transparency in government. ”Unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in government and defective policy decisions…We are pledged to a Freedom of Information Act.”
But Blair’s appending his signature to the FOI Act will later come to haunt him after he was made to disclose the extent of the UK’s involvement in the second Iraqi invasion. “You naïve, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop,” Blair wrote of himself in his memoir A Journey. “There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”
On his part, Jonathan the Nigerian president did not have any such regret. Months before he became president, there had been speculation on the wellness or otherwise of his principal President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua who was at that time convalescing or dying in a hospital in Saudi Arabia. When it became blindingly obvious Yar’Adua had passed on, his successor was clearly a beneficiary. He wasted no time in signing the bill into law.
The highpoint of the workshop on day two was when participants were divided into groups and tasked with writing sample applications, submitting requests for information and follow up. Unlike extensive reports, requests for information follow a certain format: they are usually short and formal, precise, simple and clear, no verbosity whatsoever. Samples were then written by participants, discussed and evaluated by the teachers and students – a sort of group post-mortem.
At the end of the workshop, participants and the instructors agreed on a communique adopted by all. First among them was that the FOI Act “is a powerful tool for information gathering for journalists and other media professionals and can significantly improve the quality of routine and in-depth media reporting…journalists should make an effort to read the Act and familiarize themselves with it to enable them to use it effectively for enhanced reporting.”
They also unanimously agreed that in order to “engender better and more impactful reporting of various issues, particularly those relating to transparency, accountability, good governance and development, participants urged these key stakeholders to similarly put more effort and resources into providing training for journalists in other areas such as investigative reporting techniques, fact-checking and information verification tools and approaches as well as the use of artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies which can aid their work.”
Another motion adopted: “Journalists should endeavor to give greater prominence to issues affecting women and other marginalized group. Women and members of other such marginalized groups should also be routinely reflected in news stories as important news sources in addition to focusing attention on how they are impacted by government policies, programmes and actions.”
The workshop at Ibadan was not the first by MRA in the country. It was the second. The first meeting was in Kaduna the week before with just about the same resolutions adopted by participants. Next stop is Enugu in the South east where a group of select journalists will meet with the crew, thanks mainly to sponsorship by the MacArthur Foundation and Wole Centre for Investigative Journalism.