Investigative Journalism… How to empower journalists through FOI

Executive Director of MRA, Mr. Edetaen Ojo

Executive Director of MRA, Mr. Edetaen Ojo

To ensure that the Freedom of Information Act passed into law in 2011 is put to good use and continually be a tool to drive accountability, Media Right Agenda, with sponsorship from the MacArthur Foundation recently held a workshop for journalists to broaden their knowledge on the Act including providing the details of the FOI Act.

Some of the topics treated at the forum were: Why the FOI Act is important, Global status of the right of access to information, Making requests for information under the FOI Act, Mechanism for enforcing compliance with the FOI Act, Understanding the FOI Act, Submitting requests and Using the FOI Act for investigative reporting and case studies.

In his welcome address at the programme, the Executive Director of MRA, Mr. Edetaen Ojo said that the workshop was part of an on-going effort to ensure that the Nigerian society is highly engaged and mobilized around the FOI Act. He disclosed that in spite of dozen of such workshops for various stakeholders, he and his organization are determined to continue to explore any and every opportunity to spread the message of the FOI Act in order to achieve the ultimate objective of ensuring that government is accountable to, and works for the people.

The MRA boss listed the objectives for organizing the workshop to include training the participants, comprising media practitioners from the print, broadcast and online media as well as from news agencies and wire services on a variety of issues related to the Freedom of Information Act and thereby build their capacity to effectively utilize the Act; providing participants with the knowledge, skills and tools to: Promote and publicize the Act; Monitor the implementation of the Act; and to Use the Act to obtain information of interest or relevance to their work from public institutions as well as private entities covered by the Act; encouraging participants to carry out investigative reporting, using the Act, with case studies from other parts of the world where journalists have used Freedom of Information laws to carry out investigative reporting and broken major stories in the process with significant political or economic ramifications for those countries.

He also said the objectives include training participants to formulate actual requests for records, documents or information that are relevant to their sectors or beats and thereby increase their chances of obtaining information from public institutions and private entities that are relevant to the sectors or beats that they cover, with properly formulated applications and submitting requests to any public institution with any information of interest to them immediately after the workshop and to establish or agree on a framework for the provision of feedback to Media Rights Agenda on the outcome of such efforts.

He however observed, “Most, if not all of you here, know how hard civil society organizations and the media in this country fought to ensure the passage of the FOI Act. It would be a great tragedy if we now have the Law but fail to put it to good use to lift our country to the height, which we are all convinced that it can attain.”

Speaking on the importance of the FOI Act, Ojo said that information is crucial to human existence, which is why it is critical for decision-making whether as individuals or as organizations.

He also argued that the quality of decisions often depends on the quality of the information available. He therefore maintained that the FOI Law is a major tool for fighting corruption, as the law could be used to expose corruption and wrongdoing.

He also believed that the law enhances democratic accountability and good governance because it enables the public to scrutinize the actions and decisions of leaders including assessing their performance.
“It facilitates democratic participation as it enables citizens to participate effectively in decision-making on issues that affect them. It helps to improve record-keeping in public institutions as it ensures that government records are properly kept. It enables community members know what budgetary allocations are made for maintenance or provision of facilities in their communities. This will also give them a greater sense of belonging and ownership of projects.
“It ensures that government institutions work better andmore efficiently as public institutions become aware that their decisions will be made public and have to be based on justifiable reasons. It helps to ensure that Legislators can have authentic and reliable information necessary to make good laws and ensure good governance.”

In his paper, Global status of the rights of access to information, Ojo noted that freedom of information is recognized as a fundamental human right under international law and the right is enshrined in regional and international human rights instruments. “States are therefore legally obliged to give effect to the right through legislative measures and effective implementation.

After providing some historical data about the FOI Act across the world, the MRA boss summed up his presentation by stating that clearly there are a lot of instruments at the continental level recognizing andenabling the right of access to information
“However, much work remains to be done to ensure that the right is meaningful. The civil society and the media communities need to be more engaged to ensure that such laws are effectively implemented and are used to bring about desperately needed change on the continent.”

The MRA boss noted that at the heart of investigative reporting is the ability of the journalist to get informationand the information may be through official sources or unofficial sources. “In either case, the FOI Act is a great asset.”

He said that investigative reporting is simply the putting together of evidence to substantiate or establish a fact or hypothesis and the most important part of the process is getting documentary evidence which cannot be easily refuted.
“Public records and documents are therefore frequently critical and invaluable assets for investigative reporting.

They are important because they help you to: Get accurate and reliable facts on any issue or event; Bring previously unknown facts to light; Correctly report events that may have escaped public attention when they occurred or where the full facts were not known; Verify information that you may have obtained from anonymous sources.”

Though he noted that the FOI Act makes investigative reporting much more feasible, he said it does not remove the necessity for tenacity and rigorous checking of factsstating that even with the FOI Act, investigative reporting remains a painstaking process of gathering evidence which may require submitting several applications for information to many different public institutions and possibly private entities.

FOI Laws are designed essentially as a check against corruption & to hold public authorities accountable to citizens. By systematically using the FOI Act to target certain types of information and materials, the media & 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 andimprove accountability.”

On how journalists could use the FOI Act for investigated journalism, Ojo cited Ms Heather Brooke, a freelance journalist based in the United Kingdom, who since the UK’s FOI Act came into force in 2005, has filed over 300 FOI requests before various public institutions.  He also said her investigation into the expense accounts of U.K. MPs, using the FOI Act, led in 2009 to one of the biggest political scandals in British history and the first forced resignation of the Speaker of the U.K. House of Commons in 300 years.

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