Poor media coverage of oil-gas industry
FOR a country whose budget is funded largely by the proceeds from the sale of crude oil, it is more than likely that the media in such country would constantly demand transparency and accountability in the oil and gas sector. This is not the case in Nigeria. The petroleum industry remains the most secretive business environment in the country.
Different reports, including the ones commissioned by the government, show the oil and gas industry to be the most closed economic sector in the country, a condition that allows corruption and a regime of poor management of oil revenues to endure. According to the World Bank’s ex-Vice President for Africa, Oby Ezekwesili, an estimated amount of Nigeria’s oil revenue worth $600bn had been stolen or mismanaged since independence. In the 2013 Resource Governance Index, Nigeria scored 42 of 100, ranking 40th of 58 countries assessed while the 2014 Transparency International’s report scores Nigeria 27 out of 100 in corruption index. Reports about Nigeria’s economic management have always been this bad or worse.
In spite of these damning reports, the media coverage of the petroleum industry has done little to pressure the Nigerian government and industry players to demonstrate greater transparency and accountability. There are two key reasons to advance for the pedestrian and uncritical reporting of the oil and gas industry in Nigeria. The more observable one is the complicity of Nigerian journalists in the corruption that has become the signature of the sector. It is an open secret, at least within the media industry, that the beat journalists in the oil sector routinely censor themselves because of the generous gratification that comes with covering the sector.
On the other hand, the industry, represented by government agencies and oil companies, can put pressure on media owners or journalists in many ways to shape and control the character of news stories published about them. While this factor, though significantly, affects the standard of the news coverage of the petroleum industry, it is glaring that the expertise required to effectively report the sector is also lacking among the Nigerian journalists. Oil and gas sector is a highly technical business environment. And those who should report about it must have the required skills. Not many media organization in the country have the resources to fund such capacity training.
Those who have perhaps do not see the importance of spending so much on training staff who may change employer as soon as better job opportunity appears. The good thing however is that more data are becoming available now than they were during the pre-Freedom of Information Act era. The civil society organizations in Nigeria are going the extra mile to produce and publish data about the economy on their websites. The international community, led by United Nations and European Union, has also been driving a new regime of transparency in national institutions by making data available in the public domain. And the new technologies are making it possible for those data to be accessible.
But finding the data and making sense of them are also a challenge for Nigerian journalists, especially the business reporters who cover oil and gas industry. The incompetence in economics and business reporting and knowledge gap in the area of data journalism are manifested in the kind of simplistic stories often churned out by the Nigerian press. Most news reports about the sector are rather a reproduction of quotes by industry players and not critical analysis of the trends in the industry.
Dele Olojede, a Nigerian winner of Pulitzer Prize once described majority of Nigerian journalists as “stenographers”. Considering the quality of news produced by reporters covering oil and gas business environment in Nigeria, it is difficult to fault Olojede’s observation. More importantly, the challenge of inept reporting has contributed largely to the slow pace of economic development in the country and has failed to link the mismanagement to the spread of poverty in the country. In spite of her oil wealth, the 2014 World Bank puts Nigeria among the five poorest nations. Yet, the funds that were attributed to have been stolen from Nigeria since independence were far higher than the cost of rebuilding Europe after World War II which was put at $148bn. It cost $2bn ($349bn in today’s value) to rebuild Japan after the nuclear attack. Therefore $600bn spent well could have transformed Nigeria and improve the condition of living of her people.
Notwithstanding, the corruption trend and mismanagement in the oil and gas sector can be arrested through robust journalism supported with advanced training in the specialized area. This is where journalism schools in Nigeria have to come in. There is a need to redesign the curriculum to address the challenge in the news production industry. Journalism schools have to begin to produce the kind of journalists whose careers are strictly driven by the pursuit of truth and professional excellence. Having gone through the website of many Nigerian universities and that of their journalism schools, it is glaring that Nigeria still has a long way to go. • This piece is an adaptation of the essay Ajibola Amzat sent to Columbia Journalism School in pursuit of Knight-Bagehot Fellowship.