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‘Open government ’ without independent journalism?

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Martins Oloja


My fear for democracy in Nigeria grew again last week after writing the first draft of the week’s article on imminent inauguration of National Council on Public Procurement (NCPP) as a critical factor in fighting corruption.

The fear only heightened after reading one of our worthy elders, Sonala Olumhense on ‘The challenge of independent journalism’ in his syndicated column on Sunday May 6, 2018.
The bogeyman surfaced in Abuja when I attended a five-day Open Government Week (5-11 May, 2018) at the Barcelona hotel in Abuja where so many critical issues in the news that feedsdemocracy and fighting corruption emerged. Yes, multi-faceted issues came up so remarkably but unreported by our public affairs journalists who cover only opening ceremonies of big events in the nation’s capital. I was there throughout. I saw some reporters on Day Onebut none waited to deepen understanding of the issues thathave crippled development of the most populous black nation on earth.

The reporters came with the vice president who declared the Open Government Partnership Week open in the presence of some ministers, agencies’ CEOs and American and British envoys whose input too would have made good stories had they been reported. They never returned to pick up documents and data for good stories – to deepen democracy and good governance. They did not return for the remaining four days when some of our brightest and the best in civil society networks were dissecting policiesand missing links in transparency and accountability. They did not turn up to listen to a serving senior judge who conquered fear of the Bench guardian angels and spoke extensively to jurisprudential issues and delicate administration of corruption cases.

I wept when Nigerian reporters in Abuja failed the nation and weakened its democracy and policy thrust through dereliction of responsibility. As a professional, I know the importance of good reporting in journalism. Good journalism begins with good news gathering and reporting. Good opinions and even editorials cannot diminish the place of good reporting. So, I can understand what my big brother Sonala was saying when he observed in the opening paragraph of his jeremiad that, “I firmly believe that a significant portion of the chaos of Nigeria is owed to the frailty—in some segments, fall—of the press. A weak or compromised press cannot hold the government accountable…”

I am afraid, citizen journalists alone who have been very bold in the social media cannot deliver Nigeria from the current political trouble inside the ‘Federal Republic of the Nigerian Army’.My fear has been growing daily that we in the mainstream media may not be able to withstand the storm that the 2019 elections have touched off. We are already in the eye of that storm. I am afraid that our coverage of the elections may, after all, be likened to another post-Shakespearean tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

I have looked into the seed of time and seen that state actors are not afraid of the Nigerian news media at the moment. They no longer tremble as they did even from 1993-1999 when the Nigerian news media fought and delivered this democracy so many democrats are competing to destroy at the moment.My fear is still growing that the news media may not be able to cover the political tragedy that the country has become at the moment. Now, a debt bomb is staring us in the face and some financial journalists in the country are daily helping state actors to tell some storiesthat a possible explosion will not kill us. Corruption has grown bigger and more monstrous, yet some of our popular journals are daily assisting in covering up corruption on their front pages instead of covering its enormousness. The rule of law, arguably the most critical pillar of democracy, has been outlawed and strong men including professors of law in the nation’s capital have emerged to justify why the law can’t rule even to fight corruption. They tell us only strong men can rule. Yet the state appears to have successfully assembled a silent army of image fixers in the mainstream news media – who daily deride public interest on the front pages and prime time.

I am fearful that undercapitalization in the news media industry nurtured by poor management may have taken the steam out of social responsibility. And the main casualties arethe truth, democracy and good governance. Yes, we covered the military transition to democracy even in the trenches so remarkably. But it appears that we can’t cover democracy. Inside democracy in the Federal Republic of the Nigerian Army, we haven’t found dynamic capabilities to cover the corrosive influence of corruption. Where will we find the ethical reporters? At the moment, the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) national secretariat is on nation-wide “media tour for good governance”. They visit governors and all the big agencies’ heads as hosts. They are not covering the states as they are paid to do: they are covering up what the states always like to hide. Yet most newspapers’ proprietors and the guild of editors cannot call the NUJ leaders and members to order. Most of the newspapers have one lucrative award platform or the other to news sources in a country already run down by the same award winners. How do we cover award winners when they are accused of corruption?

In the main, the word of our elder Sonala resonates again: “a weak or compromised press cannot hold the government accountable…”. The challenge of good journalism has been part of current discussion points at some of the best journalism schools in the world. At issue everywhere is a fact that journalism is the heart of democracy; thus, we need to improve it not only through thorough reporting but also using new technologies to engage.

