Journalists Urged to Use the FOI Act as a Tool for Improving Government Accountability to Citizens

Mr. Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA)
Mr. Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA)

Nigerian journalists have been called upon to use the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act as a tool for improving government accountability to citizens especially for investigating campaign finance, Covid-19 accountability and other issues.

This call was contained in the remarks of Mr. Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA) and LanreArogundade, Executive Director of International Press Centre (IPC) at the workshop on using FOI for Investigative Reports of Campaign Finance and COVID19 Accountability Issueswhich held on September 22 and 23, 2020 in Abuja.

The workshop, in which IPC partnered MRA, brought together print, radio, television and online journalists from states in the northern part of the country as well as the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. It was funded by the European Union through Component 4b: which is Support to the media of the EU Support to Democratic Governance in Nigeria (EU-SDGN) Project being implemented by IPC.

This is pursuant to the aims and objectives of Component 4bof the EU-SDGN project to empower the Nigerian media and journalists to be professional, ethical, issue-focused, gender and conflict-sensitive in the reporting of the democratic governance and electoral processes. The project also seeks to equip journalists with appropriate skills to engage in the reporting of democratic accountability in order to check impunity in the electoral process and ensure that elected politicians are made to account for their campaign promises.

In his remarks, Edetaen said the organisers believe the workshop is of critical importance, which is why they organized it as an in-person event rather than online, despite the challenges of organizing a physical meeting at this time.

He enumerated the objectives organisers hope to achieve through the workshop to include to encourage participants to take an interest in reporting these issues, namely political campaign finance issues as well as the Coronavirus pandemic, particularly with the objectives of bringing some sanity into the regulation of political campaign financing and ensuring transparency and accountability in the government’s response to the CIVID-19 pandemic.

Edetaen said: “While the effective regulation of political campaign financing is essential to the success of our quest as a country to ensure free, fair and credible elections in Nigeria, transparency and accountability are imperative for the effectiveness of the measures taken by Governments at Federal and State levels to curtail the spread of the COVID-19 and to mitigate the negative economic impact on citizens brought about by both the virus itself and the government’s measures to check its spread.”

He added that the organisers hope to use the training to sharpen participants’ investigative reporting skills and build their confidence and ability of those for whom the Freedom of Information Act is still new, to use it as a tool for facilitating transparent, free, fair and credible elections as well as monitoring how funds received and allocated for the COVID-19 response are being managed and utilized.

 The skills and knowledge that participants will acquire in the course of the workshop, Edetaen said, will also come in handy in their routine journalistic work, regardless of the nature of the other issues that may be of interest to them or that they are focused on at any point in time.

He said the ultimate goal in organizing the workshop is to contribute to improving government accountability to citizens across the board.

Edetaen stated that: “It is my hope that if nothing else, that the COVID-19 pandemic provides sufficient motivation for all of us to be engaged in the governance process because if we are not vigilant and the funds meant for COVID-19 response are stolen, misappropriated, misapplied or in any other way diverted to other purposes, then the objectives of the response will obviously not be achieved. In such a situation, the consequences are better imagined than experienced. In such a situation, all of us, journalists or not, will be at risk.”

He added that the organisers expect the workshop to engender interventions by journalists that will sensitize and enlighten Nigerian citizens about the core issues of concern as well to raise the awareness of media practitioners and ordinary citizens alike about the existence, benefits and the use the FOI Act:  In other words, galvanize the wider media community and the society at large to action.

Edetaen said MRA and IPC see the workshop as part of a process of building the capacity of the media, civil society organizations and other key stakeholders to effectively use the FOI Act to hold all relevant agencies and actors accountable during electoral processes and in the context of new realities of operating in a COVID-19 environment.

The IPC Executive Director, LanreArogundade on his part said it was in the above context that the programme for the workshop was designed to examine some dimensions to the issues at stake including the role of the media in ensuring good governance, the understanding of the frameworks and issues in campaign finance, the understanding of the Freedom of Information Act and best practices in investigating and reporting political/campaign finance issues.

Additionally and crucially, Lanre said, the workshop will also be looking at the need for journalists to embrace investigative methods in the reporting of Covid-19 issues, largely because of the perception, and perhaps the reality, that the funding aspect of the fight against the pandemic is not meeting the requirements of transparency and accountability with so many questions hanging out there including: How much has been deployed to the fight by the federal government and what is the breakdown? How much have the state governments deployed to the fight and what are the details? What are the sources of the funding and who are the donors? What is the cost of the isolation centres built around the country? Who are the contractors? Were they selected in accordance with procurement laws?

In concluding his welcome remarks, Lanre pointed out that the workshop took place “at a time when there is growing public perception that the Nigerian media has been compromised and that there is a dearth of investigative journalism; so much so that those of us who argue that there are still dedicated journalists sometimes get scorned.” He told participants that journalists therefore have the challenge of winning back public trust by holding as sacrosanct the constitutional obligation imposed on us by the constitution to monitor governance and holding government accountable to the people.