While it is important that the investigative journalist, in his choice of subject, should be guided by what the public will find interesting, the more fundamental criterion in his choice should be what is in the public’s interest.
Today, I wish to share my perspective on a professional issue that I’m deeply passionate about: the need to breed a new crop of journalists knowledgeable and courageous enough to dig deeply into knotty issues of public interest in our country. This is because with its current multifarious challenges, our country sure needs a bunch of intrepid investigative journalists well equipped to hold government officials, individuals and corporations accountable.
I started journalism about 33 years ago. The great Dele Giwa, who co-founded Newswatch and was its Editor-in-Chief until the cruel hands of death took him away through the instrumentality of a letter bomb on October 19, 1986, played more than a cursory role in my journalism career. Giwa, we all know, loved investigative journalism till he breathed his last. It is, therefore, not an accident that investigative journalism was a turf I chose in my years at TELL, a news magazine whose founders were all from Newswatch.
Let us attempt to lay bare some of the facts about investigative reporting and investigative reporters, so that we can all determine whether or not we will crucify the quality of investigative journalism we have in Nigeria today in the context of economic crimes reporting or give it a pass mark.
The Investigative Journalism Manual, a handbook facilitated by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a German foundation, defines investigative journalism as: “An original, proactive process that digs deeply into an issue or topic of public interest; producing new information or putting known information together to produce new insights; multi-sourced, using more resources and demanding teamwork and time; revealing secrets or uncovering issues surrounded by silence; looking beyond individuals at fault to the systems and processes that allow abuses to happen; bearing witness, and investigating ideas as well as facts and events; providing nuanced context and explaining not only what, but why; not always about bad news, and not necessarily requiring undercover techniques – though it often is, and sometimes does.”
The manual also highlights the traits an investigative reporter must have as: Curiosity:- that is, an incisive mind; Passion:- must have intense interest in the field; Initiative, Logical thinking, Organisation and self-discipline, Flexibility. Others are: Good teamwork:- (please note that while teamwork may be quite effective in investigative journalism, many investigative journalists, including this writer, believe in working solo. With this, you can personally authenticate and vouch for the information you are collecting), communication skills, well-developed reporting skills; broad, general knowledge and good research skills, determination and patience, fairness and strong ethics, discretion and courage.
Above all, the investigative journalist should be self-motivating because that keeps him going even when he encounters challenges in reaching his desired goals. There is no doubt that the reporting of economic crimes by Nigerian journalists today is at best formulaic and stereotypic. More often than not, our colleagues wait for the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), or the Police to announce the arrest of economic criminals. We scream with headlines of the arrests. We often continue with the coverage of the suspects’ arraignment, prosecution and court judgments. Unfortunately, some media organisations are now unable to send reporters to court to cover court proceedings involving economic crime suspects. Instead, our newsrooms now depend on handouts in the form of press releases by the public affairs or publicity units of the enforcement agencies for news about the trial of economic criminals.
The situation has become so bad that the media now depend entirely on the anti-corruption agencies rather than initiate their own investigations on economic and other forms of crime in our country. This kind of reporting may make journalists vulnerable to manipulation and other machinations of the anti-corruption agencies.
While this cycle of reporting might be permissible, it is far too predictable, shallow, stereotypical and counter-productive. The situation has become so bad that the media now depend entirely on the anti-corruption agencies rather than initiate their own investigations on economic and other forms of crime in our country. This kind of reporting may make journalists vulnerable to manipulation and other machinations of the anti-corruption agencies. This is apart from the fact that this kind of reporting does not add value, beyond publicity, to the work of the anti-corruption agencies themselves.
A central question is: Do we have economic crimes in Nigeria? The answer is certainly Yes. Today in Nigeria, the courts are all brimming with cases of corruption, fraud and other forms of economic crimes. Besides, the Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation (NDIC’s) Annual Report and Statement of Accounts that are periodically released to the public, is a proof that economic crimes are here with us. They have been for a long time. These crimes are perpetrated through various means, such as suppression of customer deposits, fraudulent conversion of cheques, fraudulent transfer and withdrawal of deposits and outright theft.
The statistics are staggering: In 2012, there were 738 ATM frauds, 331 fraudulent transfers/withdrawals, 280 cases of presentation of forged cheques, 240 cases of outright theft, 219 incidents of the suppression of customers deposits, 123 cases of fraudulent conversion of cheques, 112 instances of the non-dispensing of money registered by the Electronic Journal, and 108 cases of internet fraud. What this report clearly shows is that more bankers chose to be dubious in 2012 than in previous years. Of the 2,352 fraud cases recorded, 498 were attributed to staff collusion, which was an increase of 141 from 357 cases in 2010. This represents 39 percent increase from the previous year. Add all these to the money being pilfered on daily basis by unscrupulous Nigerians and politicians in all tiers of government in the country, then, you will know that we are really in trouble.
Almost every other day, the EFCC arrests one economic crime offender, corrupt public official or another. Some years back, the EFCC issued a statement that it arrested a digital television scammer in Kano. What is wrong in reporters finding out on their own who and who have benefitted from the services he was providing before the law caught up with him? Why were people patronising his dubious enterprise? How much was he charging as fee for his services? How many customers did he have? How much did he make over the years while he flourished in the illegal business? Are there others like him around? And how was he able to carry out these illegal activities? Did he have any special training? Who trained him? And so on and so forth.
There is so much to be done about digital television scamming and how much the major players are losing to illegal use of their sweat. Again, the question is: are journalists doing enough to report all these crimes? The answer is an emphatic No!
Most of the time, reports on economic crimes are based on statements by the EFCC, Special Fraud Unit and the ICPC. In my opinion, there is little follow-up being done. What we see basically are reports of court proceedings after the suspects have been arraigned. What about finding out the lifestyles of these suspects by talking to their neighbours, former colleagues, school mates and whoever they had contacts with? What stops us from digging deeply into their investments and seeing if there is any link between these investments and the crimes they are being tried for?
It is worth the emphasis here that an indispensable tool of investigative reporting is that it goes beyond obtaining and publishing the reports of investigations done by other investigative agencies. Rather, the report must be based on the reporter’s original investigation. What this means is that the reporter may follow up a story prospect based on his own judgement or based on an assignment from his editor. While it is important that the investigative journalist, in his choice of subject, is guided by what the public will find interesting, the more fundamental criterion in his choice should be what is in the public’ interest. Although the techniques may vary from time to time and place to place, depending on the operating environment, public interest should be the overriding motivation for the investigative journalist. (To be continued).
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