This point was reinforced at the Open Government Week in Abuja when public officers and civil society icons spoke to the integral place of the media in prosecuting war on corruption and nation building.Dr. Otive Igbuzor, former Country Director of Action Aid, Nigeria and current Executive Director of the African Centre for Leadership, Strategy and Development (Centre, LSD) at the Town Hall held on Day Four of the OGP Week noted, “The task of holding government to account involves several stakeholders including the parliament, citizens groups and the media…”

Dr. Joe Abah, a former Director-General, Bureau of Public Service Reforms (BPSR) who once worked for the DFID was also concerned about the passivity of the media in using the powerful Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to enhance public service journalism. This is his take at the OGP Week in Abuja:“…The media… has a role to play in demanding accountability on behalf of the people. The media has the responsibility to raise awareness about issues, demand answers, raise and praise and name and shame. It has the responsibility to wield its immense powers with knowledge and professionalism, putting national interest first at all times. Press freedom is a key element of Freedom of Speech, one of the two key freedoms I had pointed out that we must guard jealously. It is not immediately clear how well the media uses the FOI Act in its work. It seems to rely more on press releases issues by government officials, and investigative journalism does not appear to be common, except for some online media platforms. It is my view that the media should make more use of the FOI Act in its work and should also help to apply pressure on government to comply with the provisions of the Act. For instance, the performance of the National Assembly on FOI requests should be under constant scrutiny by the media, since it was the National Assembly that passed the law and it is a public institution under the Act.

The U.S & U.K envoys in Nigeria, Mr. Stuart Syminton and Mr.Paul Arkwright were at the opening ceremonies of the PGP Week where they spoke about the value of openness and accountability in public institutions within the context of war on corruption. For instance, Mr. Arkwright, the British envoy in Nigeria, noted,

“…In many countries of the world, governments lack the capacity to implement transparency reforms and respond to citizens’ demands. Poor public financial management increases the risk of leakage of public funds, meaning that in many places delivery of critical services such as health and education are weak.This results in a lack of trust from citizens in their governments. People often do not pay taxes because they do not believe the money will be used properly. Instead, services are accessed through bribes, because citizens cannot see any other way to get even basic healthcare or education. People suffer in poverty, and citizens become disengaged. In some contexts this can feed grievances, based on lack of opportunity and marginalisation, which lead to support for violence and extremist groups.

The cycle can be broken. When governments show openness and willingness to listen to citizens’ concerns, and when they respond to those concerns, trust grows. Women and men are more likely to engage in political processes. Citizens begin to pay taxes because they see that they are getting something for their money; and with more taxes collected, service delivery improves…Countries with a strong civil society tend to have less corruption, higher integrity, and more equitable allocation of funds for the public good. Development is most likely to happen when diverse groups of people come together to rally around specific reform issues and make demands on their governments….”

Apart from making demands on our governments at all levels and in all arms, reporters covering public policies and politics should ask public officers including the National and State Assembly leaders why only five states, namely, Kaduna, Kano, Ebonyi, Anambra and Niger have so far shown interest in subscribing to Open Government Partnership (OGP) since 2016 when Nigeria joined as the 70th member.

The OGP focal point, the Federal Ministry of Justice has a responsibility to sensitise the National Economic Council (NEC) regular members headed by the Vice President to subscribe to this initiative. It is cheering to note at the OGP Week that the Head of FOIA Desk at the Federal Ministry of Justice, Mr. Benjamin Okolo is a resourceful and passionate believer in FOIA as a powerful tool journalists should use to ask questions about corruption in public service.

All told, proprietors of news media firms in Nigeria should brace up for serious public service journalism in the coming months. 2019 is too important to be left to the vagaries of citizen journalism alone. It is gratifying to note, therefore, that the theme of next month’s International Press Institute’s strategic convention in Abuja, Nigeria is “Why Good Journalism Matters”.

I am fully persuaded that unless we gird up our loins to restore independent journalism, the black man’s last hope, Nigeria may come to harm in 2019. I hope my fear for democracy can be defused through media proprietors’ significant investment in independent journalism – more than MacArthur Foundation’s for Investigative Journalism in the context of Open Government Partnership (OGP).


In this article:
Martins Oloja
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