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Uncovering corruption via FOI Act, investigative journalism

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RECENTLY, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) organized workshops for journalists, particularly, those on investigative beat. It was quite enriching and exciting.

No doubt, the signing of the Freedom of Information (FO1) Bill into law by President Goodluck Jonathan on May 28, 2011, has opened a new vista in journalists’ quest for openness and accountability in governance. Of course, the FO1 Act affords any person the right to access or request for information from public officials, agencies and institutions.

It was observed in the course of the workshop that a good investigative journalists particularly working on corruption-related stories should learn how to work incognito. For instance, if there is an unemployment scam and people are asked to pay certain amounts of money as part of application process, an investigative journalist could put in his or her application and payment and pretend to be an applicant.

With this, he or she would be able to get a first-hand information in respect of the company. But it must be noted that he must not go to the scene of investigation with his or her ID card or complimentary card.

The journalist needs some working tools like spy cameras that could be in the form of pens, ATM card, ties, eye glasse and key holders, among others. The secret recordings are later downloaded into a computer. Examples are the sting operations by some British Journalists to expose corruption in FIFA byway of match fixings.

Anas Aremeyaw, a Ghanaian under cover journalist exposed corruption in the Ghanaian Judiciary, leading to the sack of over 22 judges in the country. The corruption scandal was popular.

The journalists did what they did based on the information available to them. Thus, the need for FO1 and reason for cooperation by organizations and institutions.

Therefore, good governance and accountability, according to SERAP, thrive on access to information, not just by journalists alone but by the average Nigerian.

Certainly, the right of a people to have access to officially hold information and comment on the affairs of state and conduct of government is an intrinsic part of democracy, which demands accountability of rulers and public officials to the citizenry.

However, to ensure effectiveness of FO1, there is absolute need for governments at the state level to domesticate the law. It was also discovered that states like Ekiti and Ondo have even gone ahead to domesticate it.

Of course, this is laudable and it will further strengthen the law. Therefore, states need to be serious on this matter. An investigative journalist should not be hamstrung if certain state government officials try to frustrate them by claiming that the law has not been domesticated in their respective states.

As a matter of fact, SERAP told the gathering that the Court of Appeal, sitting in Akure, Ondo State, on March 27, 2018, held that all states are bound to accede to requests for information on public expenditure under the FOIA.

Thus, in a case of Martins Alo vs Speaker, Ondo State House of Assembly and Auditor General of Ondo State. In this case, the applicant/appellant, a journalist, sought for information on the audited accounts of the House of Assembly between 2012 and 2014. He was denied.

He filed an action at the state High Court which ruled that the applicant had no right to demand how the House spent its money, under the premise that FOIA did not cover all states except the states that domesticated it. But the Court of Appeal laid this to rest.

Undoubtedly, the FOI poses a major challenge to the media, particularly in terms of her investigative process. There is an assumption in the media that with the passage of the FOI Act, investigative journalism would be much easier.

That would be stretching the assumption too far because even in other climes where the FOI laws have been in place, the press has gone beyond the call of duty to investigate Issues and come up with interesting issues.

Nonetheless, corruption is not just in financial malfeasance. It encompasses abuse of office and public morality.

For example, those who have been following the British press in the past five years, particularly on the vexatious issue of “super injunctions” secretly obtained by some celebrities and how the press unmasked some of the beneficiaries of the “super injunctions” show that corruption is too wide to be pigeon holed only on official financial malfeasance.

Certificate scandals, NYSC discharge certificates and the like are also corruption journalists need to unearth.

As I entirely agree with an American journalist, James Deaken, who covered White House for over 25 years that “government and the press should function at arm’s length.

If they do not stay apart, if their purposes are forced into an artificial and unnatural agreement, the nation is harmed. The purpose of the press and the purposes of the government are not the same, should not be the same, cannot be the same.”

Therefore, it is incumbent on an investigative journalist to be painstaking in his or her work by sticking to the time-honoured journalistic five Ws – who, when, how where and why.

And this requires patience, doggedness, courage, fairness to the subject of the investigation and exploring multiple sources to authenticate and validate a story just like the late BC Onuora used to do.

He was a fearless investigative journalist. Dele Giwa was also in this mould of journalists and Nigeria needs persons like this for the nation to strive to greatness.

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