The Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda, Edetaen Ojo, has called on journalists in Nigeria to take advantage of the Freedom of Information Act to advance investigative reporting in the country.
Ojo spoke while training journalists from the print and broadcast media from across the country at a media capacity-building workshop on investigative reporting held in Abuja and organized by the International Press Centre (IPC), Lagos. His presentation was on “Advancing Investigative Reporting through the Effective Usage of the Freedom of Information Act.”
The workshop was sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Democratic Governance for Development (DGD) II Project. The DGD II Project is a joint donor-funded project managed by UNDP in support of deepening democracy in Nigeria and is funded with contributions from the European Union, the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Korea International Cooperation Agency and the UNDP.
Ojo described investigative reporting “as a journalistic process in which information which reveals corruption, wrongdoing, abuse of power or which is damaging in some other way, is uncovered through a systematic fact-finding process.”
He told the participating journalists that “investigative journalism is based on the assumption that governments, corporate bodies and other powerful interests in society are secretive, frequently do not tell the truth or the whole truth and cover-up information that ordinary citizens want or ought to know.” According to him, it is the job of the journalist to dig below the surface to uncover this information and reveal it to the public.
Ojo noted that investigative journalism goes beyond the reporting of routine press statements, handouts, speeches at conferences, launchings, seminars, and workshops or even leaked exclusive information. However, he said, such events may give the reporter ideas or clues about activities that are either going on or have taken place, which require investigation. Ojo stressed that “investigative reporting is not magic”, adding: “it is simply a process of gathering information or evidence to substantiate or establish a fact. But this process is systematic and painstaking. It involves: seeking, tracking, sorting, analyzing, and interpreting documents and other records or information.”
He noted that the public was under the constant onslaught of public relations information from Governments, corporate bodies and other interests in society, adding that most of the information is designed to make the Government, the companies, the groups and the individuals that run them look good, regardless of what the reality may be. According to him, it is the duty of the journalist under these circumstances to provide the public with the real truth and to give a better understanding of the reality.
Mr. Ojo said the goal of investigative journalism is often to dig below the surface of any issue or event and peel back the layers of lies, half-truths, deceptions or cover-ups, which will enable the reporter to gather information that will help the public to have a full picture of an event or issue, and to understand both the event or issues and its implications, including how it affects them.
He identified some of the qualities which a good investigative reporter should have to include an abundance of curiosity and scepticism; good investigative skills; good analytical skills; the ability to understand the context in which events take place or in which issues are discussed; the ability to interpret data, statistics, etc.; good writing skills to communicate the story effectively; and the tenacity, to follow up and stay on a story. Ojo likened the investigative reporter to a law enforcement investigator or a prosecutor trying to establish a case against a suspect, saying “He or she looks for the evidence, documentary or otherwise, interviews witnesses, suspects, etc.; conducts research into aspects of the case; gets expert opinions, scientific, technical, legal, medical, financial, etc.; and assembles the facts to prove the case.
He said besides the FOI Act, there are other Laws with access to information provisions that can also be used to obtain information in specific sectors and cited the Public Procurement Act, 2007; the National Archives Act, 1992; the Fiscal Responsibility Act, 2007; and the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency (NEITI) Act, 2007.
Ojo said although the FOI Act makes investigative reporting much more feasible, it does not remove the necessity for tenacity and rigorous checking of facts.
According to him, “Even with the FOI Act, investigative reporting remains a painstaking process.” H said “By systematically using the FOI Act to target certain types of information and materials, the media and individual journalists can help to reveal corruption, abuse of public trust, abuse of power or other wrongdoings. Ultimately, this can help to push back on corruption and improve accountability.”